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Jewish World Review Oct. 13, 1999/ 3 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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The campaign of the Teletubbies -- WE DIDN'T ALWAYS have such short attention spans. The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 were endless, but crowds turned out and stayed to listen. Everything stopped for FDR's fireside chats. They were political, but with a high intellectual content.

The sensational candidate boomlets for Warren Beatty, Donald Trump, Cybill Shepherd and others are in part attributable to "Sesame Street Syndrome.'' Children grow up on "Sesame Street'' and demand that learning be fun. Or as the voice-over for the "Teletubbies'' tells it, "Learning and play go hand in hand.'' The on-the-margin campaigns of the Reform Party are like watching adult versions of Po, Tinky Winky, Laa Laa and Dipsy. "Eh-oh. Ee-ar. Uh-oh. Owwww!''

I once asked a child I knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. He was quick to respond: "I want to be a celebrity.''

"What does that mean?'' I asked.

"It means everybody knows who you are.''

"Why is everybody going to know who you are?''

"I haven't decided that yet.''

The child should grow up to be a famous pundit. Or a candidate for president. It used to be that candidates for president could have careers outside of politics, but they had to be serious men.

The carnival aspects of politics were merely a sideshow. The center ring required performers with discipline, dignity and competence. As historian Michael Beschloss points out in The New York Times, if Donald Trump wanted to explore a candidacy in 1932, he would have had columnist Walter Lippmann tell the world what he thought, but today he needs only to go on "Larry King Live'' to say nothing much. "Television and the Web have become the equalizers between professional politicians and those famous people who think it might be cool to be president,'' writes Beschloss.

That leaves George Will asking Jesse Ventura, the governor of Minnesota, about his remarks

Jesse- the-Tubbie?
about reincarnation to Playboy magazine -- he said he'd like to come back as a size 38 double-D bra. Can anyone imagine Walter Lippmann reduced to asking such a question and being lectured to by a governor for lacking a sense of humor?

The flashy performance politicians affect how serious candidates act too. Vice President Gore has a new costume: cowboy boots and brightly colored shirts. Bill Bradley invites $1,000 campaign contributors to shoot the hoops with him in Madison Square Garden. He tells voters that his teamwork in basketball was better preparation for his run for the presidency than his three terms in the Senate. He sounds like he means it.

It's ironic that Pat Buchanan runs to Ventura's defense: "It's a free country and he is entitled to free speech.'' But hey, no one's questioning the former wrestler's right to say whatever he pleases. It's what he says that worries us. Pat can say whatever he wants to about what he considers Adolf Hitler's less-than-threatening behavior on the eve of World War II; it's what he says that's troubling.

Images on television and the Internet not only democratize learning, they reduce much of what we need to know. Margaret Mead described television as a second parent that weakened actual parental authority. But that was before we had virtual reality. The Internet is more like another peer group with enormous power to influence not only what we think but how we think, updating Marshall McLuhan's perception that the medium is the message.

The clown candidates thrive in this environment, titillating and hyperventilating. It may be true that we can afford to laugh at them now because America is prosperous and strong. A little frivolity probably can't hurt. We don't think that what happened in Minnesota could happen in national politics. But there's a danger here.

Daniel Boorstin noted in his book, "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America'' (Vintage Books), that in a media-saturated age, we run the danger of responding to invention rather than doing the hard work of discovery. Invention has an amusing urgency -- like Warren Beatty playing a rapping presidential candidate in a movie or the Teletubbies running over hill and dale with only grunts as their language. Discovery requires a slow, deliberate and careful examination of a multiplicity of ideas.

Some Americans, especially the youngest voters among us, may find discovery a boring process. But contrary to what the Teletubbies tell us, learning and play in an election do not go hand in hand.


10/08/99: Money is in the eye of the art dealer
10/01/99: Lincoln's 'Almost Chosen People'
09/29/99: Introducing Bill and Hillary Bickerson
09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate