Friday, December 11, 2054

Chapter Seventeen

On Sunday morning, I had to be at the studio at 7:00 a.m. even though we wouldn't go on the air until 10:30. I was discovering that some T.V. shows are more equal than others. Institution or not, Duffield on the D.C. Beat was strictly of the local variety and local T.V. no matter how well respected the show, is a giant leap down from it's big brother at the networks

First clue. They offered to have one of their interns pick me up. With visions of a college sophomore picking me up in his 10 year-old KIA Sedona, I told them I could find the studio on my own. I'm sure KIA means something wonderful in Korean, but in English, I just hear Killed In Action. Hey, Chevy had a disaster in Mexico with the Nova...Spanish for doesn't go; how did KIA get a pass?

I'm a fan of the show and the set always appeared to be simple compared to the network shows, but in person, it turned out to be seedier than I'd imagined. All of the guests went through make-up together (Jackson rated his own dressing room), and we just sort of hung out waiting for air-time. Snacks here consisted of cooling coffee from an urn and donuts still in the Krispy Kreme box.

My co-panelists had done this many times before. They talked shop with each other and ignored me to the best of their abilities. Obviously, they thought I was there as a novelty, (plate spinner? cat juggler?). Eventually, it became impossible to completely avoid talking to me and McKiernan asked me how I thought the Yankees would do in the season that was about to start. I'm an Orioles fan from birth, so, of course, I knew the Yankees would start strong and then fade by the All-Star break. (This is the fantasy that I hold onto every year.) He told me I was dreaming and, after a moment of silence, seemed to forget I was in the room. Mr. R.A. McKiernan may have been making his current living in D.C., but he obviously pictured himself hitting the big time in New York eventually. Hence the loyalty to his team of the future.

The show runs live, so Jackson was speaking to the camera at precisely 10:30. He opens the show each week with an irreverent commentary on something that's happened during the previous week. This week he went to great lengths to bring to light the numerous pork barrel items that had found their way into a bill to levy an additional 1/8 cent tax on a gallon of gas; the funds supposedly earmarked for completing the cleanup of three superfund sites. Buried in the bill were items that would wean off the funds for everything from paying for improvements to the Iowa State Capitol Building (a federal landmark), to funding a new Head Ranger's office at Yosemite, (complete with a 35-seat state of the art screening room available only to park personnel). If the bill passed with all of the attachments intact, the actual levy would come to three cents per gallon and a two-hundred million dollar deficit for the programs that were enumerated.

Duffield opined that the bill would elicit two reactions in congress. Those with attachments for their own states would, of course, keep quiet about the pork and attack anyone who would "vote against such a modest tax to respond to such an immediate problem." Those who hadn't weighted down the bill with their own pet projects would try to bring the attachments to light in order to explain their opposition but they'd get buried in the sound bites. In the end, they'd realize they had a choice to vote against and lose environmentalists, or to support the bill they knew would do more harm than good. But at least they'd remain electable.

The second segment was a one-on-one with Duffield and Representative Jacob Carlson of Kentucky.

Carlson, running a close second in the Republican primaries and a distant second in overall polls, had been showing his face wherever possible the past week. His people had advised him to take advantage of any possible momentum in the campaign. Even his own people were quiet about his chances against Harper in the general election.

Duffield, true to form, went right to the heart of the matter and asked Carlson if his campaign wasn't just a play at positioning himself well for the next election. Carlson, having no choice really, insisted that Harper could be defeated and that he was the only man who could do it.

All in all, about what you'd expect.

When they went to commercial, McKiernan, Cummings and I were led onto the set. We sat in a sort of living room set, each of us in a wing chair with a huge coffee table in the center, (a demilitarized zone?). The coffee table was below knee level, so when I leaned over to pick up my coffee, my tie fell out of my jacket, threatening to dunk into the cup. People with bad toupees would not be comfortable on this set.

Duffield introduced McKiernan and Cumming, both of them semi-regulars on the show, and then got to me. "My third guest at the round table today is Paul Harkness. He began the week as the anonymous owner of a string of auto parts stores, here in the D.C. area. He shot to national fame with a dramatic feat of heroism, and improbably, here he is at the end of the week, one of the most sought after political commentators in the country."

There's no audience for this type of show, so the silence that followed was jarring.

Duffield filled the silence, saying, "Elaine, why don't you open the segment. What would you like to talk about today?"

Elaine strode right in, "Mr. Harkness, you've gotten quite a bit of mileage out of some fairly outrageous statements you've made this week. Now, we're none of us here exactly shrinking violets, but what reason do we have to give weight to your opinions. What qualifications do you bring to the table?"

