What kind of person, you ask, pays money—as much as 25 bucks—to see the ladies of The View (ABC, weekdays at 11 a.m. ET) live in the pleasant flesh? The demographics best represented at last Wednesday night's panel discussion at New York's Paley Center for Media were younger women with earnest smiles, older women with large-framed eyeglasses, older women with red-framed eyeglasses, and sensitive baldish men with or without ponytails. There was also a nun."Can any of us really remember what life was like before The View?" asked the Paley Center's moderator, Pat Mitchell. Begging memory to speak, I recalled that when the program debuted in August of 1997, I was living at my mother's house and trying to summon the will to apply for a job, a lifestyle fostering close familiarity with both daytime television and the emotional needs of middle-aged women. No, back then, there was nothing like this to brighten the late morning. Keenly did I appreciate the bile of one panelist, Co-Executive Producer Bill Geddie, when contrasting the organic show with its synthetic competition. "It's not the anchorwoman talking to the weather guy," he said. "It's not that kind of crap." Geddie spat that crap with spite, a reflection of The View's sense of purpose. There can be no doubt that a sizable minority of View loyalists indulge in this show as they do in reruns of The Golden Girls, turning to the coffee klatch for a sip of kitsch. But there must be just as many who plead irony while consuming sincerely. And then there are the unabashed millions who take it straight, who get some nourishment from these women's discussions of parenting and politics, of American life and American Idol, of chats zooming from "bras to Baghdad," as Elizabeth Hasselbeck always says. They agree with Geddie, as I do, that "you find out more about [politicians] on The View than you do on Meet the Press." While Tim Russert blusters through his games of gotcha—and while late-night hosts get so dryly and fawningly seriouso in the presence of candidates as to lose their heads—the View salonistes stay frank and skeptical, personable humans in a realm of plastic personalities. Hasselbeck, Sherri Shepherd, and Joy Behar each teetered down the steep auditorium steps in red shoes, which, as your grandmother perhaps told you, are exclusively worn by whores, which is why Behar made a pimp joke. Whoopi Goldberg wore Converse All-Stars, putting me in mind of Christopher Hitchens' dictum that funny women are generally "Jews or dykes or both." (Whoopi's actual sexual orientation does not matter; her presentation is butch, and the point stands.) Wise Barbara Walters had an escort down the stairs. The highlight of the panel was either Whoopi talking about forgetting she was on-air the other day and playfully calling Sherri a bitch or Barbara reminiscing about Joy—who is from Brooklyn and ethnic Italian in a way that closely approximates Jewishness, comically speaking—telling a joke about Salman Rushdie some years back: The difference between men and women is that Rushdie has been in hiding for eight years and married three times (i.e., men are so hormone-driven that despite being sequestered from society they will still find ways to collect trophy wives). It was an exaggeration, but only a slight one, and a vivid quip about gender. (Poor Salman, whose biographers will trace his journey from Midnight's Children and Shame to child support and shame.) Point is, the women of The View are brighter than many people give them credit for, especially Hasselbeck, the rare conservative blond talking head too smart to work for Fox News. The audience Q&A rolled around. An older woman with unexceptional eyeglasses wanted to know why the hostesses didn't spend more time advocating for women's causes in Asia and America, and the responses were voluble, sincere, and honest about ratings consciousness in a palatable way. An obese young man with a high-pitched voice asked who they thought should win American Idol, and Whoopi slouched deeply in exaggerated boredom. Where did Elizabeth get her politics? Where did Joy get her hair done? What other entertainers, I wondered, ever entertained a set of questions like this?