Last night on Real Time guest Gloria Steinem tried hard to pretend she has a sense of humor. She didn't quite pull it off but she deserves credit for trying. Bill Maher's other two guests were Republicans -- comedian Larry Miller and the National Review's Ramesh Ponnura. Maher is trying to demonstrate he offers balance but unless Republicans can show they have wit -- a more and more unlikely possibility -- they don't add much to the show. Ms. Steinem was attractive and intelligent. She made good points but they didn't resonate soundly in the atmosphere set up by the other panelists. So the episode fell back to the quality of the early season. Maher himself works mightily to bring seriousness out of comedy but without the right panel he can't manage it. The series shows us that there are relatively few celebrities who can combine sharpness and fun, or, at least, that the producers of the program have a hard time finding them. That's probably not good enough evidence to support a judgment about current national character. But it does make one wonder.  (Posted, 3/11/06)

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I used to think there was a clear difference between Bill O'Reilly and commentators in the vein of Rush Limbaugh. But lately that distinction has begun to fade. The O'Reilly Factor is so consistently manipulative and so unwilling to give a fair hearing to opinions not in line with O'Reilly's that it can't any longer be seen as, even partially, a news analysis program. It is clearly no more than entertainment, designed to feed a xenophobic, punishment-oriented audience. O'Reilly's latest big project involves playing on the natural desire to protect children as a means of promoting harsh, mechanized minimum-sentencing requirements throughout the whole country. And any state that refuses to go along is subjected to vicious name-calling and accused of caring nothing about it's own children. Mr. O'Reilly's caring of course, is very selective. He shows no concern for children who are not getting an adequate diet, or for children who have no access to health care, or for children who have no decent place to live. The only measure of child care he shows any interest in is harsh punishment of people who have committed crimes against youth. But, then, this is in line with O'Reilly's general stance, which seeks to address every social problem through either killing or jail. Policies of this stripe can't be seen as serious approaches to politics. They are merely spectacles for tossing red meat to bloodthirsty viewers.  (Posted, 3/1/06)

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Bill Maher's re-launched Real Time last night failed to sparkle. It's a show that at times has been quite good at slicing through sentimental piety but it depends heavily on its guests and their interaction. And the five last night set off no explosions.. Maher's first interview with Russ Feingold was sincere but perfectly unfunny. Feingold came across as a guy who either doesn't know what fun is or, if he does, can't dare admit it on TV. The three panelists -- Dan Senor, Helen Thomas, and Eddie Griffin -- snipped at one another and occasionally showed hints of intelligence. But their conversation never went anywhere. Senor, former advisor to Paul Bremer in Iraq, is among a host of young Republicans who try to use neat haircuts to make up for indefensible arguments. One shudders to think what they're going to be when they become old Republicans and their hair begins to go. He tried to undercut the sarcasm of Thomas and Griffin, and did interrupt it somewhat, at the expense of making himself into even more of a prig than he is -- if that's possible. And then Maher brought on Fred Barnes to talk about his book, Rebel in Chief. Barnes, editor of the Weekly Standard, is actually in the running to replace Pat Roberstson at being whatever it is that Robertson has been (there may not be a word for it). In any case, there's small entertainment in watching a moon face say utterly moony things. So the whole business just dribbled away. We have to hope for better next week.  (Posted, 2/18/06)

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On Hardball --perhaps the most grossly misnamed program on television -- Chris Matthews is making good progress in his transformation from Cheney worshipper to Cheny denouncer. In the past, particularly during the campaign in 2004, any time Cheney's name was mentioned, Chris got goo-goo eyed over the vice president's gravitas, and toughness, and overall demeanor of command. But now, in the aftermath of Cheney's adventures in Texas, the bright-faced pundit is demanding to know why the president continues to put up with a guy who has been wrong about every piece of advice he has given over the past five years. The consistency of TV news entertainers is not one of the more serious problems facing the nation. Yet, it seems to be the case that some portion of the public derive their political opinions from the cable news performers. So it may be worth a note to point out that what they say one week isn't likely to be the same thing they'll say the next. If anybody wonders where conviction stands compared to ratings in the infotainment world, all he has to do is watch Chris for a month or two and the answer is clear.  (Posted, 2/17/06)

