Sid and Christopher's naked lunch

The real meaning of the Blumenthal-Hitchens flap; on-the-air job tryouts on Barbara Walters' 'The View'

Published February 9, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

If you thought there'd be no bombshells from the videotaped Senate depositions this weekend, try this one: Sidney Blumenthal has friends! After Christopher Hitchens delivered an affidavit attesting that Blumenthal, contrary to his testimony, had told him at a March lunch that Monica Lewinsky was, in fact, a "stalker," Blumenthal confidants and dinner guests denounced Hitchens for being the turd in the Washington-media aperitif. The account by Lloyd Grove in Monday's Washington Post wonderfully illuminates the rank incestuousness of networking in elite journalism today. Look at the various persons offering (mostly negative) opinions of Hitchens' lunch-and-telling: "A friend of both Hitchens and Blumenthal"; the "executive editor and vice president of Grove/Atlantic Press ... (who) had dinner with the Blumenthals Saturday night"; "another friend, an author and magazine journalist who asked not to be named ... [and] the author's wife, an investigative journalist." "I think it is such a pity," commented the latter, "that I'll never be able to speak with Christopher again or have him in my house".

Here's the delicious irony: Sidney Blumenthal, premier theorist of right-wing conspiracy, may leave as his greatest legacy the public reminder that he himself is part of a claustrophobic media-government sewing circle whose interconnections put the Scaife network to shame -- an inbred nightmare community where every pseudopod of the elite-opinion amoeba dines, drinks, goes to bed and marries with another. Early discussion has centered on whether Hitchens' act violated the journalistic tradition of not naming anonymous sources, notwithstanding the fact that Blumenthal's lawyer grandly welcomed anyone with this sort of information to come forward, which -- if Hitchens is telling the truth -- was a sleazy attempt to take advantage of colleagues' honor by making them complicit in a lie through their silence. But it only proves the cluelessness of this Washington power circle if they think the public is going to give them a standing ovation for defending the sanctity of comfy cabalistic gossip sessions at the Washington Occidental. By violating journalism's most sacred principle -- the rule of lunch -- Hitchens may ultimately hurt the bottom line of Jean-Louis Palladin establishments, but if he encourages Washington journalists to befriend and marry people who don't have Cabinet officials on speed-dial, the readers and the human gene pool of tomorrow will thank him.

The women who would be Debbie

When Debbie Matenopoulos, the much-spoofed voice of the younger generation on Barbara Walters' "The View," suddenly vaporized (or, as an ABC publicist put it, left voluntarily to "pursue other opportunities") last month, the producers of the daytime chat show decided to hold a televised job fair -- a live Gen-Xpo in which four young would-be Walterettes auditioned for two days each for the post of youth spokesmodel.

On-air groveling is hardly new on talk shows -- "Tonight Show" guests must still take care not to trip on Jay Leno's kneeprints -- but bringing a string of candidates to essentially interview for the job live is much rarer. And it's a typically sharp move for the most of-the-moment chatfest of daytime TV. "The View," an engrossing, funny round table of "women of different generations, backgrounds and views," has been called a lot of things (among them a female Rat Pack), but this parade of résumé-toting twentysupplicants shows that "The View" is above all the first talk show for the age of fetishizing work.

The traditional morning chat show was conceived as a surrogate living room, sans Legos on the carpet, for kid-shackled suburban women. "The View," launched in 1997, knows how its viewer has changed: She may be telecommuting or working part time, on maternity leave or stuck with a sick child (all situations, by the way, reflected in the commercials: cold and stomach remedies to "get kids better faster"; adult medicines to get you back to work pronto). She gets all the home she cares for in her own damn house. She wants a surrogate office.

And there's the genius of "The View." Here, the coffee table is replaced by a dinner table, as in an employee break room, and the hosts around it look like the family that we give the most QT now: our co-workers. "The View" panel is the kind of race- and age-integrated group we find only on the job, all familiar white-collar types: the leonine chief executive (Walters), on vacation every other day; the wisecracking second banana (comedian Joy Behar); the earnest office mom (journalist Meredith Vieira); the warm and self-promoting diva (attorney Star Jones); and, of course, the ghost (Matenopoulos) -- the young achiever who quietly vanished one day and who no one talks about anymore. Rather than give us fake intimacy, "The View" gives us fake fake intimacy, a simulation of workplace didja see the Post this morning jawboning over institutional java, as Vieira tosses out hot-button headline questions (Does Chelsea deserve privacy? Is oral sex really sex?) for the same off-the-cuff analysis you find so endearing in Patty from Accounting (It's always the children who suffer!).

