Harry Shearer

Harry Shearer

A weeklong electronic journal.
Aug. 28 1996 7:28 PM

Harry Shearer

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Episode Three
Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1996
       Back when I was having my house remodeled, I specified to the architect that the new upstairs bathtub in the plans should undergo a 180, so that the faucets would be at my feet, thus facilitating TV-watching en tub. This, years later, is the morning I was planning for. Reclining and soaking, I'm still able to enjoy today's first diurnal emission from Chicago, via satellite: taped interviews with Democratic delegation state chairmen, beamed up in the hope that some station back home will be desperate enough to air the appropriate vignette.
       In the manner of proper VNRs (video news releases, a dismayingly common practice among the Fortune 500), an unseen voice lobs a softball question at the interviewee, then thrusts a microphone suspiciously bereft of network logo or channel number into the frame. Did I say softball question? Try counting the stitches on this one as it floats over the plate: to the Vermont state chairman, "There's been a lot of talk about manufactured unity at the Republican Convention, but the unity here seems to be real. Wouldn't you agree?" Over the fence, out of the park, into the next county.
       The Kansas state chairman has obviously done some prep work for his two minutes of near-fame. A regular motif he has: Bob Dole had left Kansas for Oz. Prompted by just the right off-screen question, he gets partway through it. Dole was like the lion that had no heart (examples were supplied, but you can write this stuff), then the tin man who had no brain (he cited, I believe, the tax-cut proposal). Then, suddenly, the metaphor ran plumb out of gas in the middle of the interstate. "And, on a lot of other issues Dole has done, his duplicity has been constant." The end. You begin to appreciate the guys at the national level for, at the very least, their ability to fully milk a figure of speech.
       Out of the tub just in time for Haley Barbour's daily pretort to the Democrats, another exercise in relieving local stations of part of the burden of filling that news time. Barbour, the Republican national chairman who, after anchoring the GOP TV broadcasts of his convention, may have an exaggerated opinion of his tube appeal, answers a question about the Democrats' love-in by quoting R.W. Apple's column in today's N.Y. Times. Apple has reported that a pal of his who's helping to stage-manage the convention has said he hopes nothing more substantial than a haiku comes out of these four days, "just 17 syllables, surrounded by acres of beautiful white space." Barbour, reading, pauses for effect, then announces that the following sentence in the article is the haiku in question: "Substance is not what we want to be dealing in here." "There's your 17 syllables right there; that's the story of this convention." Reporters in the room must be too busy writing this stuff down to use their fingers for important activities, like counting. The sentence Barbour quotes has only 13 syllables. That ain't your haiku.
       The opposition is commandeering TV time from across the continent, as well. Bob Dole, on a "working vacation" in Santa Barbara, is holding an economic summit for local businessmen and women. Economic summit: Who's stealing whose ideas now? The assembled guests surprise only the very young with their unanimous endorsement of Dole's economic proposals, but the video from this event tells me that Mike Deaver, image master of the Republican Convention, has packed his bags and gone home. While Bill Clinton is televised, later in the day from a train-trip stop in Michigan, standing in front of rows of policemen, the shot of Dole we get from Santa Barbara features some open crates of lemons just behind his head. Imagine the high jinks when the staff gets back to the Biltmore Hotel suite and turns on the news. "We had two dozen different local products piled up in that stupid warehouse, and you had to sit the Candidate in front of the frigging lemons?"
       The candidates and surrogates aren't the only ones using the daytime hours to improve our opinions of them. Peter Jennings is servicing the affiliates, sitting in the United Center in shirtsleeves and being interviewed for "exclusives" on local ABC stations' newscasts this evening. It's almost like watching news being made. In one interview, he makes what he calls a "risky prediction": four years from now, the networks will be covering conventions, he says, and now this is getting scary, "Maybe not with all the equipment and hoopla we've been doing it with, but we will be here." He's taking a mighty big chance there, of course. We'll harken back to this conversation quite often in the year 2000, and, if he's wrong, Pete's nuts are in the wringer.
