The insanity of everything about the political sphere around which we orbit and eavesdrop grinds us all down to fine, soulless powder. We are Travis Bickle, the hero monster hooked on misdirected valor, junk food, and coffee from machines, created methodically over years of being worked by Washington’s merciless gears. We are the fly on the sticky paper that has begun to rot, like the paper itself, from its filthy feet up. Everything is lousy. Full of mold. Infested. Full of bile. Full of ambition and power. Corruption. Day after day we understand how little we matter, if at all. The world outside the Beltway is nonexistent. It’s even laughable. Contemptible. We’re outside insiders. We’re weird interlocutors. Cauldrons of hate and contempt. But powerless. We hold our tongues. They trust us with their secrets. They. But their secrets eat our livers, kidneys, hearts. Minds.
Often, in between split shifts during the day, a few of us metro it over to Adam’s Morgan and grab a few little hammers of vodka or gin or whisky in a nondescript watering hole owned by an uncle or a cousin of one of the freelance camera guys. During a game of backgammon punctuated by tequila and stories, Biscotti (floor director) gets melancholic over a Brautigan love poem and recounts the days of his previous incarnation as a farmer in Illinois, before he came out East and tried to make a go at it in Washington. Before family. Autistic kids. Doctor bills. Reagan, he says, was a son of a bitch for most people trying to make a living in the Midwest. Or anywhere. Don’t let them tell you otherwise. Don’t let them sell you that Morning in America horseshit. No one disputes that. We just drink. And roll the dice. Move our pieces along stretched triangles. We wait. For what.
Trollio, one of the new freelance photographers, tells us about his late-night gig, a quickly tightening vise to whatever is left of his sanity. He works midnight-to-six in a video facility as a censor of films to be shown on over-the-air network TV. Fox. NBC. UPN. WB. All of them. Night in and night out Trollio bleeps out obscenities, cuts out questionable scenes of sex and violence or implied sex and violence, slowly moves away from the real world and into foggy territory. The cutting is getting to him. Gatekeeping morality and upkeeping virtue are killing him quickly. He’s conjuring up savage ideas, reports weird miasmas in his nostrils, voices in the early mornings, spies various scantily clad succubi slithering down his walls at night, machetes and blades in hand, teeth bare. In between slicing 70mm prints and putting in time with us on the crew he’s writing a manifesto, he tells us. We all know he’s gone already.
Nine days later, Trollio finishes out a shift and disappears into the D.C. night, headed toward the Farragut North metro station. Several of the many street cameras pick him up at different angles. A shadow. A demon on a tight schedule. He takes the escalator straight into the earth and no one ever hears from him again. Word comes down he’s in Arizona test firing big guns in the Mojave Desert for the Army. Another rumor has him crossing at Nogales with a stray border collie and joining the Mexican circus fronted by a Romanian named Costa who shreds on the accordion and eats three-foot swords. Yet another story puts him in Hollywood, having just caught his girlfriend in bed with a budding scriptwriter and dumping the guy’s cologne all over his cheating woman’s clothes and shoes. So she can smell him perpetually.
But peppered among the gut punches, the decay of morality, politics, television, journalism, and the truckloads of dirty, behind-the-scenes, back room and bare knuckles business that goes with it all, are brushes with beauty and elegance and humour: moments of sanity and humanity that rip through the dark psyche and let in warm light, lucidity, hope.
Barbara Olson, wife of solicitor general Ted Olson and frequent guest holding down the fort for the Right, becomes an unlikely friend. We chat with her in the green room, in the make-up chair, while she allows for base and powder to be applied to her lovely face. She is frightfully “normal,” down to earth, rational, intelligent. She smiles. Shares anecdotes. She laughs at the futility of politics. Television. Politics on television. On air she is the same. She refuses to shout back at her counterparts. She is not baited by trigger words or phrases. She makes logical arguments. Every night. Little by little she’s discontinued by the producers. She’s faded out. Not controversial enough. Not willing to play. She’s gobbled up by conservative network Fox. She’s gobbled up by Politically Incorrect. I don’t see her again in our studios.
