Television isn’t always the easiest form for presidential candidates to master: they have to learn to whittle multipart messages down to compact sound bites, and if they fail, they risk not seeing their face on the news that evening. To get an idea of how intense the pressure to generate TV-ready quotes can be, recall what Sam Donaldson famously said to Paul Brountas, Michael Dukakis’ senior advisor, during the 1988 presidential campaign:
Goddamnit, Paul. You’ve got to get your candidate to stop pausing between sentences. He’s taking twenty-two seconds to complete a thought.
These days, even a few seconds of time can be too much for a candidate to ask. Last night, on the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather offered up the standard story about President Bush’s campaign trip in the Midwest. “As he began two days of campaigning in Michigan and Ohio,” said Rather, “the president had a fleet of star spangled buses, mostly friendly crowds, and he defended his Iraq policy as well as his handling of the US economy.”
Cut to a shot of Bush speaking at a rally - with no sound. The sound cues up as soon as Bush finishes his thought; all we hear is audience applause. After a few seconds of that, producers cut back to Rather, who continues on as if he hasn’t just offered us…nothing.
Given that CBS offered the president a mere three seconds of airtime to elaborate on his policies, maybe it’s just as well that they cued the tape up to his silence, not to his voice.
It’s the ultimate reduction of a sound bite: no words at all.