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The State of the Union Address can be seen as a public spectacle, quite independent of anything the president actually says. And when we view it that way, the question becomes: Was it a good show or not? We have to admit that the attendees were all dressed fairly neatly and seemed to have paid careful attention to their make-up. They didn't look quite as good as the audience at a Hollywood awards event but they didn't look bad, either. The cameras panned around actively, showing scores of famous people in a single sweep. That, of course, was a thing to make the public's heart go pitty-pat. There wasn't much overt humor, but occasionally we would see someone smiling broadly as though he or she were in on an inside joke. Senator Kennedy did that several times and it was moderately entertaining. Some drama was introduced by showing who got up and cheered when the president made a point and who sat looking glum, or at least, thoughtful. That seemed, mainly, to be done by blocks rather than by individuals. In an outbreak of spontaneity, Senator McCain did applaud more vigorously than most others when the president mentioned the evil of earmarks. And that, though not climactic, was marginally interesting. The show went on for a little more than an hour and by the time it was winding down it had begun to get a little repetitive. It wasn't a complete dog of a program but it wasn't boffo either. Rating it, we could say it was better than NCIS but not nearly up to 24, perhaps about in the Desperate Housewives range. Whether it should be renewed is a real question. It's on the cusp.  (Posted, 2/1/06)

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One of the best pieces of TV journalism I've seen lately was the interview with Carl Bernstein on MSNBC during the coverage of John Paul II's death. Bernstein, who wrote a biography of John Paul, wasn't shy in pointing out how opposed the pope was to many of the features of modern life Americans tend to glorify. In particular, Bernstein said, John Paul was disgusted by the excesses of unbridled capitalism. The market, evidently, was a not a god to the pope as it is to many  of our conservative politicians. Instead of ladling syrupy accolades on the deceased pontiff, as most of the commentators were doing during the pope's death show, Bernstein made clear that John Paul was a craggy figure, strong in his beliefs, and not about to bow down to current American prescriptions for the world. I was glad to see Bernstein's frank appraisal. A person is honored far more by being treated as the human he was than by transformation into an icon who can then become all things for all people.

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Last night (March 21, 2005) on Hardball, Chris Matthews  warned his panelists that they had just eleven minutes -- with time out for commercials -- to explain the rise Christianity from the Roman Empire to Terry Schiavo. Consequently, they had to be efficient. This is what I call a first rate intellect in action. In the midst of it, Chris also let on that he had always liked Constantine even though the emperor's conversion to the one true faith may have been little more than political opportunism. I begin to have visions that TV segments like this will, in the future, be most people's way of acquiring knowledge of the past. Aldous Huxley could scarcely have imagined what he was pointing towards when he popularized the phrase, "Brave New World." No one could have thought up Chris Matthews before he appeared right in front of one's face.

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If you want to see the genuine weakness of the network news shows, pay attention over the coming weeks to how ABC, NBC, and CBS cover the story of Paul Wolfowitz's nomination to be the next president of the World Bank. This is an important international institution which has tremendous influence on how the West, and particularly the United States, are viewed by the people of the Middle East and Africa. The policies of the World Bank are actually life and death issues to many people in those regions. Mr. Wolfowitz, in line with President Bush, is said to be focused on directing most loans to huge infrastructure projects. These are precisely the sort of projects that often carry with them requirements about who gets hired to do the work. And that, too, has a major impact on the people of the regions that are supposed to be benefited. But, I doubt you'll learn very much about any of this by watching the evening news. Where will the pictures come from? There are lots of reasons to be suspicious about the news as reported by the mainstream electronic media. But probably the best reason is their lack of imagination in explaining anything complex.

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On C-Span 2 (March 12, 2005), I listened to a lecture by David Blum, the author of Tick, Tick, Tick, a history of the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes. He says the atmosphere in the 60 Minutes offices is toxic, in that the people who work there are so competitive, and so abusive towards one another, it's very nearly unbearable. And, yet, people do bear it. In fact, there are very few resignations from 60 Minutes. Why? Because it's also exciting. And the power brokers on the show, despite being at times very nasty, really do believe in their product. This seems to be the story of American professionalism, generally, although I doubt that all professions are as concerned about their products as the folks at 60 Minutes seem to be. And, maybe, it's the story of human nature too. But, I continue to hope that people can learn to do good work without turning themselves into snots. Just shows, I guess, how naive I am.