Three years later, a passenger on early-morning American Airlines Flight 77, Barbara Olson perishes. She, along with 64 other people on board, is slammed into the Pentagon, where 125 others burn to death. A new chapter in a fucked up modern era begins. Surveillance. Fear. War. Occupation. Spreading democracy, is what we’re told. Over and over. And so we arm ourselves. We boycott French fries. French bread. French kissing? Maybe. Where there’s beauty there’s evil and strife waiting to push down hard on the fragile balance and gain ground. Always.
Christopher Hitchens, another regular guest, injects practical philosophy and rational intellectual discourse into our conveyer-belt days. He is the voice of reason as well as modernity to those few of us who can keep up with his mind. In the green room, Biscotti sweeps the dandruff off the shoulders of Hitch’s jacket, while the Englishman grills me on my background. On my mother’s stint as translator to Henry Kissinger during the doctor’s trip to Romania in the early 70s. On the dictator Ceausescu. On the Securitate (the secret security forces).
Two or three times per week we welcome Hitch’s presence, and his gin-soaked, cigarette breath somehow conjures up melancholic, safe memories of spending my boyhood summers at the Black Sea, clandestinely tuning in Radio Free Europe on a small Grundig transistor, my Ma and Da lighting up extra-long Kents and chomping on steamed corn slathered in butter and sold from gypsy vendors’ buckets.
Christopher Hitchens and I develop a strange, fractious relationship—a type of fellowship that blossoms between cocktail hour and dinner time. Like all the others who refuse to play the TV game, Hitch is slowly faded out from the rotation and we never see him in person again.
Thirteen years later, when Hitch leaves us, I am lucky enough to be given an outlet and write a modest obit, recounting those strange TV days that were brightened by his presence, his ideas, his kindness, his literary recommendations, and his complete attention to conversation and stories of our lives. The piece lives here now and hopefully forever—or however long forever is in our time.
The Jesse Jackson incident is comical and awkward. It smells of the absurd life that is television. I’m in the washroom after a show with him dominating the last three segments. Preachin’. He walks in almost ceremoniously, alone, and takes the vertical trough one away from mine. I suddenly cannot perform. Worse, I’m compelled to look over and check out his junk. I fight it. But the curiosity . . . it’s greater than my will. So I do. I glance. He knows I glance. I know he knows I glance. But he waits and stares straight at the wall. He waits for me to say something. To acknowledge him. He’s Jesse Goddamn Jackson having a piss. I have to say something to Jesse Goddamn Jackson having a piss, don’t I? Well? I owe him that. I owe him after violating his privacy. So I do. I say something awkward. Stupid. Something that pertains to his spot on the show but that can be easily misconstrued, given our location and situation: Lookin’ good, Reverend. Lookin’ good, is what comes out. While I’m standing there with my pizzle in my hand. Not being able to pizzle.
Harry Shearer kills us. His five-day guest hosting stint goes down as the best time I’ve ever had working in television. During the breaks, he obliges our requests, slipping into various Simpsons characters: Mr. Burns refutes the Magna Carta. Rainier Wolfcastle stumbles through the Pledge of Allegiance. Ned Flanders goes on an expletive-laden tirade about the early hour of Sunday worship at his church. Herman Hermann extolls the virtues of fathering hordes of children for tax deduction purposes.
On Shearer’s last day, Tommy da Sloth (camera) brings in a Spinal Tap vinyl to have it autographed. Shearer signs it as Derek Smalls, the band’s pipe-smoking bass player. He remains in character for the rest of his time with us then spends upwards of an hour after the show hanging with the crew and producers.
Then there’s Ben Jones. He’s the gent who played good ol’ boy Cooter on The Dukes of Hazzard. He’s also a playwright. And an essayist. And, and . . . a one-term representative (D) in Congress from the great peach state of Georgia. Jones is a no-bullshit kind of guy. High-end good ol’ boy. Heavy southern drawl. Knee-slappin’, loud-laughin’ storyteller. He doesn’t play the TV game, so he doesn’t last too long, but in the handful of times he appears on Fast Pitch he cracks us all up during the breaks.