"No reason to listen to me, at all," I said, "my only qualification is that I'm a citizen who makes an effort to keep myself informed."

Cummings obviously resented my presence and intended to cut me down immediately. "Mr. Harkness, I majored in U.S. History in college and then completed my graduate studies in Systems of Government. I've spent the last sixteen years deeply involved in studying and writing about our government. My colleagues have similar backgrounds. I mean no offense, but I must question both your qualifications and motives in joining us at the round table."

I could see Duffield getting ready to re-direct the conversation, but I didn't give him a chance. "Ms. Cummings", I began, "I have a degree in Political Science, which, I'll admit, is probably the worst qualification I could offer. However, I'm an American citizen who reads a couple of newspapers every day. I watch CNN and some other news shows when I get the chance. I even read your columns from time to time, although I've never quite figured out what you favor and oppose. You really should read your archives periodically to avoid contradicting yourself. So, if you think I'm not qualified to express an opinion on important issues, the only reason would be that you and your colleagues do a piss poor job of reporting them. As to my motive, Jackson invited me. I thought it might be fun."

McKiernan interrupted, trying to get the conversation back on track. "Mr. Harkness," he said, "Let's stipulate your qualifications. Bearing that in mind, if you're trying to treat the topic seriously, why are you painting politicians as being...well, stupid."

I laughed. "You realize that sound you just heard was Washington at large gasping at the thought of the two of you proclaiming your faith in political competence. And, the fact is, I don't think politicians are stupid. I think they behave stupidly..and there is a distinction. For that matter, the electorate behaves just as stupidly".

Cummings interrupted. "You're really scoring points with the audience now."

I glared at her. "I'm sorry, Elaine, no-one prepped me on the scoring system here. I thought I was here to express honest opinions and maybe tell people something they hadn't heard before. At least that's what I thought Jackson told me."

"O.K. far be it from me to suggest you might not want to insult the audience; just what, precisely, is the Truth according to Harkness?", she asked. If looks could kill.

"The truth is that the only way a politician can get elected is to lie to the people. We refuse to elect anyone who tells the truth. Take the 1984 Presidential debates. Mondale says, 'Let's tell the truth. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did'. He got his ass handed to him. Then, in '88, George Bush rode into the White House on the coattails of 'Read my lips.' Politicians know that they'll only get elected if they say what they know people want to hear. Now, if that isn't stupid, I don't know what is."

Elaine fired back, "And you're trying to lay the result on those two elections on those two statement?"

"Oh, c'mon Elaine," I said, "Now you're just being obtuse." Duffield and McKiernan both snorted. "Of course no presidential election is decided on one event or statement. There are hundreds of things that affect the outcome of an election, some weightier than others. But those two statements had weight."

Duffield decided to steer the conversation elsewhere. "Mr. Harkness, now that you've had some time to think about it, what's your reaction to the President's allegations about you?"

"First off, President Harper didn't make any allegations. His comment was nothing but innuendo; and I don't know how to respond to vague innuendo. I will say this. The reason I was at the White House and ultimately the reason I'm here, is because of a well-publicized incident that happened last Monday. I didn't seek any publicity, but understandably, I've been buried in it. Now, I don't know what part of my background came to the President's attention, but I submit to you that, whatever it is, it couldn't have been more irrelevant last Monday morning. I don't imagine the various members of the media will be able to resist digging; in fact I'm waiting to see the first smears published. But if you expect me to contribute anything to the effort, you'd be mistaken."

Duffield persisted. "Wouldn't it be easier if you just came clean and told us what he was alluding to."

I laughed, "There's so many things he might have been talking about, I wouldn't hazard a guess as to which he might have come up with. Look, I sell car parts. Do you really care if the guy who sells you a cam-shaft smoked pot when he was in college? Or maybe even more recently?"

Cummings saw her opening. "But you're a public figure now. People have a right to know."

"Do they?" I asked. "I don't recall asking anyone to vote for me for anything. I haven't asked to represent you or anyone else. I'll tell you what. If I ever decide to run for public office, I'll "out" myself on every sordid little detail of my private life. I'm not ashamed of how I've lived my life, but if I'm running for something, I guess then you would have a right to know. But until that happens, it's really none of your business. And now, I think I'm completely out of things to say. Thanks Jackson; it's been a hoot".

With that, I removed my lapel mic, got up and went home. I never did find out what they talked about on the last few minutes of the show.


Jeri said...

Chapter 16 is a good setup chapter - but this one is excellent. The dialogue and tension levels are excellent!

Nathan said...

Thanks Jeri,

Its actually the next 2 or 3 chapters that have me concerned. They're kind of critical to the rest of the book working. If you don't buy them the whole thing kind of falls apart.