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I watched Dan Rather's last broadcast as CBS News anchor last night (March 9, 2005) and I thought it was all right. Despite being annoyed by Rather at times, I was a little sorry to see him go. My quarrel with him has been over his soupy, patriotic sentimentality which can get in the way of vigorous reporting. But since the other networks don't do any better in that respect than Rather did, I don't guess I should hold it against him too much. The charge that he was biased in favor of liberal position is clearly silly. I know very little about the infighting at news networks. I assume it's vicious as most internal struggles in large organizations are. Any one who makes it to the top is likely to have enemies. Whether Rather was a nastier fighter than average, I can't say. I suspect he was about in the middle of the pack. Network news is too bland and too abstract to tell us much of what's actually happening in the world, unless it has to do with the weather. But such as it is, it was done by Rather for a long time, and for that I see no reason to deny him good wishes for his future.

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It's astounding what you can learn on television. On March 1st, for example, I found out that only 5% of the people who claim to be Satanists are actually possessed by the devil. The other 95% are just victims of mental disorders. I was relieved that the information came to me by way of The O'Reilly Factor, which, as everyone knows, is fair and balanced. If CNN had reported the situation, they might have said 10%. And that would have been sensationalism. The true number about possession came on a segment explaining that the Vatican has set up a course on exorcism, designed for ordinary priests, who need guidance on whether they can handle cases themselves or need to call in a big gun in devil fighting. O'Reilly was fascinated and said he would like to take the course himself. We've known all along, of course, that he's an avid proponent of education.

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I used to think Peter Jennings, the ABC News anchor, was a sensible guy but lately my assessment of him has been swinging in a non-sensible direction. As I've looked more closely at his eyes, which I once considered calm, they now appear to be glazed. At times, I even wonder if he was constructed rather than born -- brought forth from a lab deep in the ABC building in New York City. Those suspicions are probably going to get a boost this Thursday  (February 24, 2005) when Mr. Jennings hosts a two-hour special which is reputed to have as its theme the truth that earth is regularly visited and observed by creatures from outer space. Lee Siegel, the TV critic for The New Republic, says that stuff like this is coming from a new-found deference to so-called religious people -- the latter defined, evidently, as those who will believe anything, no matter how nutty it is. I don't know if that's the case or not. But for a major news organization to inflame an already berserk population with the notion that they're probably facing an incursion from extra-terrestrial visitors, shows us just how degraded TV journalism has become.

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I opened the Washington Post web site and saw there an advertisement for the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. The photograph of Williams looked so much like Peter Jennings, I was not only startled, I was scared. What is it that the face of Brian Williams, or, in an older version, the face of Peter Jennings, is supposed to say to us? Is it wisdom? Is it justice? Is it moderation? Those happen to be the key elements of the motto of my old home state, Georgia ( I now live in Vermont and I don't know what its motto is). I remember when I was a little boy and would try to think about wisdom, justice and moderation. What do they mean? I would ask myself. And how do they apply to the political and social leaders written up in the newspapers? I would think about wisdom, justice and moderation and then I would think about Eugene Talmadge and the whole business would become a kerfloodle in my head. Now, here I am a few years later, with Peter Jennings and Brian Williams replacing Gene and the whole thing is a bigger mess than it was before. I do have a few suspicions. The human images that popular culture idolizes don't actually point to people who know very much or think very hard. What they do point to I'm not sure. Probably it's a concept of nursery-like comfort and security. I've lived long enough to know now it has virtually nothing to do with reality. And yet, we want that notion and we want the faces that go with it. And we're willing to pay a lot for them. This nothing against either Williams or Jennings. I sincerely hope they enjoy their millions. But the next time you see them gazing benignly at you out of your TV, ask yourself what their faces mean. I promise you'll get your brain in a whirl.

