The pundits made the budget surplus Issue 1. Liberals said Washington should spend it and conservatives said it should be given back to the taxpayers. E.J. Dionne's proposal on NBC's Meet the Press that the surplus could engender a "substantive" political debate about "what we want government to do" was truncheoned by fellow panelist Robert Novak. Surpluses always lead to talk of "tax cuts or higher spending," said Novak, with spending inevitably winning. David Broder (Meet the Press) criticized the "element of fantasy" in the spend-it-or-give-it-back discussion given the unfunded Social Security and Medicare liabilities looming early in the next century. On Fox News Sunday, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., seconded Broder: The surplus allows us to "set the system straight 30 years out" with "no political costs" to Democrats or Republicans who resist the calls for increased spending and tax cuts.
"Isn't it nice," said a radiant Bob Schieffer (CBS's Face the Nation), that the weekend's biggest problem was how to handle the extraordinary good news of a budget surplus? Not nice at all, said the Five Big Thinkers on PBS's NewsHour With Jim Lehrer (Michael Beschloss, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Haynes Johnson, Roger Rosenblatt, and Richard Rodriguez). The Big Thinkers found only the dark lining in our silver cloud. Future generations will judge us, said Beschloss, on how we used "this tranquil moment" to address our problems. Goodwin said that as long as the public's hunger for a national purpose and community goes unfed by Washington, they will turn to tabloid tales--Diana's death, the nanny case, the murder of Gianni Versace--for meaning and civic involvement.
Embracing this theme, Dionne instructed President Clinton to "stop all this public pondering" over his "legacy" and actually harness our current good fortune to some glowing idea. But the liberal commentarians themselves had little to offer in the way of imaginative suggestions, falling back on the usual ideas about expanding the federal role in education, rebuilding the infrastructure, and providing health care to the uninsured. Meanwhile, the Sunday New York Times reported that the states--with an eye on the November elections--are already celebrating the New Golden Age with tax cuts.
A snarl of other news issues vied for the No. 2 slot, but all failed to reach critical mass because 1) the pundits failed to advance the debate (the International Monetary Fund bailout of South Korea), 2) the pundits had nothing weighty to say (Chief Justice William Rehnquist's rebuke of the Senate for failing to fill federal judgeships; Clinton's plan to extend Medicare to 62-year-olds), or 3) because a political talk show is an awkward venue for the discussion (the "Unabomber" prosecution of Ted Kaczynski; the death of Michael Kennedy). With the issue-generating machine of Congress out of session, the commentariat proved that it's as bad at the vision thing as it accuses Clinton of being.
Punditus Interruptus, Week 3: Robert Novak was a gentleman this week on Capital Gang, letting Al Hunt finish all his sentences without interruption. Hunt cut Novak off once, evening the running score at 2-2.
David Brinkley Returns to This Week: As pitchman for Archer Daniels Midland, the government-subsidy swilling, political-talk-show sponsoring agribiz giant.
"Pundit Central" is sufficiently cynical about TV pundits that the transformation of one of them into a corporate shill should set off no alarms. But it does, perhaps because four decades of sanctimonious droning by Brinkley as a network news anchor and then as the founding pundit of This Week created the illusion that he was a principled journalist who couldn't be bought by a price-fixing corporation. As Brinkley's first ADM commercial unspooled on ABC's This Week, he spoke obliquely about having accepted a new position, deliberately fostering the notion that he was returning to ABC as some sort of superpundit. Then he explained that in coming weeks he'd be talking about nutrition and agriculture in the service of ADM. Brinkley's appearance as a pitchman in the middle of his old program was so disconcerting that when This Week resumed, co-host Cokie Roberts attempted to salvage the show's good name by reiterating Brinkley's disclaimer. The move backfired, unintentionally reminding viewers that the big difference between ADM and ABC is that ADM is just a couple of letters farther down the alphabet.
-- Jack Shafer