Back when I was a TV local newspup, I met Muhammad Ali to do an interview. This was during his boxing days. While my video person set up, I discovered, to my utter surprise, during our chat that he was friendly but soft-spoken and cordial, the exact opposite of his loud, brash shtick.
Then it was time for the camera to roll. Ali immediately accelerated into his high-volume, “I am the greatest!” manic patter. When we finished, it was back to normal conversation till we parted. Thousands, if not millions, of people experienced his gracious side, not including Howard Cosell.
Now, several decades later, we can witness that same dynamic from the opposite edge of humanity. Ali was a demigod; Donald Trump and so many politicians are demagogues. But they have one trait in common: They are slapstick entertainers. When the camera turns on, they turn on.
That’s why, when it was time for a bipartisan meeting at the White House recently to discuss one possible political agreement — coming up with legislation addressing the desperate need to repair and replace the nation’s crumbling physical infrastructure — the Democrats had one request: cameras should be kept out of the room.
By all accounts it worked. Instead of an outlandish performance, the Democrats later described a president who was businesslike and ready to negotiate.
There is one worry, however, and it’s a big one: That’s not how a democracy is supposed to operate. As much as possible, we should witness the workings of our government. If our top leaders cannot be counted on to not be buffoonish when the public is watching, then maybe they shouldn’t be our top leaders.
Obviously, there are many practical reasons to hold some wheeling and dealing sessions under wraps and there are many national security reasons to do so. But the secrecy has strayed way out of bounds, and arguably we’re in shambles because of it. It’s a wide-ranging dilemma.
Cameras in the courtroom should be universal, not subject to the grudging acquiescence of judges. The Supreme Court should lead the way by permitting live audio and video of all arguments. The reasons it’s not allowed are dreadful. The justices themselves believe that the public would not understand the complexities of legal debates, that news media would go for the “sound bites” and that the lawyers arguing before the high court, or perhaps even the justices themselves, might be tempted to play to the audience watching at home. Given that the justices have lifetime tenures, the more they are monitored the better.
What we have in this country is a circumstance where public policymaking has become more and more closed off at the very same time our individual privacy, thanks to technology, is increasingly compromised. It is both a temptation to create a police state, with the ever-increasing ability to monitor our locations at every second, and leaves us even more vulnerable to deceptions by to opportunistic entrepreneurs or corrupt political operators.
They possess far too much information about which of our buttons to push. Heroism, like Muhammad Ali risking all to oppose a corrupt war, is tougher to sustain nowadays thanks to shady demagoguery. They grow increasingly skillful at manipulating technology’s outrage megaphones, while conducting what should be public business and making a further mess of things in secret.
(Bob Franken is an Emmy Award-winning reporter who covered Washington for more than 20 years with CNN.)
© 2019 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.