It has been my lot in life to sit many times in a Hollywood screening
room beside a studio chief as he got his first look at a newly completed
film. He had millions of dollars riding on the film’s success and was
apprehensive. One, with not 10 cents at stake, was not.

“Well,” the tycoon said when the lights came on. “What do you think?”

The film was a comedy, and I was being asked whether it was funny or
not. But the screening room was empty except for the producer, me, and
the projectionist in his booth, so there were no roars of amusement to
guide me. “It’s great!” I said enthusiastically. But was it great?

Movie audiences do not generally realize this, but even people at the
top of the film business take their cue from members of the “house.” If
the house laughs, they think the movie was funny. If it doesn’t, they

“But can’t they tell if a movie is good or not by themselves?” I’m
often asked by outsiders. This would seem to imply that if the
questioner were sitting in a screening room all by himself and had a
million dollars riding on the outcome, he would know whether or
not the film was funny. I have never found it worth my while to argue
the point, but rare is the man whose reactions are really independent of
the mob, whether he is seeing a movie or — the present case —
listening to a political speech.

I am talking, of course, about last week’s Republican Convention in
Philadelphia. If the American people, when they go to vote in November,
react to Republicans the way the crowd did in Philadelphia, the
Democratic Party’s day in the sun is over.

Although there was more than one way to interpret these speeches, I
suppose. The general opinion in the pressroom was that the Republican
speeches at the convention were more articulate and more forceful than
expected, although, again, the pressroom reaction was clearly influenced
by the general mood in the hall. One especially honest reporter in the
room, for example, declared at the evening’s end Wednesday, “Gee, I was
following Cheney’s speech on a television set and I was certain it was a
real dud. But later, when I went down on the floor, all the delegates
were so enthusiastic about it! It was as if they’d been listening to a
different speech!”

Dick Cheney, our secretary of Defense during Rolling Thunder in Iraq,
is slotted to be vice president if George W. Bush is elected president.
His speaking style is unusually moderate and soft-spoken, and all the
more effective for that.

When he said firmly in his speech, “Bill Clinton vowed not long ago
to hold on to power until the last hour of the last day,” it set off a
thrill of expectation in the crowd. “That is his right,” added Cheney
quietly. “But, my friends, that last hour is coming. That last day is
near. The wheel has turned, and … it is time for them to go!”

His concluding line, so calmly delivered, was greeted by a roar from
the crowd, one of the most thunderous of the night. And Bush — at the
head of the Republican ticket –somehow retains an overall image more
attractive than Gore. Fully 58 percent of the public has a favorable
impression of Bush, while only 31 percent view him unfavorably.

And Bush’s better image is linked to the public’s better evaluations
of him on a personal level. Bush out-polls Gore on a whole series of
personal qualities. The public sees Bush as more charismatic, funnier,
and more interesting — with charisma being the big one. He is also seen
as having led a more interesting life, for whatever that is worth.

As for all the talk about the public’s longing for a mere extension
of the Clinton era, the president’s favorability ratings, by contrast,
have dropped significantly since the beginning of the campaign. Well
under half the public now rates Clinton very favorably compared to last
year. This is a drop of from 55 percent to 48 percent. These are among
the lowest ratings Clinton has received since he took office in 1992.

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