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The Blast Detail

It took a war with Iraq to do it, but I've forgotten all about the sins of Senators Dennis DeConcini and John McCain.

These days, I spend every spare moment staring into my television set, watching the war on CNN.

"The War in the Gulf," as television calls it, has become an overpowering obsession for me. I can barely remember what it was about DeConcini and McCain that we were all so worked up about.

I followed the doings of Charles Keating Jr. and his five senators for what now seems to be a lifetime. Now, just as the matter is reaching its climax, I'm tired of it all. Placed alongside a war, the Keating Five seems trivial.

All that remains in my mind is a faint recollection of DeConcini making his final speech before the Senate Ethics Committee. Dennis' wife Susan was there in the front row. This time his grandchild stayed home. Dennis wore a dark blue suit and he had a look of righteous indignation on his face.

He was like a Henry Fonda character in a film: your typical angry and innocent man hounded by false accusers.

"I resent the fact that I have to stand here and tell you these things," Dennis said, "but I don't accept honorariums because it doesn't look good. I know where the line is. I know what you can do and can't do . . . what I did was expected of me."

It was a fascinating argument.

Certainly, what Dennis did was expected of him by Charlie Keating. But who can possibly care about Keating these days?

DeConcini and Keating have been forcibly erased from our minds by The War in the Gulf.

Only John McCain remains in full view, and that's because he has transformed himself into a revolving photo opportunity.

McCain, the former prisoner of war in Vietnam, has made so many guest appearances on television or radio in the past week that he rivals Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw for length of time on the air.

Reporters no longer ask McCain why he took $112,000 of Keating's money and never returned it. They don't bother asking McCain why he accepted all those free plane trips to Keating's vacation spa.

Thanks to the war, McCain now expounds on the thrill of flying in a jet-fighter plane or explaining how long he thinks it will take to achieve air superiority over Iraq.

It's been said that the ultimate television game show will be one in which the winner does not win a cash prize but is instead killed at the end.

And so what finer example of our fascination with death do you need than the story of three CNN reporters stuck in a fourteenth-floor room in a Baghdad hotel and looking out the window while the city is bombed in the hours before dawn?

Will one of the bombs hit the hotel?

Will the telephone line just go dead and the screen blank? Will we hear them scream when a bomb hits their hotel?

Who can forget the night the missiles fell on Israel and the CNN reporters ran back and forth in panic while wearing their gas masks?

"I was in bed when I heard the sirens," CNN's man in Jerusalem said, "so I threw on my clothes and raced to the office."

He was promptly told by the news anchor back in the United States to close the windows so gas would not seep into the CNN office.

NBC is every bit as solicitous of the safety of its employees.

"Put that mask on right now," Tom Brokaw commanded his reporter at NBC's Israel bureau.

The reporter obeyed with haste.

For the next half-hour, the reporter sat in front of the camera, attempting to talk to millions of people across this country with his face covered and his voice muffled.

The suggestive power of television is so strong that no viewer thinks to ask how a person in a mask and sitting in a sealed office was in a position to be telling anyone what was happening on the streets of the city.

So why do we keep watching? The truth is we all are hooked by the drama and the chance to see someone die before our eyes. It is the same thing that brings out thousands to watch the Indianapolis 500. We just can't let it go. In addition, there is nothing like the smell of victory in a very short war to turn the most ardent peacenik into a war lover.

In the first quick and buoyant days of war, everyone is willing to cheer the bombing.

I remember what General Curtis Le May said in the early days of another war.

"Tell the Vietnamese they've got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we're going to bomb them back into the Stone Age."

That was at the start of the Vietnam War, and then Le May's words were quoted with amusement. It wasn't until much later that people realized that he and his pals in the Pentagon were serious.

Unfortunately, we seem to be back in the early days of Vietnam.

Our air force is in the process of bombing the enemy back into the Stone Age, and no one will listen to Ron Kovic harangue against the war from his wheelchair.

Why not? Each morning we get another dose of good news from a general briefing the press. Each day we are told of another thousand bombing sorties against Saddam Hussein and his people.

Our planes take out key targets on a nightly basis. It is the best possible kind of war. After the first night, there was only one casualty. On the second night, there were only three.

But what will happen when the infantry war starts?

The job of filling the thousands of body bags and coffins will commence then.

Will the same experts who prattle on so lovingly about missiles be just as eager to describe the logistics that went into ordering those body bags and wooden coffins that even now are stored in the rear area for the thousands destined to die?

And all this for Kuwait and the Saba family?

Marshall McLuhan said Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America, not on the battlefields of Vietnam.

The people running this operation, however, have taken precautions that will prevent television from ever filming the horrors to come.

Every reporter covering the war must have a military representative with him at all times. He can only go where the military personnel take him. Neither the reporters on the scene nor we in our living rooms will ever be allowed to see the wounded and terrified victims over our home screens.

This war of George Bush's will be micromanaged in the same way his presidential campaign was. It will be one long, continuing visit to an American flag-making factory. What would you expect from a president who is a former oil man and a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency?

This is a story George Orwell would love to tell.

Why wouldn't such a president risk Armageddon for oil and at the same time preach to us that we're fighting a war for democracy?

It was Hermann Goring who said that it is a simple matter to drag the people along to war.

"All you have to do," Hitler's field marshal said, "is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism."

So each day our television sets show us politicians who insist that we must now be loyal and back our president. This is for a war, mind you, that 47 of 100 senators opposed.

Each long day and night, I sit there watching this latest living-room war and wondering where the television people found all these retired military experts.

The eyes of the admirals and generals and retired colonels light up as they describe the glories of missiles, the exhilaration of jet planes and the horror of poison gas.

I am reminded of the Siegfried Sassoon poem:

"If I were fierce and bald and short of breath, I'd live with scarlet majors at the base, And speed glum heroes up the line to death."

We don't have time to think about the deaths to come.

Television has turned this thing into the hottest show of the season. Forget about Twin Peaks, L.A. Law, and the Super Bowl.

Tune in each day and watch for what happens next. Better still, keep the television set turned on all day and night.

There are important questions to be answered:

Will Saddam Hussein be killed when his bunker is crushed by a two-ton bomb?

Will the Iraqi censors allow Peter Arnett to broadcast from his room in the Al Rashid Hotel?

What does Larry King really think about the war? In the first quick and buoyant days of war, everyone is willing to cheer the bombing. This war of George Bush's will be micromanaged in the same way his presidential campaign was. It is the best possible kind of war. After the first night, there was only one casualty.


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