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Fox News has begun to intone a new mantra -- "Only one network has fair and balanced news." I'm reminded of Tucker Carlson's remark a while back that the "fair and balanced" phrase was simply a joke designed to drive liberals out of their minds. If this is the case, then Fox has decided to ascend to a higher level of hilarity. It's true that most of Fox News's personalities can be regarded sensibly only as comedians. Bill O"Reilly, for example, is consistently the funniest guy on TV. I nearly broke down last night (January 12, 2004) when he pronounced  that "no serious person can argue against nature." I wonder how that applies to tsunamis? Fox would be nothing but a bag of fun were it not that some people appear to take it seriously. Digging into the mind of a person who thinks that Fox is actually a news reporting entity would require psychological tools that, probably, we don't yet have. But, it would be good if we could get them.

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I clicked on my TV last night (January 10, 2005) to watch the ABC Evening News and heard Peter Jennings say cheerily, "We'll take a look at the tsunami and God." "Wow!" I thought. "ABC's going to take a look at God; I'll bet he's trembling." The segment, of course, turned out to be a series of interviews with so-called religious leaders about whether God caused the tsunami and, if he did, what he had in mind. Nobody at ABC thought to mention the likelihood that anybody who talks seriously, here in the first decade of the 21st Century, about God's "causing" natural disasters is functionally insane. The news mavens appear obsessed with insisting that there is no mature thought among the public, that everybody who listens to the news is a credulous troll, that fantastic medieval ideas retain intellectual substance. What's the purpose of this pretense? I understand that there are mentally flaccid people with gooey minds. But why do the news organizations take them as the principal audience?

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One thing's for sure: the United Church of Christ got far more notice for its "bouncer" commercial by having it rejected by NBC and CBS than would have the case if the networks had run it without comment. Also, they got it aired for free. I saw it on MSNBC's Hardball, where it was shown several times. In refusing it, the networks are being their typical prissy selves. They say they turned it down because it takes a position on a current political controversy. You can read it that way, if you wish. But you could also read it as a simple statement by the Church of Christ about who they are -- a church that accepts anyone who wishes to come. Efforts of this sort are inevitable and they have been generated by the flaccid media who have accepted uncritically the claim by rigid right-wingers to be the only genuine Christians. Why is it that they, and only they, get to say who Christians are? It's not hard to understand why people who care more about the Christian world view of peace and mercy than they do about controlling the government feel the need to establish their own claim, particularly when the media give extensive coverage to the views of those who equate Christianity with censure and military force. There's nothing wrong with the commercial.

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The Elizabeth Vargas special on 20/20 (November 25, 2004) about what really happened in Laramie, Wyoming, on October 6, 1998, when Matthew Shepherd was killed, was fascinating in a number of respects. That the murder was not the hate crime it was purported to be stood as the riveting thesis of the program. Yet the feature of it that most held my attention was the depiction of life among young adults in a less than thriving western city. The drug culture may well reach it nadir in places like Laramie. It has been a myth that small, out-of-the-way places, where nature is close by and the acids of modern culture are remote provide the best settings for wholesome family life. That may be not only a myth; it may be an outright lie, particularly when we consider that portion of the population coming into adulthood and trying to find what to do with their lives. Say what you will, stagnation is not healthy. And a stagnant world is what Matthew Shepherd and his murderers Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson found themselves encased by as they left their teenage years. They sought to escape it in the worst way possible -- through drugged stupefaction -- and the result was horror. I thought, by the way, that Elizabeth Vargas was unusually effective in her interviewing technique, a total openness to what she was told.

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I was idly clicking through my TV choices last night (November 13, 2004) and found, on C-SPAN, a lecture delivered at Florida State University, by Tammy Bruce, who I learned is a contributor to Frontpagemag.com  and the author of The Death of Right and Wrong: Exposing the Left's Assault on Our Culture and Values. I gathered from Ms. Bruce's remarks that she is a fairly recent convert to what she calls "conservative" positions, that she is a Lesbian, and that she used to be an official in the National Organization for Women. I couldn't learn much else from her because most of what she said was completely incoherent. I wondered if something had gone wrong with my brain, there, late in the evening, alone. Surely, it couldn't be the case that a perky, seemingly energetic woman, selected to speak to a university audience was so disorganized in her thinking that she couldn't utter an understandable sentence. I tried to refocus my concentration, to find meaning. But, I failed. This morning, I resorted to Amazon.com to see what was said about Ms. Bruce and her book. I found that Publishers Weekly (generally a fairly mild commentator on bookish things) described her writing as a "lurid right-wing screed" lacking in coherence. So, I felt a little relieved -- about myself, that is. Still, it bothers me that, increasingly, in our book and TV environment, pure babble is accepted as worthy commentary. I can't take solace from the fact that Ms. Bruce's babble leans to the right. I suspect there's plenty of left-wing babble to be found also. That gibberish is the product of so many young brains, regardless of its political orientation, ought to be a condition that bothers us more than it does.

