[Religion News Service, November 26, 1996]
Has this happened to you? You’re watching some talk’n’politics TV show, a few people sitting around a table with a photo backdrop of the U.S. Capitol, and one of them is a total idiot.
You’re thinking, "I can’t believe what the one next to the potted plant is saying," and "Did you hear that? How’d she/he get on this show?" and "I could do better than that — in fact, my labrador retriever could do better than that!"
Well, that would be me.
The other night I was the guest on a Washington talk show, one bounced up and out by satellite and attracting (unfortunately for me) politically savvy viewers across the nation.
But I am not a politically savvy viewer. Politics is for me a vast, roiling, complicated field where lots of noisy action takes place, but not much happens that is comprehensible, much less interesting. Something like football. In fact, there are three things I actively avoid learning anything about: politics, sports, and cooking.
So about a month ago I got a phone call from the show’s producer, asking me to come on to discuss the abortion common-ground movement, which organizes dialogues between pro-life and pro-choice adherents. I put together a folder of clippings and got dolled up in my best TV- camera red dress.
Waiting just off-stage during the show’s intro segment, though, I felt a momentary confusion. "Recently Congressional leaders met with President Clinton at the White House," one of the hosts said, "and Newt Gingrich and Dick Gephardt had their first face-to-face meeting in more than a year. There’s a new spirit of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill."
Really? I thought.
"Here with us tonight is columnist Frederica Mathewes-Green, to explain what all this means."
Uh-oh, I thought.
And then I was on the set and under the lights. The two hosts peppered me with friendly questions, and for the most part I had no idea what they were talking about. Gradually, I realized that this was not just an obscure way to segue into my topic. This was the topic for the evening; the producer must have jotted "Mathewes-Green: Common Ground" on a schedule before he left town, and someone else interpreted the term to set up this show. And now we were live, coast- to-coast, and about to take viewer calls.
I kept smiling. Except when I was supposed to look concerned. I figured out how state fair fortune tellers do it: The mark gives away more than he knows.
My hosts unwittingly fed me straightlines over and over: "Is this kind of bipartisanship what we really want?" "Isn’t this a lot of smoke and mirrors?" "Won’t we soon be right back to business as usual?" The correct answers were: No, Yes, and Probably (but please don’t ask me how soon).
Sometimes, though, I couldn’t guess.
"Who needs this more — Republicans or Democrats?" won a "Hmm, it’s hard for me to say." (They had no idea how hard.) "Has Newt Gingrich learned his lesson?" was another baffler. What lesson? What did he do? How would I know?
Or try this: "All we’ve got on campaign finance reform is McCain Feingold; is that all we’re going to see?" On the screen I’m nodding sagely, but if there were a thought balloon over my head it would read, "Who’s McCain Feingold?"
Somehow we began talking about President Clinton’s cabinet, under construction. I gathered that someone named Bowles is the new Chief of Staff, and is more conservative than the previous guy, Panetta (which I thought was an Italian dessert). I ventured that maybe the whole cabinet would be more conservative.
My host interjected, "Unless Mitchell gets in."
"Ah, Mitchell," I responded. "Yes, Mitchell is a wild card." (Surely, not Martha?)
At last we came to the break, and I was able to effect a transfer of anxiety by informing my hosts that I was not prepared to do this show. I had no idea what I had been talking about for the last 20 minutes. If I had known this would be the topic I would have prepared a little — for example, read the paper this morning.
There was one frozen moment, then one said, "Well, you’re faking it brilliantly." They assured me that the worst was over; after this it was all viewer calls. True to the genre, the viewers didn’t ask questions but just delivered irritable proclamations. All I had to do was nod or frown.
The next night my husband and I watched the videotape, laughing continuously as I explained minute by minute what panicked thoughts were coursing through my head.
"The only way to make this worse," Gary said, "would have been if they said, ‘And after this break we’re going to talk about sports!’"
And after that they could roll out one of those portable kitchens they use on cooking shows.