Terry Golway

The poor man didn’t recognize the names of shows that entertain the media elites.

Poor George W. Bush. It was bad enough when, during the primary season, a Boston reporter surprised him with a snap quiz about foreign leaders, including some from nations that Rand McNally himself might have had trouble spelling. Bush’s tentative answers inspired snickers in some quarters, although anybody who retains memories of similar ambushes in high school chemistry class probably felt more than a little sympathy for the embattled candidate.

Having learned his lesson and found a way to make references to prime ministers from lands suffering from consonant deprivation, the Texas governor now stands accused of willful ignorance about...television. Yes, television. The poor man didn’t recognize the names of some of the shows that entertain the media elites of the East Coast. In fact, the governor apparently became a bit hostile when, during a free-association pop quiz with a glossy magazine writer, he was asked to comment on "Sex and the City," an HBO series that is a favorite with the ever-so-sophisticated chattering classes of New York.

Bush had never heard of the show, so he understandably didn’t quite understand what his interrogator was saying. Once again, there were guffaws galore from the media-centrics in the East, who made veiled suggestions that Bush the son was no more in touch with the real world (of television?) than President Bush was believed to have been in 1992.

Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, never one to miss a chance to add a dose of pop culture into the policy-heavy Op-Ed page of her newspaper, dreamed up a series of associations Bush might have had if asked about other programs. If nothing else, Dowd’s column displayed an astonishing and indeed impressive knowledge of the networks’ current offerings. Who knew that there were shows named "Le Femme Nikita" or "Buffy?" My journalism mentors obviously had it all wrong. They instructed me to find a field of expertiseworld trade, foreign policy, environmental regulationin order to advance to column-writing for major national publications. They said nothing about monitoring trends produced in Hollywood or following the plot lines of network sitcoms. Then again, they probably never imagined a day when a candidate for president would be interrogated about his or her knowledge of the prime-time lineup.

Months ago, in another context, Bush told Dowd that other than watching sports, he isn’t much of a television viewer. In another era, such an admission might have been taken as a sign of gravitas. After all, it is hard to picture, say, Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt idling away the nighttime hours in front of the tube. But in the era of post-modern, entertainment-driven politics, unfamiliarity with television or movies is consideredby those who make their living with the written word, no lessas a disqualifying disability.

Having been raised to regard television and the movies as entertaining but frivolous distractions (with some exceptions, of course), I sympathize with poor George W. Bush. I’m afraid I wouldn’t pass anybody’s pop-culture quiz, particularly if it were designed by so formidable an enthusiast as Maureen Dowd. And I’ll bet I’m far from alone. While those who create, critique and consume pop culture may find this hard to believe, most people I knowparticularly parents with small children or teenagerssimply don’t spend a lot of time in front of the television. In laughing at George W. Bush because of his television deficiency, our great commentators and writers demonstrate that they, and not the governor, are out of touch. The rest of us are too busy, or have other entertainment options (the word "books" comes to mind), to pay much attention to the latest network or cable creations.

It is worth noting, too, that people like Dowd and others seized upon Bush’s ignorance of a particular show, "Sex and the City," that is available only on a premium cable channel. Talk about out of touch. While a majority of American homes now pay for television service through basic cable, far fewer have (because many can’t afford) premium channels like HBO. (Need I add here that I am among those without premium channels?) Even the most popular premium cable shows draw only about 9 million viewersin a country of a quarter-billion. Who, then, is more out of touch: commentators who obsess over a show like "Sex in the City" (which, I gather, is about shallow New York media types), or a politician who’s never heard of it?

The late Tip O’Neill used to tell a great story about himself. He was in an airport when a handsome young man walked up to him and said hello. O’Neill returned the greeting, as any good politician would, and prepared to get on with his business. The handsome young man was Robert Redford. O’Neill didn’t have a clue, and, in fact, when he told this story, he butchered Redford’s name. He laughed heartily at himself.

Today the press would laugh along, but with contempt, not affection. Commentators who see politics as a branch of pop culture would condemn him for the dreaded sin of being out of touch. The editors of George magazine would roll their eyes and then move on to their next story assignment, something like: "Fifty Great Actors Say How They Would Save Social Security!"

If some journalist really wants to surprise George W. Bush or Al Gore this year, all he or she needs to do is submit serious and dignified questions.

Terry Golway, a writer for The New York Observer, is author of The Irish in America, Irish Rebel and Full of Grace: An Oral Biography of John Cardinal O'Connor.

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