If you saw TV newsmagazine show 20/20 last Friday, then you now have (as have I) a brand new understanding of the word ‘surreal’. (Think also: ‘appalled’, ‘embarrassed’, ‘horrified’, ‘despondent’ and ‘grief-stricken’.)
Barbara Walters, who was supposed to have surrendered her TV anchoring duties several happy months ago, was back on the tube Friday evening, as smooth and unlined as a plastic dolly, primped and coiffed and smiling; her old program 20/20 ready to devote an entire hour of prime time to her exclusive interview with George W. and the Mrs.
(Pity Elizabeth Vargas the putative replacement host, who must wonder from time to time whether the old bat will ever give up the anchor desk, or permanently retire to that increasingly revolting and irrelevant daytime yakfest ‘The View’. She’s obviously a wiley old broad; they’ll have to beat her to death with a mic stand I’m thinking.)
Though 20/20 is a longtime ABC Television Network news program, you could be forgiven for thinking the scene of the crime was being broadcast from a FOX studio. So cloyingly supplicating were the queries, so un-followed up were the responses, and so peppered with sucky irrelevancies like endless filler segments (especially the ones featuring Barney the Scottie studiously ignoring the President, or Laura touring Barbara around the newly refurbished Lincoln bedroom, the carpet upon which the famous furniture now stands the best argument for further bad behaviour from the Presidential pet one could possibly make) that I fully expected Bill O’Reilly to pop up from behind a rose bush or a secret service agent and beat Barbara over the head with that mic stand in order to take back what Fox executives clearly feel is their territory: positive presidential promos disguised as nightly news.
He couldn’t have done it better than Barbara though, who in the first few minutes managed to squeeze in mention of a new puppy (who actually did pee on the Oval Office rug) a jolly reminder of how familiar she already was with the White House, and a little bit of smug back-pattery disguised as information as she reminded the President what he no doubt already knew: that she was the only interviewer he had agreed to speak to between the election and the inauguration.
It was also the onset of the seriously surreal, practically ‘woo-woo’ moments unaccountably not edited out of the show:
“So,” says Barbara to the Presidential pair, “are you ready to begin the torture?” (She did. I swear - she actually said "torture".)
“Yes,” replied the completely oblivious leader of the Free World. “That’s why we chose you.”
Gak. Yikes. Cut to commercial.
And when we return, the interview proper has been set up, though strangely – with all the refurbishing that has reportedly been going on in the historic household – in what looks like the middle of a hallway: three chairs, three people, not even a potted plant to point out the difference between that which is non-human and that which nominally appears to be.
(“Just plunk it all down anywhere,” the producer must have said. “And don’t bother lighting it all that well. There’s not much you can do with a set of stiffs outside of Six Feet Under that’s going to make a hell of a lot of difference…”)
And so begins a softball game so light and harmless it might just as well be a backyard set-to between three prissy 3rd grade girls all dolled up in party dresses they'd been admonished not to smudge. No one’s going to hit anything all that hard, no one’s going to tag anyone out and no one’s going to fade back into the weeds to catch a pop fly – if the ball goes out of bounds, they’ll just leave it there and go play something else.
Barbara: “Mr. Pwesident, there are those who say you’ve never acknowledged a mistake. (Internal dialogue: Not me – never me!) Now that it’s been admitted there were no WMD’s found in Iraq and the stated reason for war has been disproved, what do you say now?”
Mr. Pwesident (smiling): “Well, I guess I’ll just have to be more careful about how I say things. Don’t want people to get the wrong idea!”
And so it goes. With boners and bullshit flying past like so many shuttlecocks (looks like the girls traded in their whiffle bats for junior badminton rackets…) and Barbara sitting, smiling; as still and stiff as a fashion doll wearing celery green Chanel. Perhaps she was waiting for staff members to pick up the dropped references, obvious lies and tangled metaphors. Perhaps she has a bad back. Perhaps her movable joints have seized up.
Barbara: “Mr. Pwesident, the fighting still goes on, what is the point of holding the elections at the end of January?”
Mr. Pwesident: “Well Barbara, it’s like this: everybody just loves freedom. Who doesn’t love freedom? (You get the feeling he’d like to meet these freedom haters – at a distance of several thousand miles and buffered by thousands of expendable soldiers – and give them a lesson in what freedom means!) We’re going to bring freedom to the people of Iraq. Look how we brought freedom to the women of Afghanistan. They’re free now! That’s the sort of thing we like to do. Love freedom. Freedom, freedom, freedom. I love freedom!”
Barbara, clearly moved by the notion of freedom reigning supreme throughout the war torn country, bright eyed and bushy tailed come the morning of February 1st, forgets to follow up on the alleged happy fate of Afghani women. Oh well – can’t be helped! Moving on…
Barbara: “Mrs. Bush, as you tour through the hospitals safe and sound on American soil, meeting the wounded soldiers and the parents of those who died, is it enough comfort to them to tell them freedom will soon be reigning supreme throughout Iraq? I mean, like, do any of them, like, care about, like, Iraq?”
Mrs. Bush: “Well Barbara, I don’t know if it is any comfort; I don’t know if they care about Iraq or not. I don’t know…” she flounders. She just remembered: she doesn’t know! Oh no, not now – not here on national TV, she must pull it together, she must come up with an answer – something, anything… yes! She sees the shuttlecock float by and gives it a whap that sends it tumbling end over end over the net and out of camera range and out of trouble.
Mrs. Bush: “I don’t know if they care about Iraq… but I DO know they care about September 11th! And all the terrible things that happened on that day! And they know that they’re doing the right thing. And their children too. Dying, dying, dying for September 11th – that’s what they care about. That, and (suddenly remembering she’s sitting next to the most powerful man on earth… she gets a naughty tingle…) and freedom! They love freedom!”
Stunned into silence by all the tingly feelings she herself gets when September 11th and Iraq and freedom all fit together in the same sentence, Barbara smiles. She thanks her new friends and her audience (“I’m so happy to see you all again,” she says straight into the camera. Hey! Just what can she see? Is this a magic camera?) and brings another great hour of journalism to a close.
Time to take down the lights and put the chairs back where they belong. Time to roll up the cables and pack away the equipment and the protests of the young script girl who is nearly apoplectic at what she has heard the 43rd president of the United States of America get away with. Time for three sleepyheads to bid each other a fond farewell, promising to do it again real, real soon.
“Next time,” says new best friend Barbara, “next time we’ll play Barbies!”
“Oh,” says the confused leader of the greatest nation on earth, “I thought we already were.”