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On not 'being there'

Along with a couple of veteran chess reporters and a fellow on the staff who specializes in lunar eclipses, we didn't go to Detroit to cover the Republican convention. We three believe we may be the only American journalists who passed up the chance, though we do know of a few colleagues who hastily went on vacation to conceal their disgrace.

We three could have gone. Of course. In fact, the lunar eclipse fellow was under considerable pressure. As the saying goes, we simply chose not to run. And we apologize for any inconvenience we may have caused. We appreciate that our absence stretched things pretty thin for the 15,000 accredited news representatives, scrambling to report on 1,944 delegates. Golly, that's only 7. 7 interviewers for every articulate Republican.

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Just to set the record straight ahead of time, we don't plan to cover the Democratic convention either. Somebody has to stay home and mind the TV sets, as we see it -- especially when the three networks go out and spend a total of $ 30 million on the bash, sending 2,000 troops to Detroit. ABC fielded 43 cameras , 120 walkie-talkies and a helicopter.NBC struck back with 16 people from its public relations department -- and don't think that public relations didn't have plenty to do with it.

Afterwards a lot of people who had their ears outraged by one too many noisemaker kicked their tubes and sneered: "For what?" But we say: One less walkie-talkie from ABC, one less PR staffer from NBC, one less million or so from CBS, and none of us would have known as early as we did that Gerald Ford was going to be nominated for vice-president.

A second school of thought has raised a second question: How -- beyond bringing us Wayne Newton singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" -- is television influencing the campaign of 1980?

Every pundit's favorite question of the moment!

And the favorite answer of about eight out of ten of the pundits seems to be that television has revolutionized American politics as we know it -- an understatement ollowed by two exclamation marks at the least.

It is routinely deplored that, for the benefit of the closeup camera, Svengali consultants now package a candidate, reducing him to a mere image (like Warren) Harding, we guess) or to a facile slogan -- like "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" maybe?

As if American politics before TV had always been a game for unflamboyant profiles and subtly reasoned arguments!

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One seven hears nostalgia voiced for a Golden Age when deals were worked out in smoke-filled rooms instead of being tried out, with pancake makeup, on camera. Ah, for the good old days, we are supposed to sigh -- when it was Boss Tweed instead of Boss Silverman!

If Mr. Ford had been nominated, we would have been told that it was his interview with Walter Cronkite that set up choice. If Henry Kissinger, then, had become secretary of state, we would have been reminded that it all started with his chats with Barbara Walters.

Are we, in fact, overestimating the power of television to shape history? It can be argued, only a little unfairly, that the ultimate power of television is to overdo -- to expose beyond a viewer's endurance whatever it sets out most intently to present.

When television -- as at the political conventions -- goes all out to excite 200 million Americans, all too often it pushes us, exhausted, to the point of numbness.

Television has been credited, correctly, with giving Americans, night after night, a perception of the war in Vietnam that contributed to shortening that war. But television could shorten any war by showing it to us, clip by nightly clip, until we experienced a kind of secondhand battle fatigue comparable to watching one too many shoot-'em-up on the late-late show.

This marvelous illusion machine, hyping away with the hearty ehtusiasm of a magician, finally sabotages itself by showing too much -- by making everything seem a bit of a trick, even the part of life that isn't.

To exhaust the public on war may be a moral act. To numb voters so expertly on the subject of politics, three months before the election, must be regarded as democracy's latest calculated risk.

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