A Week of Change

It has been a week of movement, of comings and goings that have reminded me of the wisdom of a friend, a businessman. He told me, a decade or so ago, that it is important to remember, especially when you have a problem or a particular challenge, that life is not a painting. Life is not static; it moves. In a painting of a room, say, everything is set in one position forever. But in life the curtains move with the breeze, people enter the room, and leave it. So whatever problem you’re facing, realize that life one way or another will change it to one degree or another, and at whatever speed.

This is the kind of advice that goes under the heading, “Man needs more to be reminded than instructed.” It reminded me then, and I’m thinking of it this week.

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Tom DeLay leaves, and does it in a distinctive and helpful way. He faced the facts—a damaging political controversy would continue as long as he stayed on the scene; he could lose a seat for the party he actually cares about in a bruising battle for re-election—and left. To lose your career and maintain your equanimity—to retain, even, your joy—is most remarkable. By leaving he denies the opposition a rich target. At the same time he leaves the more consequential parts of his legacy—the groundbreaking Republican victory of ’94, welfare reform, etc.—intact. Good for him. A year ago no one would have predicted the curtain would move in this way.

Katie Couric leaves the Today show, where she has presided 15 years, to go to the “CBS Evening News.” This is leaving something important (the demographic and huge profitability of “Today”) for something less important, the fading network evening news shows that used to be appointment television and now seem more like relics. Still, relics that get substantial, if aging, numbers. Ms. Couric’s move may suggest a renewed interest on the part of the old Tiffany Network to reimagine and reinvigorate the nightly news. I suspect, however, that the move is strategic. CBS chief Les Moonves just spent a lot of money to take the queen of morning news off a competitor’s No. 1 morning news show. He rocks “Today” and puts everything in play.

When there’s a big move on a big news show, there’s the possibility things will shake out to your advantage. Viewers look around the dial, or rather hit new numbers on the clicker. (Odd that we call it the clicker when it doesn’t click. It’s like the way newspaper poets write of television: they always speak of the “flickering images.” But TV sets haven’t had flickering images in 30 years. They don’t flicker; they seamlessly, relentlessly whomp out their pictures, their tape.) Maybe they’ll give the “CBS Morning News” a chance. Maybe NBC will take a major blow. Either way, it unfreezes the field.

Where there is movement there is possibility. Mr. Moonves is hoping the curtains will move and people enter the room.

The rise of Katie Couric to the “Evening News,” however, raises an interesting question, and may be suggestive of the media environment of the future. I am not referring to the fact that Katie’s a woman and will be the first to “fly solo,” as everyone is saying. It’s not 1967, and she’s not replacing Walter Cronkite, who counted. We’re all happily used to women bringing us the news.

It’s this. The evening news shows have traditionally had an air of greater formality than the morning news, where the parameters for comment and personal views were understood to be broader. They have two hours to fill, not 23 minutes, of course personal views emerge. Ms. Couric’s on-air comments the past decade have led many people to understand that her political and cultural beliefs are pronounced, rigid, and part of her public presentation of herself. And that this is true in a way that does not apply to the beliefs, whatever they are, of Bob Schieffer, Brian Williams and Elizabeth Vargas. (Yes, Dan Rather also consistently signaled and declared his views, but in the end that contributed to his ouster.)

Is the appointment of Katie an acknowledgement by CBS that it doesn’t feel it has to care anymore about political preferences, that the existence of Fox News Channel has in effect freed up the network broadcasts to be what you and I might call more politically tendentious and they might call edgy? In a fractured media environment where everyone can have a voice, why wouldn’t the broadcast networks take the new freedom as new license? After all, if America is one big niche market, liberals make up a big niche.

I’m wondering how the network news divisions are viewing the lay of the land. The answer will tell us something about the future American media environment.

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There’s another thing that I think may well become a part of the story as the electronic media make their way through the next few years. It is a sense I think I am correctly picking up that network news staffers are about to launch a round of quiet and internal questioning of the media’s coverage of the war in Iraq. Conservatives who are reading this will think I’m about to say, “Network staffers are wondering if they’ve been too negative, too tough on the war.” I don’t think that’s what they’re wondering. I think they’re about to start asking themselves if they were skeptical enough, tough enough; if they dodged controversy, if they feared too much being called left-wing and antiwar. If I’m right, how this debate goes internally will also have implications for the future media landscape.

Gen. Tony Zinni came out this week with a book questioning whether America should have gone into Iraq. On “Meet the Press” he called for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation. I have not yet read Gen. Zinni’s book, because I am immersed in “Cobra II” by Michael R. Gordon, chief military correspondent of the New York Times, and Bernard E. Trainor, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general. The book is a recounting of military professionalism, courage and determination in the invasion of Iraq, and a stinging indictment of failures of vision, judgment and knowledge by civilian leaders inside and outside the Pentagon. It hurts to read. If the book is a reliable reflection of reality (one senses, in reading it, that it is at very least a true reflection of part of what happened) it is sobering indeed.

The Iraq story is not over. We are there. We must give our troops everything they need, and remain cleaved to them in gratitude and loyalty. More will be written, more books and commentaries, and memoirs, too. For now, from me, two thoughts that have bubbled up from the national conversation this week.

The first is optimistic. Our troops in Iraq are the best of us: brave young men and women willing to put themselves in harm’s way for their country. But they are by and large something else: very good, and kind, and generous human beings. Every day for three years they have, as part of their mission and in their off hours, been interacting with Iraqi kids and young people. Those kids, those young people, having been exposed to who Americans are—their kindness, their helpfulness, their humor and good nature—will never forget it.

Will this have implications for the future? Yes, I do believe it will. After World War II, half of Europe had been defeated by America, bombed by it. And yet America had the broad support and affection of Western Europe in the crucial quarter century after that war, in part because of efforts such as the Marshall Plan, but also because of exposure, both prewar and postwar, to American GIs. Europeans came to know who Americans were. American leaders and diplomats did plenty to help America’s standing, but in the end the glory went, I think, to the GI Joes, and some Janes too, who won and occupied with American grace.

We will find, down the road, that many in Iraq will hold affection and respect for America because of the Americans they met and came to know in our armed forces in the first years of the 21st century. And this will have implications, and they will not be unhappy.

The second thought is less happy. Tony Zinni was against the Iraq war before it occurred, opposes it now, has written about it. Fine. But the history recounted in “Cobra II,” and the testimony of Gen. Zinni, suggests a lot of generals—a lot—were against the war in the run-up, for reasons that were many and serious. If this is correct it begs questions: Did they feel they could not speak? Why? What dynamics went into the decision? Or did they speak and we didn’t hear, or didn’t weigh what was said seriously enough? Did they speak inside? To what degree did the inside listen? Or were the generals and colonels, in fact, split? Were the generals more supportive than is now being suggested?

What really happened? I suspect books will be written on this too. I suspect we are all going to learn a lot, and some of it may be quite painful.

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Caspar Weinberger was buried at Arlington this week. He was a great man, a prudent warrior who two decades ago helped rearm America after years of confusion, loss and neglect. He hated war, having fought in World War II. It was enormously moving that Margaret Thatcher, that great lady, 80 and felled twice by strokes, journeyed from London to attend the funeral of this man who made such a difference in our national life and the world’s life.

Whenever I saw Cap Weinberger he seemed like a happy man. You can be happy when you know you are doing work you are supposed to be doing, work that helps the world, and human beings, and your country. The words that came to mind when I thought of Cap this week were: a life well led. What a great thing when you can know you’ve had that.