ROSS PEROT didn't last long in presidential politics, but he made a signal contribution. Almost by accident, he managed to erode TV's preeminent role in influencing the nation's choice of chief executive. Ironically, he may have helped revive the two political parties.
Mr. Perot's revolution in politics was his use of the TV call-in show. Unlike his cautious competitors in the risk-averse Democratic and Republican parties, he sought maximum exposure on the nation's airwaves - with no talk show too bizarre. Bill Clinton followed suit - by blowing his saxophone for Arsenio Hall and then going on MTV and everywhere else. Even George Bush dipped his toe into unscripted waters.
The upshot is the first chance ever for the average American, on a nationwide basis, to see presidential candidates up close, personal, unrehearsed - and often. Thus the monopoly of the television networks, including the ultimate in "spin control," has been cracked. By accident, presidential candidates found a tool that eluded them for two decades.
With the emergence of television in the 1950s, the political parties began losing their preeminent role in choosing presidential candidates and promoting their fortunes in the general election. John Kennedy was the first to recognize and exploit this fact when he jettisoned his party's structure in favor of a personalized, made-for-TV campaign. Today, no candidate submits to the review of his party's national apparatus or relies upon it to get elected.
But politicians' quest for independence has been a two-edged sword. The dwindling of the parties' role reinforced TV, which became the leading arbiter of information made available to the American public about its choices for president.
No institution has been more symbolic of this radical change than the presidential TV debates in the fall. The networks have turned them into the superbowls of presidential politics, hyping them into make-or-break moments in the campaign. Yet they tell us virtually nothing of value about competitors for president. Richard Nixon's five o'clock shadow (1960), Gerald Ford's proclamation of Polish freedom (1976), and Michael Dukakis's civics lecture on the subject of rape (1988), helped throttle each man's p residential ambitions. And with one quip - "There you go again" - Ronald Reagan (1980) humbled Jimmy Carter (who warned that President Reagan would tamper with Social Security, which he later did).
Throughout the age of television, the struggle for control of the political marketplace has intensified. In the latest round, the networks have stopped covering the party conventions, except for tidbits and isolated speeches, thus limiting viewership of this moment of political education to C-Span junkies. And the thought of providing free television time for candidates and parties - restoring to the political process some use of the public airwaves which the government has given away - evokes cries of h orror from network executives over the thought that mom-and-pop station owners would be bilked of advertising revenues.
Meanwhile, the politicians have labored to counter the inroads of television. Mr. Nixon and Reagan devised campaigns that tried to limit their media exposure to precisely controlled circumstances. Candidates of both parties - as well as independents like Perot - put a premium on "visuals" that will appeal to TV's jaded appetite. Before the 1988 election, the two parties tried to reassert their role by agreeing to seize control of the debates from the League of Women Voters - but they totally failed to re duce the media's domination of the event. Every presidential candidate complains - often correctly - that his policy substance is screened out by the media. And he responds to this fact with the soundbite, hoping to gain a few seconds' worth of precious airtime.
It is now clear that there is no turning back to old-style, pre-TV politics or even to some modernized means of peer review - thereby providing the insights of professional politicians who best know the abilities of a candidate to perform most of the president's duties. The American people are left on their own with that task of judgment, aided only by television's breathless reportage. This fact helps to explain the popular fascination with each new revelation about a candidate's background - pot-smokin g more than policy. How he responds to these tempests gives some small glimpse into what he might do in a global crisis.
But now Perot's initiative in taking to the talk shows has provided at least a partial answer: unending public exposure, uncut and unedited. With regular, hour-long challenge by questions from "just folks," the temptation and tyranny of the soundbite can be eroded - proving a blessing for a good candidate and the bane of a bad one. The artificial drama building up to a TV debate between Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton can be damped down. And the risk of a single campaign-ending error can be reduced.
This is an act of judo: pitting television against itself, relying on good old American free enterprise competition. In their struggle with one another and the all-powerful ratings, Arsenio, Larry, Jay, Joan, Bryant, Oprah - and maybe even Geraldo - are bringing politics as close to the people as possible. And that's not a bad achievement for one election campaign.