       Midday, and it's getting impossible not to affect what I'm trying to observe. No, nobody's asking me for autographs in my TV room--and that's a misnomer, because all the rooms in my house are the TV room--but a confidence has been betrayed, to the detriment of you, esteemed readers. Al Franken and Arianna Huffington are sitting in a two-shot high above the convention floor, filling the time before a live interview by trying to write a sketch with the two of them, and Congressman Barney Frank, in bed. (Don't make me explain more than this.) Al, particularly, is feeling ill-used, because they should have been on and off already by now, and down in the trailer where the real good writing can happen. In the commercial break before they finally hit air, the two of them and the crew start to discuss, with some heat, whether or not the talent should look at the camera during the interview. It's getting good, Al begins to mutter under his breath about how long they've been there and now, during the commercial break, these guys finally start to think about the shot, when Arianna interrupts him: "You know, Harry Shearer is recording this. This is the stuff he gets. Be nice. He'd love to have you throwing a temper tantrum." Al stares straight ahead, at the camera, a smile of lividity fixed to his face. Hey, Arianna, no fair. I don't tell people about your strange animal-sacrifice rituals, do I?
       The early afternoon session begins, and while I wait for Clinton's train feed to light up again, here at the podium is a speaker, a former Republican, angry at the Republicans for ignoring the needs of the disabled. His name, the C-SPAN super says, is Justin Dart. This would be actual news, if it's the same Justin Dart I'm thinking of, a former member of Ronald Reagan's kitchen cabinet, the drugstore magnate who joined with the wealthy car dealer to propel the Gipper into politics. That Justin Dart? I now run headlong into the first tangible disadvantage of not being in Chicago. I spend 45 minutes on the Net trying to locate a copy of today's convention speaking schedule, thinking that it would carry at least a line of biography about this Mr. Dart. You don't need to hear about the peculiar suggestions some prominent search engines made when prompted with the words "today's Democratic National Convention schedule"--"Aztlan gathering" scored 100 on one of them--but I can tell you no more about the possibly miraculous conversion of the alleged drug-store magnate than I already have. Blame Netscape.
       Yes, there are, as alleged, lulls in this convention, moments when absolutely nothing is going on in the hall, as compared with the relative nothing that transpires at other times. Still, there are little masterpieces of coordination. A parade of black and Hispanic elected officials pauses briefly at the podium, and one announces that "Bill Clinton is the real education president." At that exact instant, at a train depot rally in Pontiac, Mich., a local elected official calls Bill Clinton "the real education president." This is more than a themed day; this is a moment when it seems possible that everywhere in the world right now, regardless of race, creed, or national origin, someone is calling someone else "the real education president."
       If you care, you saw Jesse. Even Andrew Ferguson, the wry right-winger with whom I'm paired increasingly often on those news-channel talk shows that revolve around the topic "Political Humor: Explain," even Andrew says the sight of a tamed-if-not-caged Jesse speaking what's left of his mind after the rest of this drivel was enough to make Andrew want to hug Jackson. To me, the sight of Mario and Jesse toeing the line puts the Clinton-Dole rivalry into a new context: This is Siegfried vs. Roy, a fight to see who can best deal with his party's exotic wild animals, either by making them do tricks (Cuomo and Jackson in Chicago) or disappear (Buchanan in San Diego). Cuomo does experience an unhappy rhetorical lapse. Striving to reach a climax by reminding delegates of the fearsome effect a Dole election would have on the Supreme Court, Mario takes the pause before intoning, "And don't you remember that." Here's the nutty part: I found the whole thing strangely memorable.
       Among the new wrinkles this convention has contributed to the tradition: two renditions of the national anthem, one at the session's beginning in midafternoon, another at 10 EDT, when the broadcast networks begin their reluctant and truncated coverage. I'm virtually in the booth with Peter Jennings as he frets over having to start talking just as Aretha Franklin starts singing. "If she begins, I'm just gonna shut up." She does, and he does. On CBS, they've anticipated this logjam, and Ed Bradley has pretaped his scene-setter. But on NET, the cable network of Republican direct-mail wizard Paul Weyrich, the anthem doesn't seem to have the desired effect of inducing patriotism through silence. Weyrich and his guests keep chatting, on air, straight through the dawn's early light. It's important stuff they're talking about, too: how hard it is to get through security and then find an elevator up to the NET booth. With such disdain for the rituals of flag worship, maybe Weyrich is the true modern yippie. Tell him I said so.
       Hillary Clinton acts like someone who rushed through a rehearsal out of nervousness, then was told by a speech consultant: "Slow down, take your time." Clearly, she's taken the words too much to heart, because no one since your kindergarten teacher has spoken this slowly, with this much studied affect. It takes a village idiot not to get impatient with this performance.
       And then I get to play humorist on TV, another appearance on MSNBC, sister company of this magazine--blame Microsoft. This time, the producers promise, unlike my last two visits to the network, I will get to be indoors. It doesn't matter, it's nighttime. But, like the speakers at these conventions, their hearts are in the right place. There's your haiku right there.