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On the final Real Time of the season (November 5, 2004), host Bill Maher interviewed Noam Chomsky. Then, when the interview was over, one of the panel members, Andrew Sullivan of the New Republic, had a hissy fit over Chomsky's saying things he didn't say. And nobody -- not Maher and neither of the other panelists, Pat Schroeder or B. L. Hughley -- pointed out that Sullivan was making false accusations. Chomsky was long gone so he had no chance to refute Sullivan  (to tell the truth, I doubt he would have bothered). There must be something about appearing on TV that shuts people's brains down. They scream and shout, but scarcely ever do they make telling points about what other people have said. We sit at home, beat our foreheads, and ask in misery, "Why didn't he say this, or why didn't he answer that?" None of it would matter were it not that some viewers take the kind of dialogue occurring on TV as examples of thought, as a measure of what "intellectuals" do. It's no wonder that thinking is getting a bad name.

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We've seen a lot of disgraceful stuff on television over the course of this political season but nothing worse than the coverage of the vice-presidential debate by MSNBC. As soon as the debate was over, Chris Matthews and his panel mates -- Andrea Mitchell and Joe Scarborough -- announced that Dick Cheney had wiped the floor with his opponent. Matthews even went so far as to say that John Edwards was about to cry. To this trio of political savants there was no question about who had won. Having watched the debate myself, I was beginning to wonder if we had seen the same event. The next morning, after Matthews discovered that public reaction didn't square with what he had reported, he went on the Don Imus show and said, "I've watched Cheney for about twenty-five years now, and I think I got snookered again too by the guy." One's first reaction on hearing this is to assume that Chris Matthews is retarded. But a little thought suggests another possibility. He seems to have grown up in a neighborhood where thuggish manners are equated with manhood and virility. This is probably the source of his repeated statement that George Bush is a guy you would like to hang out with more than you would John Kerry. Though he should have long since got out the neighborhood and met more mannerly people he doesn't seem able to shake the callow notion that a growl is a really formidable argument. Anybody who growls is showing up the other guy in little Chris's mind. The truth may well be that when we are treated to the analysis of TV pundits we're more often than not simply getting the reactions of scared little kids.

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This week's Bill Maher show on HBO is not as consistently funny as it has sometimes been but it does have a couple of highlights. The guest panel included Steve Moore of the Club for Growth who was supposed to be the right-wing balance for George Carlin and BBC newswoman Katty Kay. He didn't achieve much leveling but he did manage to be the silliest person I have ever seen on TV. He is sillier than Newt Gingrich. He is sillier even than Dick Morris (a statement I thought I could never make). At one point, Maher asked him if he was on the pipe, but this is to give drugs credit for more than they can accomplish. The other interesting feature was the interview with Tucker Carlson, who advertises himself as a conservative but who is in danger of losing his credentials. He said, for example, that listening to George Bush speak is like watching a drunk try to cross an icy road. Talk like that won't win him a cosy place in the Valhalla Mr. Bush and his associates are dragging us towards. But it did seem to make a big hit with Maher's audience.

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I saw Steve Baldwin, the actor, being interviewed from the Republican Convention on Tuesday evening (August 31, 2004). The reporter expressed some surprise at seeing him there since his brothers are well-known Democratic activists. Steve explained that he is not a political person, and, evidently, has no political opinions. He is, however, supporting Mr. Bush because he wants a president who is guided by God. He didn't explain why he thinks Mr. Bush is more thoroughly guided by God than Mr. Kerry is. That appears to strike him as being self-evident. Steve, himself, tapped into God several years ago and found it to be a wondrous tap-in. He believes the U. S. president needs a similar linkage  in order to perform his duties adequately. The interview proceeded with perfect solemnity on the part of both parties. Neither winked nor giggled. This is how cable TV shines, bringing us, one might say, more than all the news that's fit to print.

