Metal Below the Gleam

Well, here's a cliche for the dustbin: Politics in the media age is a matter of style versus substance.

It's curious how such an idea creeps into our thinking and assumes the gravity of truth. A politician was thought to need something of both to survive, of course.

But style was assumed to be distinct from substance, just as the left hand is apart from the right. Moreover, in the way that right-handedness dominates the culture, this matter of style -- personality or image -- has come to define the politics of the TV era. I confess to being among the many who overlooked the possibility that we might find ourselves with an ambidextrous president in the Oval Office.

You may say George W. Bush is swinging wild. You may find him scary. You may believe just the opposite. These are reflections of your politics. About his, there is a dawning realization: You cannot speak knowledgeably about this president's style except in the terminology of his policies. From substance, he has fashioned his style, for good or ill.

Perhaps you've read some of the recent analyses that describe Bush as Ronald Reagan with an agenda -- a thought that is surely breathtaking by itself. But it's only a half-thought. Because Reagan and Bush actually represent polar ends of the same magnet.

"Ronald Reagan wrapped his personality around good ideas; Bush wraps his personality inside good ideas," said Ken Khachigian, one of the elder statesmen among GOP strategists. Democrats might substitute "lousy" for "good," but the point stands.

In short, Reagan's policies slipstreamed behind his winning disposition. Bush travels in the wake of his grand -- or grandiose -- visions.

The kindly Reagan is still remembered for his surprise firing of 11,400 federal air traffic controllers in a 1981 strike.

But after only two years, there's hardly any surprise that the compassionate Bush wants that many scalps in the National Park Service alone and has targeted the jobs of up to 835,000 or so other government workers for privatization. Not because they went on strike or committed an offense, but out of principle.

The celebrated journalist H.L. Mencken proclaimed the dawn of politics' television age in a dispatch dated June 20, 1948. That's when the 150,000 watts of TV lights were first tested at a national political convention. For Mencken, it meant having to retreat and filter the proceedings through "a brown beer bottle." The remainder of the country gained entry into the hall and took his seat. Which, to use the popular phrase, "changed everything."

Over the years, we came to believe certain fundamentals about TV: It was too impatient for policy. Personality and presence counted foremost.

Theodore White's landmark book, "The Making of the President, 1960," recalls the first election to be decided by a mass audience of TV watchers. "Rarely in American history has there been a political campaign that discussed issues less or clarified them less," he reported.

Soon, it wasn't just campaigns but governance that answered first to the imagery rather than the substance of "vision." One's ability as a "communicator" was regarded ahead of what was communicated.

In his 1987 book "The Great American Video Game," Martin Schram recalled the warning that former U.S. senator and presidential hopeful Gary Hart sounded to his party. Democrats, Hart said, suffered for paying "more attention ... to ideas ... than on stage-managing the message." These had become two things rather than one.

Now, this reigning wisdom of half a century has been turned on its ear. Why was there such a buildup for the president's State of the Union? Because it was certain that Bush had something to say. After all, is there an arm of government, up to and including the National Archives and Records Administration, that isn't in his cross hairs? Is there an informed citizen who doesn't feel ground motion? Is there a country in the world that hasn't heard his growl?

Bush has turned out to be what liberals and conservatives and progressives and reactionaries and fence-sitters and the-country's-going-to-pot crowd all feared had been bleached out of our politics by the relentless glare of television lights: a man regarded chiefly for the reach of ideas.

Yes, yes -- Bush and his team are well equipped with the salesman's satchel of lubricating soft soap, snake oil and smooth talk. And no doubt there still are millions of Americans, those connected to civic life only casually, who judge their president by the old rules of TV politics. Is he likable? Does he seem like a fellow you can trust? But there are many others who are listening and understand that this isn't about image anymore.

Now it's the real thing.

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