Not a `great debate'

DAN RATHER's TV interview with Vice-President George Bush turned out to be the most heated confrontation thus far in the presidential campaign. The debates have been dull by comparison. What was wrong with this dramatic mini-debate was that it was not between two politicians. It became a battle between a public figure and a journalist - and it was a contrivance.

It's arguable that Mr. Bush snookered Mr. Rather into leaving his proper role as a questioner to become a combatant. But the moment Rather began to sound like a prosecuting attorney - and not an interviewer - he put himself in this position.

People instinctively react negatively to reporters who act as if they are as important as a president or vice-president. And they are angered when - as Rather did in the late stages of the so-called interview - a reporter is rude to someone who occupies one of these positions. Rather says he wasn't rude. He probably didn't intend to be. But he was rattled by the vice-president's approach - one that, no doubt, had been designed to knock Rather off balance. Thus, there was a curtness, even a show of temper, in his expressions and words as he brought the confrontation to an abrupt end.

It certainly wasn't the vice-president's finest hour. That was even truer just after, off camera, when he unleashed an emotional attack on Rather and the network in front of the CBS crew. Why didn't CBS follow up the next night by revealing the Bush diatribe on its newscast, instead of leaving it to the print media to do so?

In any event, Bush's performance, live and on camera, failed to provide voters with enlightenment about where he stands. Instead, it was an execution of raw politics. Bush had decided in advance that he would not be grilled on the question of his role in the arms deal with Iran. He had decided to derail such questioning by attacking the questioner. The object was to frustrate Rather. That's what Bush accomplished.

Bush accomplished another objective. By keeping his cool during the encounter, the vice-president intended to show that he could be unflappable in crisis. His tactics were calculated to help end the criticism that he is a wimp.

What can we conclude from this ``great debate'' between a vice-president and a newsman?

Journalists should avoid the perception that they can become participants in - and not just observers of - public events. Watergate gave many budding newsmen and newswomen the idea that they could become activists in shaping the course of the nation. Many now act as though the voters have selected them to become their representatives in keeping the great and mighty in line. A reporter doesn't have to be humble when questioning a public figure. But a member of the media - as an objective observer - shouldn't become hostile or prosecutorial when asking questions.

The chief criticism of a Dan Rather or a Sam Donaldson is not that they fail as reporters. Both are exceptionally good at their craft. But they often talk as though they were themselves national leaders.

The TV news industry and politicians are, more and more, contriving ways to use television to help their own self-interest. In the process viewers are being manipulated. When these approaches are applied to a political contest, the election is artificially warped and the democratic processes bent.

Rather's approach - prefacing the interview with a taped report on the Iran arms deal - was meant to bang the vice-president hard on an issue. Nothing wrong with that. To concentrate wholly on such questioning, however, would not provide viewers with a broad and fair view of the vice-president. But Rather's approach provided the most promise for viewer interest. So CBS moved in that direction.

Bush's staff must have known that the whole program could easily be devoted to Bush and Iran. So they bent the occasion to their own self-interest.

Whether Rather or Bush won is not important.

What is important, and sad, is that viewers were used by the participants in this TV ``show'' - for that's what it was.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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