From him we learn about the chain of “Cooter’s museums” across the country—real joints dedicated to The Dukes of Hazzard. We get little ditties about the annual “Dukefest” gathering and the dedicated rednecks stuck in time who attend religiously. Mullets and cowboy hats. Boots and belt buckles. Daisy dukes. Of course. And more: Jones divulges juicy war stories about his head-to-head race in ‘94 against then-House Minority Whip and soon-to-be House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Later, in ‘98, Jones breaks with the Democrats and officially asks President Clinton to resign during his trial and impeachment. This gets him back on the show for a few nights. A curiosity. But in a way a fresh take. Someone who eschews the party line. Fifteen more minutes. Makes a rounder, more legit thirty. Which is halfway to an hour. And if you can get yourself on television for an hour . . .
And then, like all the good ones, he’s gone. Off the air. Cancelled. All that remains is the usual rubbish patch of experts, floating up on the top. Perpetually.
There were other small oases of sanity and goodness over the six years I spent locked in orbit around the political talk show sphere. Not many overall, but enough to keep me on an intermittent schedule of reinforcement. Which, if you know anything about psychology, is the most effective way to keep a soul committed to something against its will. The money wasn’t bad either. But in retrospect not worth it. Always in hindsight does truth have a tendency to muscle itself in. If you let it. If you’re honest.
A month before the Y2K debacle, I decided to phase myself out of the whole thing. Fast Pitch had taken off in popularity and ratings. Host Paul Hewitt was riding high on the shoulders of celebrity stardom from not just the show itself, but from sales of his newest book on the relationship between Kennedy and Nixon. Hewitt began looking for a vacation house on Martha’s Vineyard. Of course.
Network higher-ups decided to move location of the show to a much larger, much newer, consolidated facility near the U.S. Capitol. The regular crew was disbanded. A few of us, me included, got to go along and be part of the gig in the newer digs, fused with a new crew, for a small period of time. The fledgling band of mashed-up TV brothers and sisters was fractured. An air of solemnity and seriousness was ushered in by the new people. Grave, concerned faces presided over the entire operation. No one laughed. Or joked. Or pointed out the futility of the business. Everyone treated it as the most important job in the world.
And so in January of 2000 I got out. The tech bubble had just burst. Y2K was a bust. Nothing major happened to any systems. Bush was running against Gore. And I left without any prospects for a job or a career. I went 1,200 miles to the south. About as far as I thought I’d get from Washington. I went to the land of humidity, mean-spirited people, alligators, sunshine, and hanging chads. From one pot of steaming shit into another.
Fast forward to now. Fifteen years later. Paul Hewitt is a megastar. Fast Pitch is one of the highest-rated programs on the network. Numbers, numbers, numbers! I don’t have television, not even the free over-the-air programming of major networks, but from time to time at my gym, piped across dozens of flat screens, I catch a glimpse of the show. No audio. Thank . . . someone.
The same poli-sci stalwarts I encountered in the mid 90s parading themselves as experts, wonks, and thinktankers, are still making the rounds. People still screaming at one another. Spewing nonsensical rubbish. Accusing one another of this. That. Pointing fingers. It’s the same shitty dance going on twenty years now. And we eat it all up. We love it. We refuse to believe it’s fake. It’s television. The drug of the nation.
El Seven is the only member of the crew with whom I keep in touch consistently. He’s still in the game. Decimated. But still in the game. Just recently he snagged a good gig on NBC’s Meet the Press. Press the meat, more like it. But there is continuous strife and new wars now. They’re perpetual wars against shapeshifting enemies. Which means El Seven has consistent work. There’s no shortage of babbling talking heads analyzing this. Analyzing that. Day in. Day out.
I benefit from people’s bad luck and misfortune, El Seven tells me. I thrive economically from conflict, discord, argument, controversy. It’s ok, I say. It’s the American way.
The American Dream.