Media circus

Congressional representatives join "The Price Is Right" host Bob Barker in a made-for-media clarion call for elephants' rights in India.

Published July 14, 1999 12:00PM (EDT)

If his face weren't already familiar, Bob Barker could easily pass for a congressman. With his thick white hair, conservative blue suit, aged visage and charming mien, Barker, 75, could easily wander into a Ways and Means Committee hearing and weasel a dam or two for his district.

This statesmanlike charisma was confirmed during Barker's appearance in Washington on Wednesday, where he held a press conference in the House Longworth Building.

Barker, who's been hosting CBS's "The Price Is Right" since the Mesozoic era, drew a packed house of Capitol Hill staffers, 100 or so of whom lined up outside the fifth-floor conference room hoping to catch a glimpse of the man who was kind enough to keep them company through countless snow days and stomach viruses.

One fan wrote her name -- Jessica -- on a price-tag name-tag, as is customary on the game show Barker has hosted for the past 28 years.

And, oh, yeah -- Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., and a panel of experts were there, too. And in case I forgot to say, the press conference was about the mistreatment of elephants in India.

Congressmen and senators routinely trot out celebrities at press conferences and hearings and the like in the hopes of garnering greater attention for their causes and, by extension, themselves.

And effectively so: No way would I have covered Farr's event had Barker not been there.

Still, when Hollywood comes to the Potomac, an odd dance inevitably ensues. Celebrities try to bring attention to whatever cause they're fighting for, but the end result is that they often eclipse the issue altogether.

The frat party of House staffers crammed outside Barker's press conference, for instance, didn't seem all that interested in the plight of Loki, a 35-to 40-year-old male elephant currently being tortured by a bunch of Indian thugs.

Renting a celeb for a cause cilhbre can often cut the other way. The ludicrous lives of pampered, out-of-touch celebrities can occasionally paint their causes as silly, or trivial. I'm a fan of Jack Nicholson, but when he rallied against impeachment last December I cringed. No exemplar of morality, our Jack.

And don't get my father started on Barbra Streisand.

Barker's a somewhat different bird, however, as he has publicized animal rights for years, and -- like the rockers who brought attention to a country and cause heretofore unknown to Gen Y-ers in last year's Tibetan Freedom Concert -- Barker's cause is more humane than political.

In 1987, Barker threatened to boycott the Miss USA pageant if the contestants wore real fur. The producers caved, and the women ultimately competed that year displaying synthetic furs instead. A year later, Barker resigned from the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants altogether because the producers continued to give real fur coats as prizes for the bathing beauties.

Barker even started ending his game-show broadcasts by reminding viewers to get their pets spayed or neutered -- a suggestion that probably should be taken under advisement by some of the occupants of the Longworth Building.

His image was a little bit tarnished when Barker admitted to "hanky-panky" with "Price Is Right" "showgirl" Dian Parkinson after she sued him for sexual harassment. (The suit was later dropped.)

Three years ago, in June '96, a cotillion of Hollywood animal rightsters -- including "Golden Girl" Rue McClanahan, devil girl Linda Blair and "Birds"-feeder Tippi Hedren -- lobbied Congress during Animal Awareness Week. But they couldn't take a step without being shouted down by AIDS activists insisting on the need for continued animal testing.

Barker's event went quite a bit more smoothly.

Organized by the Performing Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS, the press conference was full of groan-worthy "Price Is Right"-related puns favored by tabloid headline writers and Capitol Hill press secretaries. "Come on down ... and help us end elephant abuse!" read an announcement.

Added Farr, "The elephants of India are paying a high price at the hands of animal trainers in that country and I think you'll agree with me when I say that ... THE PRICE IS WRONG!"

Sixty percent of the remaining Asian elephants reside in India, but despite the impression that Indians have reverence for all animals -- Mahatma Gandhi's quote that "the greatness of a nation ... can be judged by the way its animals are treated" is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals gospel -- life ain't all curry and rice for the pachyderms. A high incidence of human-elephant conflict and loss of natural habitat for the gray beasts have led to sickening cruelty: beatings, torture and slaughter. Not to mention poaching for ivory and meat, and the circus scouts who use hooks and chains to break the will of the future performers.

After four animal-rights activists briefly spoke, the audience was shown the real stars of the conference: two abused elephants featured in videotapes provided by PAWS and the India Project for Animals and Nature. Loki was shown being dragged, gored and beaten. A baby elephant, crying after its lactating mother was slaughtered at the Bandipur Elephant Camp in Karnataka, was tied and whaled upon as well.

They were horrifying images. But, not to seem callous, they didn't seem half as horrific as some of the shots that have come out of Kosovo in the last few weeks.

Regardless, I'm comfortable taking a stand against torturing elephants, and Farr urged the congressional staffers to get their bosses to show similar courage. Farr is lobbying his colleagues to sign a letter to President Clinton he's drafted urging a small exemption on the economic sanctions imposed on India because of its nuclear testing.

Through the Asian Elephant Conservation Act, passed in 1997, U.S. cash has been allocated for the construction and maintenance of elephant animal sanctuaries, which would help solve this problem -- but the dollars can't be sent until Clinton agrees to waive the sanction for these dollars, as has been done for other kinds of humanitarian aid for India.

So informed, the dozens of 20-ish Capitol Hill staffers got in line to acquire the autograph of the man who earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records for giving away more than $200 million in cash and prizes -- a signature he dutifully provided.

Frankly, in a world where Morgan Fairchild and Mary Steenburgen appeared live on "Face the Nation" to publicize an abortion rights march, Barker's crusade and presence didn't seem that odd.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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