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A question I've had about Bill O'Reilly since I first watched his program is whether he believes what he says or is cynically feeding red meat to a pre-selected audience. I can't say I've ever answered it to my own satisfaction. Now we have a new book -- Attack Poodles -- from critic James Wolcott, which attempts to answer it for me. Wolcott doesn't share my perplexity. He says that O'Reilly and his brethren care about ratings more than anything else and would push any position to keep themselves on top of the listings. I'm still not sure. If O'Reilly didn't believe his own line, at least to some extent, he couldn't be as persistent with it as he is. It would take more talent than he has. If you watch him closely, it becomes clear that he will shade his stance in order to follow trends and to protect himself against future events. But I suspect that when he sits around at home he actually is an idea-hating, populist, xenophobe. The telling clue is his sense of inferiority when he confronts anyone who actually knows something. I don't think you can fake that.

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Bill O'Reilly, having consigned the ACLU firmly to the ranks of fascism, is now taking out after another enemy of the American way -- the New York Times. The Times,  says Mr. O'Reilly is being unfair to President Bush because it has too many articles about the prisons in Iraq and is raising questions about the president's constitutional right to throw people in jail and keep them there forever without charging them with anything. This is radicalism and it's hurting the war on terror because it creates divisions among the people.  The Fox News vision of America appears to be a country where no one dissents from the president's policies so long as he's pushing towards war. As long as there's war, everybody's got to be on the team. You might think that would be an incentive for a politician to have war all the time, but that's the kind of thought you could find in the Times  and, therefore, it's really bad.

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I watched Mr. Clinton's interview with Dan Rather on 60 Minutes last night (June 20, 2004). It didn't change how I thought about the former president. He has always seemed to me a likeable but not perfectly admirable character, although. I suspect, that the flaws I see in him are not much in line with what's been reported in the newspapers. But the interview did remind me of something about the public's interaction with Mr. Clinton that's worth noting. He is not a single-dimension or cardboard character and in that he agitates the public's perception of what a politician, and especially a president, is supposed to be. We appear to want our presidents to be wind-up figures, perfectly predictable, and free of the kinds of talents and foibles that make other people interesting. Many of us seem to think they are duty-bound to say the same thing every time they open their mouths -- "Everything I do is done for the security of the American people and I spend every waking minute dedicated to their well-being." The interview, if it taught us nothing else, showed that Mr. Clinton is incapable of sticking to that role, and for many Americans, that's really disturbing. It's almost as bad as finding out that once upon a time your father liked girls.

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The obsequies for Mr. Reagan have highlighted a tendency of television which has grown ever more pronounced over the past several years. I can't tell whether overweening national sentimentality  is an inherent aspect of TV culture or if television is simply reflecting a burgeoning transformation of the people. In either case, for me, it's a disturbing development. It's not just that sentimentality is an aspect of degraded manners. If it were that alone, it would be disturbing, but it wouldn't produce the ominous feeling our bathos is bringing forth. Rather, that comes from the knowledge -- which used to be common -- that self-indulgent emotion is generally linked to cruelty and viciousness. A people that cries readily, kills readily. The eagerness with which our political leaders incessantly proclaim us to be the greatest country and the greatest people in the world bespeaks a willingness to view other people as less than ourselves and, therefore, as less deserving of the right to life than we are. I was sitting at a table with a German woman recently when one of these pronunciamentos was bellowed forth, and the expression on her face was not a thing anyone should have been proud of causing.

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I watched Mr. Reagan's funeral on television last night (June 9, 2004). It was supposed to be grand and I suppose it was grand. It was supposed to be solemn and I suppose it was solemn. It was supposed to bespeak power and it certainly bespoke power. I don't guess it was supposed to be human and in that it succeeded also. Cokie Roberts twittered sententiously in the background about its taking place in the "people's house," which seemed a bit strange since you can barely get into the Capitol anymore -- security, you know. There was much talk by the commentators about moments like this bringing the people together. That too struck me as strange since I felt not a whit of togetherness with anyone I saw on the screen. The truth spectacles of this sort force us to confront is that the nation, by which is generally meant the government, has but slight connection with the people. It is, rather, a conglomeration of power, and when it puts on a show, the show says just one thing: worship me. What any of this had to do with the actual Ronald Reagan, I don't know. True, the TV flashed pictures of his youth now and then, I guess to give us relief from the ghastly stiffness we saw under the dome. The whole thing left me with one feeling: when I die, I hope there's nobody dressed in a uniform within a mile of where I'm laid out.