With admirable honesty, "The View's" hosts never let us forget that they're doing a job, one that's a damn sight more enviable than ours. It's fitting, really, at a time when sitcom audiences avidly follow the upper-class follies of lawyers, doctors and fashion editors, that Babs and company acknowledge readily and often the gulf between them and the viewer. (On a recent show, Star Jones pulled the signal busier-than-thou '90s careerist move, whipping out a cell phone in mid-interview with Judge Judy Sheindlin to take a call from Mom.) They have drivers, they have law degrees, they dine with Prince Edward, they negotiate interviews with Monica Lewinsky. You don't. Deal with it.

Seeking a piece of this action came four ingenues -- a Nordstrom saleswoman, a newspaper reporter, a TV anchor and a former cast member from MTV's "The Real World" -- who exchanged patter in the opening round table, co-hosted light advice segments and, above all, in this haven of commercial tie-ins, shilled with gusto, helping Victoria's Secret models and self-help authors move units, and even, in one case, donning a hairpiece and holding up "Price Is Right"-style price tags to help Jones push her new line of wigs.

Well, isn't the grunt-level humiliation of young aspirants -- the willingness to grit your teeth and run the boss's errands -- the driving engine of our economy? Isn't the job interview's excruciating dance between sycophancy and belligerence the most important skill in boom or bust? Certainly, anyway, it's top-notch TV, proof that some canny producer should be pitching Fox a reality program of taped job interviews. Forget animal attacks, drug busts or booby-trapped birthday cakes. Watching someone banter about the impeachment trial and her boyfriend and a woman in England who had 20 kids, all the while knowing that her chance at national TV stardom is at stake -- that's edge-of-your-seat TV.

Consider the chitchat minefield facing she who would be Matenopoulos. You have to ingratiate yourself while striking provocative sparks. You can't be too bubbly (heed the ghost of Debbie!) or too dour (delightfully grouchy New York Post writer Amy Kean may have hurt herself grousing about being shushed at the movies by "some freak! Who probably came to the movies alone!"). You have to remind us that you're young without implying your co-hosts are old. And you have to discuss oral sex with Barbara Walters without plotzing on camera (you don't know from "the coarsening of American discourse" until you've heard the doyenne of soft focus say "penetrated").

The candidate with the biggest fan base (and, judging by her being invited back for a third day, the inside track) was Rachel Campos, best known to viewers of MTV's "The Real World" season three as the comely, big-eyed 22-year-old conservative who messed around with psycho bike messenger Puck. A "View" spokesperson says more candidates may yet be auditioned, but if Campos lands the gig, she'll continue one of the strangest careers in showbiz history. The first "Real World" cast member to snag a national TV platform outside MTV (whose "Road Rules" specials, reunions and dance-party shows provide GI Bill-style support for "Real World" vets), Campos will have made a life as a professional twentysomething.

In other words, she's a new type of star, the personality famous for being representative. On "The Real World," Campos pushed a whole row of popular youth-type buttons -- rebellious Hispanic Catholic with Republican politics and a wild side -- plus, as an easy-on-the-eyes conservative, she presaged Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, Ann Coulter and the whole raft of male and female MSNBC Friends. (The candidates, by the way, skewed decidedly rightward, showing the enduring value of the ever-popular betrayal-of-the-'60s schtick.) Five years later, she stands for the maturation of the "Reality Bites" crowd, having lost the convent-schoolgirl skirts and become a teacher and even, in a segment detailing Puck's recent jail stint, assuring us that while the publicity-crazed bike messenger is a dear old friend, she's moved on now. Like each candidate, Campos delicately but firmly pushed her Class-of-18-to-34 cred, with a combination of obeisance to her baby boom overlords ("Your generation had a defining moment; all we have is this Clinton scandal") and asserting herself as a Gen-X spokeswoman in classic fashion, by denouncing the label as a media construct -- all, of course, while applying for a job whose chief qualification is her birth date.

Still, I can't begrudge candidates' milking their youth, since, judging by the (willing! willing!) departure of their predecessor, it could also be their biggest liability. The four older hosts had far greater chemistry with one another than with Matenopoulos, as a "View" producer acknowledged to the New York Post. And isn't that just like the office too? As middle managers get replaced by cheap, energetic youthbots working 80-hour weeks, as the business press fawns over 30-year-old zillionaire entrepreneurs, age is thicker than any other unifier in today's office -- a situation only intensified in the "Logan's Run" world of women broadcasters. And generational tension bubbled up during the tryouts, at least in jest, as when Kean dissed women who take weight-loss pills: "It's great that we have another skinny little bitch on the show!" Behar ripped, smiling.

Now that's entertainment. Indeed, maybe this happenstance crossing of "The Real World" and "The View" suggests something bigger than a "World's Craziest Job Interviews" one-off: the 24-Hour Work Channel. With hidden cameras throughout the workplace, the wiring's already in place, along with an even more crucial piece of infrastructure. The office, not the home, is really where the heart is now.

By James Poniwozik

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barbara Walters Christopher Hitchens The View Washington Post