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Talking Heads: A Look at the Popular and Influential News Commentators.

Talking Heads: A Look at the Popular and Influential News Commentators

When Vaclav Havel appeared before a joint session of Congress last winter to argue the Hegelian point that consciousness precedes being--not the other way around as Karl Marx had posited--he sent many patriotic and politically inspired Americans into a deep depression. How is it, Americans asked themselves, that the Czechs managed to elect this exquisitely brave and eloquent intellectual as their president on their very first try, while we, after 200 years of practice, remain fixated on flag factories and mug shots of Willie horton?

The answer is that democracy is a much easier notion to pay tribute to--and to cloak one's partisan rhetoric in--than to put into practice. In the United States, many of our central democratic institutions have atrophied almost to the point of nonexistence.

The two works under discussion here approach a part of this problem, and in the absence of any incipient rejuvenation of our political culture on the horizon, they begin to take on a certain immediacy. Specifically, if our politicians' rhetoric is not to be believed ("Read my lips") and Congress's ability to deal with the many complex and politically costly issues before it is not to be trusted, then just who is minding the store? Who makes the rules, and from where do our policies truly derive?

Smith, a former staff member of the Twentieth Century Fund in New York, has written a thoughtful intellectual history of think tanks in which he argues that "public policy has become almost entirely the preserve of the experts, with the idea of 'public debate' merely an anachronistic fictions." Hirsch, a suburban Maryland lawyer, argues instead for the centrality of TV opinion-commentators who, according to him, are "supplanting the newspaper op-ed page as the primary source of the public's exposure to opinion commentary."

Smith has written just about as worthwhile and provocative a book on American public policy think tanks as one could hope for. Of course, given the subject, one could not have hoped for terribly much. Smith traces the history of public policy research from its origins at the turn of the century through the glory days of the appearance of the Heritage Foundation's thousand-plus-page bestseller, Mandate for Leadership, in 1981. Smith provides a sophisticated analysis of many of the ideas which have animated the rise of certain kinds of think tanks, along with useful sketches of a number of the entrepreneurial personalities that lay behind them.

Smith can be great fun on some of the intraservice rivalries that plagued the conservative movement's think tanks during the Reagan presidency. The reason the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) floundered during the eighties, apparently, was that its founder, William Baroody Sr., bequeathed the presidency of the institute to his son, Bill Jr., in 1978. The latter quickly embarked upon ambitious building and expansion plans but possessed not the slenderest thread of a notion of how to pay for them. "It was like something out of a Dickens novel," explained one of Smith's sources, speaking of the institute whose primary mission was to bring sound business practices to American government. According to Smith, "there was no budget, grants came in for specific projects and were siphoned off to meet general operating expeses." Soon AEI found itself $3 million in the hole and, to the eternal chagrin of its fellows, was forced to eliminate subsidized lunches.

While Smith's history is first-rate and his prose admirably restrained, he doesn't quite demonstrate the importance of his subject. One could just as easily take a cynical view of think tanks: not that they circumscribe public debate but that they simply provide cannon fodder for political positions already mapped out. When was the last time a powerful conservative politician read a briefing by a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and decided that well, yes, America really should get out of the military intervention business?

Hirsch, writing about television news commentators, seems to suffer from a malady that is almost the mirror image of Smith's. Hirsch' problem is that both his claims and his book are overly modest. As one who has been writing and researching a book on a similar subject for the past two years (and is obviously open to charges of bias on that score), I cannot but wonder if somehow Hirsch's argument got lost in Smith's subject matter. Political pundits, particularly those on television, really do play an important role in defining the boundaries of Washinton's public dabate. In the absence of coherent political parties, a responsible Congress, or intellectually defensible election campaigns, they are almost all we get in the way of reasoned political argument.

Yet Hirsch sticks primarily to two points, and I quote from his conclusion: "1) today's political talk shows contribute little, and sometimes even detract from the robust debate needed to sustain a healthy democracy and 2) television leads top commentators astray, making them celebrities or converting them into cartoon figures while diverting them from their finest and most socially useful pursuits."

Great points, but James Fallows made both of them more than four years ago in an essay in The New York Review of Books and threw in a few more besides. Most of Hirsch's book is taken up with examinations of the pathetic content of political talk shows and profiles of their performers. He has done some interviews for the book, but the research appears a bit thin. A single David Reminick profile, of "The McLaughlin Group" published in Esquire is cited 10 times in 35 pages.

Whereas Smith has written a brilliant history of think tanks, which is slightly undermined by the grandiose claims he makes for the importance of his subject, Hirsch has written an intelligent but overly modest and insufficiently ambitious examination of the role of television commentary. Each author apparently deserved the other's subject. But neither one, unfortunately, brings us much closer to solving the dilemma of our current political predicament.
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Author:Alterman, Eric
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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