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It's not often that one encounters a genuine superlative -- something that goes as far in its direction as a thing can go. But last night, on 60 Minutes,  Andy Rooney came forward with the real article, the dumbest idea I have ever heard. Andy wants us to establish a "Smart Board," made up of a hundred college professors, who would be elected by college professors. This board would get together and deliberate about every prominent public issue and then it would issue a pronunciamento. Their directives would not have the force of law but they would be publicized by the government, so that the real components of government would be loath to go against them. I know we don't have a good government now, but, My Lord! If the Smart Board should ever come into existence, we ought all to get our own little boards and start paddling right out into the ocean. I don't guess Andy has had the benefit of being in the presence of college professors quite as much as I have. Even so, that's no excuse. To give one's first attention to people whose own attention is focused on tenure and parking is not the way to build Jerusalem in America's green and pleasant land.

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Among the phenomena brought to us by the cable news networks is a horde of former high-ranking military officers who appear nightly to tell us what's really going on when American troops are out in the world killing and being killed. A few of these appear to be sensible, a somewhat larger number come across as being really, really dumb, and there's a third contingent, which may be as large as the other two together, who strike me as being insane. Among the latter is a man named Ralph Peters, who has some kind of association with the Fox News Network. Mr. Peters is particularly striking in that he not only says crazy things, he also looks crazy, which adds to his effect. I'm not sure what Mr. Peters did when he was on active duty. I hope it was nothing important. After all, we can't expect that a mental transmogrification is going to take place in these men just because they were separated from their former employment. The habits of mind they display on TV are probably the same habits they brought to their military tasks. The belief that seems to possess all of them, and that certainly possesses Mr. Peters to a high degree, is that the only way to win and maintain respect in the world is to kill a lot of people. I saw Mr. Peters on the O'Reilly Factor last night (April 26, 2004), and he was going farther than even O'Reilly would go in advocating violence and more violence as a means of fixing up things in Iraq. When you go farther than O'Reilly on that point, you're well into the big leagues of nuttiness. I wonder how these men are affecting the public's view of the military vocation. Americans seem ready to worship almost anyone who wears a uniform, but after watching these performances, night after night, it's a wonder they don't begin to step back a bit.

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On March 22, 2004, Bill O'Reilly decided to have a session on comedian George Carlin, whom he now designates as a left-wing bomb-thrower and American-hater. One of the guests selected to help in this analysis of Mr. Carlin as a representative of liberalism was Richard Walter, a professor of film from UCLA. Although Walter has in the past disagreed with O'Reilly, in this instance he was fully in the "Factor" camp.  The issue was the supposed excuse Carlin made for the 9/11 attackers by saying that the United States has exploited people around the world and therefore, that we have to expect that somebody, sometime, might hit back. According to Walter, this is a ridiculous position because we are never going to satisfy the terrorists, just as Israel is never going to satisfy the people who hate it. It seems never to have occurred either to Walter or O'Reilly that there might be a condition between satisfaction and murderous hatred that we and Israel could work toward. Their implied stance was that a country must either be loved or it must subdue the people who so unreasonably fail to love it. In a curious way, they were affirming the point of Carlin's they were trying to refute. This is the level of argument that TV political talk shows continuously promote.  They raise the fear that increasing numbers may come to believe that there is no other way to discuss issues, and that celebrities like O'Reilly actually are promoting thought.

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Cable news programs are increasingly conducting on-line polls about the opinions of their audience. Given the nature of the questions they ask, it's pretty clear this is a device to hype sensationalism rather than to support information or thought. MSNBC, for example, on Sunday morning, April 4th, asked me whether I expect another terrorist attack on the United States. Why my expectation about something like this -- about which I have no evidence -- is relevant to anything, I don't know. How could anyone care what I expect? How could I care myself? (In truth, I don't) The purpose of these polls is to make the public into a prop for melodrama. It would be encouraging if no one ever responded to them, but I don't guess there's much hope of that.

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