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Networks regain relevance with move to televise Obama's landmark speech

You can't think of it as depriving the audiences of "Live to Dance" and "Minute to Win It" for 90 minutes. It's so much bigger than that.

It is still the biggest statement we ever make in America about a unity of national concern. It is, as student and congressional intern Daniel Hernandez said Wednesday, when America actually lives by e pluribus unum -- out of the many, one.

When all of the major American TV networks pre-empt their planned programming from rubbish to substance to show a major news event, it's the most dramatic single, spontaneous gesture short of declaring war that America, as a nation, is capable of. And that's why it's something that's done so seldom and that's never done lightly.

It was brilliantly done Wednesday night as people who innocently -- and no doubt unthinkingly -- tuned into their regular Wednesday night network drivel and found, instead, Tucson's memorial service for the slain victims of the Saturday massacre and an extraordinarily eloquent and inspirational speech by President Obama that, no doubt, reminded many troubled Americans why they voted for him in the first place.

Nor would they be wrong.

It's called "rising to the occasion." Lincoln called it "binding up the nation's wounds" and appealing to "the better angels of our nature." And it's probably the universal thing we all want presidents to do; maybe it's the most important thing we need presidents to do.

At those moments of across-the-board network pre-emption, the requirement of presidents is that they be great. Anything less is failure.

Some can, some can't. George W. Bush, without the wholesale prime-time pre-emption, seemed to come momentarily close standing atop the rubble of 9/1 1. The shipboard "Mission Accomplished," on the other hand, was an object lesson in hyperbole falling short. Hurricane Katrina was the American wound never adequately treated, much less bound up, the one that required time and pain to heal.

After the Challenger tragedy, then-President Ronald Reagan and his speechwriters found a way to make a dramatic avowal of national purpose out of horrific calamity.

No matter what anyone could say about Ronald Reagan (and that includes many dire things indeed), that was "the Great Communicator's" gift. It was the reason he was elected in the first place. All those mediocre Hollywood years of being in the room while truly great film actors plied their trade made him a great performer in the greatest role he (or any other Hollywood actor) ever had, as two-term president of the United States.

After all those years in radio and Hollywood, he knew when writers put something great in front of him. And he knew what to do with it. And his speech after the Challenger explosion was the greatest declaration of a national purpose of the past couple of decades.

Until Wednesday night, in fact.

Mere hours after Sarah Palin somehow managed to pull the phrase "blood libel" into the national civility debate and prove, as well, that she was so uncomfortable with the word "pundit" that she couldn't really pronounce it (somehow it came out as if it had an "N" in its second syllable -- PUN-DINT), Barack Obama and every major network commandeered American attention to show exactly how ridiculous the epithet

"lamestream media" really is.

In fact, the possibility of true grandeur and nobility in the public sphere -- a possibility usually avoided in media because it just doesn't seem to be very sound business -- was proven to be there again, for the taking, by "mainstream media."

Anyone who could watch that Arizona event on Wednesday prime-time television and claim that it was "lame" is as far removed from reality as that deeply delusional, Glock-wielding shopping center assassin.

It was that moment when the TVs in our living rooms bring us something inspirational that virtually an entire nation is hungering to see.

It was that moment when that ability America has wanted presidents to have was actually displayed by that president whose quite literal singularity in our history still seems to make so many uneasy.

And entirely without years of training on Hollywood soundstages.

In a media world fragmented by informational chaos -- with the din of the blogosphere and the Internet seeming to lame every possibility of common sense -- the very heart of the "mainstream media" began to beat again.

And prove what a strong thing it can be.

And for those 90 minutes made everything else look "lame."

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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