Preemptive strikes

Bush and Rummy lose their starring roles -- and so do I.

Published April 3, 2003 11:27PM (EST)

Operation Shock and Awe began precisely at the moment my CNBC TV show was supposed to debut. Oh well. Being preemptively struck off the air was a more honorable way to go than the bum's rush administered to other cable-news types like poor, daft Peter Arnett or the world-class swaggerer Geraldo Rivera of Fox News, who was booted by the Pentagon. Less justified in the buildup to war was aborting the comebacks of the luckless Phil Donahue on MSNBC and the over-vilified "Connie Chung Tonight" on CNN. Perhaps canceling shows before they start will be the wave of the future. As usual, I'm there.

We live in an age when anything new is accompanied by a deafening barrage of know-all criticism. So it's hardly surprising that we are now in a stage of the war where every talking head is sounding off about the Cakewalk V. Quagmire controversy.

Interestingly, however, the American public seems far less fazed by this agony of process on display than the media. Sixty percent have accepted the fact that the war could take one to six months. They are still dug in by a 70 percent margin in support of Bush. It reminds me of the 2000 election when we kept hearing that the American public would not sit still for any more recounts. They needed "closure." Whereas, in fact, the American public would have been perfectly happy to wait as long as it took for accurate results. It was the media who were going out of their minds. Their shows had run out of pundits to opine, angles to hype, pictures to look at. Plus, they had all booked their vacations to start the day after the election results were in. They wanted to move on.

I know how they feel. When the uncertainties of war made us start retooling our CNBC show from a Hollywood special to war talk (which means, in TV terms, going after Queen Noor rather than Queen Latifah), I had a whiff of the hysteria that constitutes the daily life of a TV "booker." So frantic are the morning and cable shows for new faces that a moderately thoughtful piece in the Wall Street Journal by the affable baldie Winston S. Churchill titled "My Grandfather Invented Iraq" began a frenzy of vicious competition to "book" him on every talk show, including mine. Within 24 hours of publication of his Journal squib Winston's bemused baby face had shown up on every show including CNN's raucous "Crossfire" where the former Clinton spin doctor James Carville's introduction to his guest was so perfunctory and hastily prepared it could be summarized as, "So, Winston, who the fuck are you?"

The administration is used to media second-guessing. They are more spooked by the negative chorus from the stage army of Gilbert and Sullivan TV generals now openly trashing their stratagem. It was a rousing sight when Rumsfeld and Myers fragged them at the press conference. Colin Powell had already commented testily on CBS last week, "every general who's ever worked for me is now on some network commenting on the daily battle." In these circumstances this is to be expected. Many of the armchair generals were compulsorily retired by Rummy in his quest to create the nimble, high tech, new model army. Now the battle for the soul of the war machine has burst to the surface. The brass gets the chance it wanted to remind the irascible secretary of defense that old-style slash and slog is still what counts in the abattoir of combat. Or as they say in the army, "Shove him my regards."

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"If only Tony Blair were president" is still the prevailing feeling among Americans, whatever they feel about the war. It's only a matter of weeks before Bush starts to become seriously jealous of Saint Tony's press. He is already put out by Blair's insistence on the importance of the U.N. in postwar Iraq.

Blair's complex nobility makes us feel he is on his way to being a tragic figure, which is something Bush could never be. When they appear side by side at press conferences the disparity in quality is almost painful. There is something dense and taciturn about Bush even when he's being charming. He has the damped-down anger of the dry drunk. If he's not scripted, his bald answers seem to be covering up ulterior motives. His true motives are private and his own and he will tell us only whatever it takes to mollify us. He is the embodiment of a crack Eleanor Roosevelt made when a friend pressed to know what FDR thought about an issue: "The president doesn't think. He decides."

By contrast there is a transparency about Tony Blair. As with a great Shakespearian actor you can see his mind and soul working through the window of the face and voice. He seems animated by thought, feeling and authentic process. We watch him apparently consider the situation carefully, turn the pros and cons over and through a process of ratiocination that we have to respect, even if we disagree, reach the same conclusion over and over again. His increasing pallor and stressed-out look have become an asset, too. They speak of late night cogitation and lonely conviction. If he is hiding something we don't sense it, whereas Bush seems as occluded as a second-rate actor.

The American public, however, don't seem to mind. They are in awe of Blair but think his eloquence is some Churchillian thing endemic to Brits, the result of the elegant smash-mouth in the House of Commons. The president's positive polls remind us that second-rate actors can still appear in hits.

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By Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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