Who speaks to the communicators?
John Travolta may run for office, now that he understands how much simpler it is to be a statesman than to be an actor. At least that's what Gore Vidal, the novelist and sometimes politician, has told an interviewer. Travolta, Vidal said , ''was watching Ronald Reagan, and he saw what Reagan did and how easy it was to do.''
''I can do all that,'' Vidal quoted Travolta as saying. ''I do it all the time, and I have a bigger audience.''
The ''it'' that Travolta, and Vidal, and everybody else keep talking about is , of course, the art of communication. Ever since the television tube took over from the back platform of a train as the proper podium for a candidate, every little mayoralty campaign has been burdened by strategic analyses of ''communication skills,'' and those sub-skills of ''image'' and ''style.''
There was just no stopping the search for candidates with ''communications skills'' once it became the conventional wisdom that Richard M. Nixon lost the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy because he went into a TV debate well-informed, but with shoddy makeup and a questionable shave.
But what do we mean by this umbrella term, ''communication''? Certainly not a grace and precision in our spoken and written language. ''Verbal skills,'' as we all know, have withered as ''communications skills'' have bloomed.
Do we mean that more and more brilliant, urgent, and exciting ideas are being circulated? Alas, no again.
Does ''good communication'' then mean that people, at the least, are coming across as human beings to other people? This reassuring thought would also be hard to prove.
We may be heard to complain that we live in a time of unprecedented confusion and extraordinary estrangements. And yet we continue to talk about ''communicating'' as if it were something we and our leaders are particularly expert at.
Can it be that by ''communications skills'' we mean only a soothing murmur, a winning smile, a certain vigor in body language -- a comforting impression, transmittable by microphone and camera?
Is John Travolta, in fact, right?
Do we all have buttons -- anxieties, insecurities, fears -- that ''communicators'' can punch, whether they are advertisers or politicians, and make us feel they are The Answer?
The whole business threatens to become even more mechanical, even less human. Ten years from now, when we speak of ''communicators,'' we may mean talking robots. According to reports, IBM is develping a ''communicator'' called EPISTLE , standing for Executive/Principal's Intelligent System for Text and Linguistic Endeavors. EPISTLE will read business mail, summarize the contents for its executive/principal, and even reply on its own -- presumably to another EPISTLE.
Who doubts that EPISTLES soon will be talking? Like the alarm clocks that now say, ''Hurry up! You're late,'' or words to that effect. Like the dashboards that tell you you're driving too fast, or command you to buckle your seat belt. Like the microwave ovens that prattle along to Japanese cooks with recipes and instructions.
Are John Travolta and EPISTLES our only alternatives? Is ''communication'' turning into something very like manipulation, on the one hand -- all artful suggestions and subliminal? And, on the other hand, a taped monologue delivered by a network of robots with a gift for nonsequitur? Surely this is not a choice to be relished - life with Big Brother, or the world as a bad Harold Pinter play , with computer voice-over, if one may exaggerate ''communication'' trends.
What we get, in either case, is technique. What we long for is substance -- not just the voice but a meaning. We hunger for content -- for wisdom or love or humor. Anything, please, but mere performance. For it will be the worst of ironies in this Age of Communications if we learn how to say everything, and find we have nothing to say.