Monday, December 30, 2013

"Anatomy Of A Moment"

This may be about me.  Or it may be about another guy.  Or it may be about an event.  Or it may be, and probably is, about all three.  I just happen to be the one writing about it.  I’ll bet the other people involved don’t even remember it.

The recollection (and retelling of this story) makes me feel good about myself, though you can be the judge of whether I am correct or mistaken in that regard.  Will I abide by your judgment?  Not necessarily.  Although it is more likely if you agree with me. 

Okay, so here we go.

Back in 1998, I was working on a half-hour comedy called Lateline, a parody of Nightline created by (now Senator) Al Franken and John Markus.  (Background:  Al had originally asked me to co-create the series with him, but I respectfully passed.  He then turned to John, whom I had originally hired as a writer on The Cosby Show.  Unlike myself, who lasted ten weeks, John remained on The Cosby Show for six seasons.  One reason their working situation was likely to be better was that Al and John both lived in New York City, while I lived in Los Angeles.  End of “Background.”)

One of the many joys of working on Lateline (aside from being put up in a luxury hotel during my six-month-long, ten-days-per-month visits to consult on the production) was getting to meet – and write dialogue for – some of the biggest names (at the time) in American politics, among them, one-time House Majority Leader (and Democratic primary candidate for president) Richard Gephardt, (Senator and 2004 candidate for president) John Kerry, (chairman of the House Financial Services Committee) Barney Frank and former Clinton Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich.  (None of whose appearances raised the show’s dismally low ratings a single point.)

Throughout his career, Saturday Night Live alumnus Al Franken had specialized in political satire, ultimately writing a number of best-selling books in that genre, including “Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot” and “Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them.”  But there was an unusual quality about Al.  Though an undisguised liberal, Al Franken got a big kick out of hanging out with conservatives.

Al would often regale us with stories of attending the seriously right-wing Christian Coalition conventions.  He also immensely enjoyed hobnobbing with convicted Watergate co-conspirator G. Gordon Liddy (whom Al affectionately called “G.”) 

Al’s approach with his political opposites was endearingly non-confrontational.  As a result, he was always welcome at their official gatherings.

Because of Al’s style, it was not at all surprising when one day, we received an unexpected visit from a high-profile conservative pollster – “conservative” or “liberal” pollster always seems like a contradiction to me.  Pollsters, by definition, ask questions and tabulate the answers.  To me, being a partisan pollster is like being New York Yankees umpire. 

(By the way, cultivating “high profile” connections was also an integral part of Al Franken’s M.O.  Believing that no one was” too big” to call upon, Al seriously considered the possibility of getting {Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright} Neil Simon to write an episode of Lateline, and asking Jerry Seinfeld to do the warm-up.  In both cases, he ended up with me.)   

Our Republican pollster-guest was Frank Luntz, then a rising star on the political firmament, who today plies his trade at the highest echelons of his party’s strategists.  This could be wrong, but I have frequently heard it reported that it was Frank Luntz who, at the time of President Obama’s first inauguration, spearheaded a group who determined that it was in the Republican Party’s best interests to oppose every policy on the president’s agenda. 

An expert on words and their consequences, Luntz also promoted replacing the term “Inheritance Taxes” (which Republicans are against) with the term “Death Taxes”, which sounds worse, and more unfair, since, there is no way of getting around them. 

Okay, so Frank Luntz walks into this conference room where Al and John and I are working on a script, and Al greets him enthusiastically.  Luntz is then introduced to John and myself, and we do our “nice to meet ya’s” and shake hands.  We are told that Luntz is a Republican operative.

John, habitually midwesternly collegial, immediately breaks the ice.  “So what are you working on, Frank?”, he inquires.  To which Frank Luntz says this:

“I’m working on ways of exploiting the damage to the president (Clinton) of the “Monica Lewinsky Scandal.”

At which point, I spontaneously blurt out,

“How did you ever get to be so scummy?”

As I have reported elsewhere, my question was met with dead silence, followed by some more dead silence, followed by a resumption of the conversation by the other three, as if my words had been imagined and believed spoken, but in fact, they had never been uttered at all.


I realize that it is impolite for a person to insult a stranger only seconds after meeting them.  My mother, a stickler for good manners, would certainly never have approved.  To this day, I cannot muster any great momentum for defending myself.  My blurtation was neither nice nor appropriate. 

The man is simply doing his job.

The thing is, it is a horrible, terrible, contemptible, detestable, disgusting, abominable and monumentally disreputable kind of a job.

In my opinion.

A president makes a mistake, and your assignment – to gain partisan advantage – is to make him pay for that mistake as much as is humanly possible, in order to, at the very least, immobilize the legislative process, or, at most, to incite a groundswell of negative public opinion, in hopes of pressuring the president to resign, or, even better, of getting the first president of the United States ever summarily booted out of office.

That’s what he does for a living.  Every morning, Frank Luntz gets up and goes to his office, to figure out ways to make things miserable for the duly elected leader of his country.

I know there are numerous ways of handling the situation that I found myself in, ranging from remaining silent to my uncontrolled eruption.  I am not looking for absolution here.  Nor am I pandering for praise.

I am simply curious.

Tell me.  Seriously,

What would you have done?
I would like to to a moment to acknowledge my father who passed away on this day in 1951.
I am warmed and deeply appreciative to the readers who sent along their "Desert Island Disc" selections.  For me, music, even more so than words, is interpersonally communicative.  To those who passed along their favorite songs, I feel like I know you a little better.  I thank you for the connection. 


Canda said...

I would have done what John Markus did. After all, there are Democratic operatives who basically did everything they could to label Romney an out-of-touch tax evader. And somehow Chris Matthews said, "Thank God for Sandy." He meant it helped re-elect the President, who got all the great press reacting to the storm.

To quote a famous line from a movie (which owes its origins to Machiavelli), "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer."

However, Earl, you always seem to say exactly what you think, as your story about attending an "Everybody Loves Raymond" rehearsal indicated, which led to you NOT getting a script assignment.
You're too Canadian.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

As a veteran thought-to-mouth direct conduit myself, I would have likely still said it, but tried to follow up with a joke.

Something like: "I mean, that's only two or three degrees above a TV writer."

Was Wollinsky (for Lewinsky) his mistake or yours?


pumpkinhead said...

Earl, I know you left the island, but I decided to stay another day. I should have included this one on Christmas. It's a true story about a house for the blind in Philly where the residents would decorate a tree they couldn't see for everyone else to enjoy.

Frank said...

Frank Luntz is a total scumbag to the extreme and I can't believe anybody pays attention to any of his right wing dribble. You should have got huge laughs in that room for having the balls to blurt out the truth! I sure would have laughed loud.

YEKIMI said...

I probably would have walked out of the room and thrown up. Or maybe just have barfed on him and then walk out of the room. Could have blamed it on a bad tuna sandwich.

Anonymous said...

I notice nowadays that whenever politicians, celebrities or sportsmen/women are engulfed in a scandal of their own making it is always a mistake, never a bad choice.

Don't know about you but 2 plus 2 equals five is a mistake. Falling into bed with a hooker half your age and then sexting her for six months before being caught doesn't qualify as a mistake in my humble opinion.

Not being judgemental, I have made bad choices in my life as well but I have never classified them as a mistake.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I will toss in one of the few Christmas songs I still like, the Canadian songwriter Stan Rogers' First Christmas:

Stan died in 1984 in a plane crash, but he sure wrote some wonderful songs in the short time he was around.