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A fitting wartime rendition

Published Oct. 12, 2005

A Super Bowl postscript: When Whitney Houston sang her splendid version of The Star-Spangled Banner just before kickoff at Tampa Stadium, what you heard wasn't really her, live. It was, as they say, the Memorex.

But Houston and the Florida Orchestra weren't technically lip syncing. She sang, but her microphone was off. The orchestra played, but the musicians weren't even sitting down and made as much sound as mice.

The singing and music you heard were prerecorded. So you got a lump in your throat over what amounts to a magic act. Soon you'll even be able to buy a video of it, so you can be fooled repeatedly, every time you hit the play button.

I have been reminded that this wasn't another Milli Vanilli hoax. I have been told I am taking this too seriously _ either that, or I am less than true red-white-and-blue for questioning what is about to become a Top 10 hit.

To top all that, I have also been barked at over the phone by Whitney Houston's father, John: "Why is this such a big megillah?"

There are several ways to answer this. Granted, there were technical difficulties in the way of a live performance, but at least a few other singers have pulled off the national anthem live at a Super Bowl. And this wasn't Roseanne Barr or some such howling Play That Funky Music, White Boy.

This was the nation's most precious piece of music sung by one of its best performers at a most precarious time. If we were going to make such a deal of the moment, for the troops in Saudi Arabia, we should have heard the real thing. Or at least we should have been told we weren't.

The whole truth, in short, would have been nice.

But given what we're being told about the gulf war, what happened to The Star-Spangled Banner is, frankly, fitting. The more we learn _ especially from television, with the bombs falling and the planes flying right before our eyes _ the less we can be sure of.

We are accustomed by now to the disclaimer that a censor cleared the news story we're hearing or seeing. We haven't the slightest idea what got cut out.

In the name of troop safety, reporters can go only where governments tell them they can go, and they travel with military escorts. There's no telling what the reporters don't see, what their escorts don't show them.

This is not to say you don't get any of the truth. You get the truth pressed through Uncle Sam's sieve, with all the lumps, real and unpleasant, smoothed away. You don't get an unplanned word from anybody _ just as we didn't get a single sour note from Whitney Houston and the orchestra.

The people who put on her show were afraid something might go wrong, mar the event and embarrass them.

The people who are conducting the American side of this war are similarly uptight.

Regrettably, though, wars are not pregame shows. They are messy and unpredictable and subject to differing interpretations.

Some reporters and newspapers _ although not this one, nor most other major ones _ have sued the government to end the coverage restrictions.

One of those suing is Sydney Schanberg, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the communist takeover of Cambodia and who later wrote The Killing Fields.

He and the others almost certainly will be accused of being unpatriotic, willing to get soldiers killed for their own egos and ends. They will be far more unpopular than anybody who gets antsy about Whitney Houston.

But no reporter has ever been responsible for a security breach in war, Schanberg told me last week.

All he wants, he said, is the truth. That is, as best I can see, a pretty fair-sized megillah.

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