Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Thin Air

[posted by Callimachus]

Via Althouse, The Museum of Broadcast Communications is assembling a top 100 most memorable political moments from radio and television. Her commentariat, and others around the Web, are enthusiastically compiling nominations.

I've been thinking about this in off moments today, like when pushing thew baby stroller around town. My list probably would be more narrowly drawn than most people's. For me, a moment would have to be clearly principally political, and somehow it would have to depend on being seen, or heard, via broadcast media.

That is, the John F. Kennedy assassination (including the killing of Oswald and JFK's funeral) was utterly gripping television. But the thing itself was not essentially a political event: It was a tragedy that centered on a politician. And Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech was electrifying. But the broadcasting of it was not essential to that quality. The impact of his words, his mere presence in the flesh, rippled through the crowd of shell-shocked burghers in the plaza in front of the rathaus steps. The cameras and microphones were ancillary.

Events clearly on the list would include such performances as Nixon's "I am not a crook" speech. In fact, probably half the events that came to my mind on a first consideration involved Nixon in some way. Perhaps it's a reflection of my age -- there's a generation of Americans that will take its Nixon obsession to its grave, and I'm on the tail end of it. Perhaps it's just the way the man looked on camera: Visibly uncomfortable, shifty, falsely sincere. It both was and wasn't a reflection of who he really was -- a man is more complex than that -- but it was how he looked.

Many of the rest involved Churchill's World War II broadcasts: Speaking to the people of England, and especially London, in their bomb-gouged neighborhoods and cracked houses. "Give us the tools, and we will finish the job." Speaking plainly and eloquently, in that drunken slur of a voice. It is impossible to listen to him, even now, without almost smelling the stain of burned-out houses on the breeze. The fact of it being a broadcast to the nation, not just a speech to an audience, is deeply entwined in the words.

Others: The Army-McCarthy hearings; Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor; the "Saturday Night Live" Gerald Ford sketches; "A New Beginning" at the Republican nominating convention in 1984; Jesse Jackson's speech to the Democratic convention in 1988. Bernie Shaw asking that eviscerating "what if your wife was raped" question of Dukakis in the 1988 debates, and the Duke's jaw-droppingly inept reply.

There are many gray cases. Neville Chamberlain's notorious "peace for our time" comment -- does it depend on his being seen waving that flimsy piece of paper in the air? I think it does. Hitler's grant party rallies -- do they depend on the film footage, or was the real, present experience of them the essential matter, and something the film could only hope to capture in shadow? I've stood where he stood and looked out over that landscape outside Nuremberg: I don't think the films come close to what it meant to Germans to be there.

The Chicago Democratic convention of 1968: street riot or political act? The famous scare-mongering anti-Goldwater "Daisy" political ad? But it only aired once, despite being the topic of a million subsequent theses by j-school students.

Those are just a few. My list is necessarily full of American examples, since those are the ones I've seen at close range and can best judge in terms of their impact.

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