Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Talk Show: Dick Cavett Speaks Again

September 18, 2007, 11:03 pm
Him, to Kick Around Again

Gentle reader: Who knew that the subject of obesity would strike such a nerve? The whopping number of replies must have set some sort of record for both clarity and intelligence. I greatly enjoyed reading them, ranging as they do from virtual scholarly essays to “Goodbye, Mr. Cavett.”

And speaking of goodbye, I am not gone but merely at the end of a somewhat lengthy summer layoff. But now you will, I hope, enjoy reading about a happening that involves one of the “big names” of the 20th century. It can only be described as bizarre.


“A blast from the past.”

Do you know where this phrase comes from? So far, Google has not produced a firm answer, other than that it’s frequently used by disc jockeys, but no one is confident of who specifically gets credit for its birth.

When trying to place a quote, we are advised to always guess Shakespeare first. (Without checking, I’m fairly certain that King Lear’s “blasted heath” is not “from the past.”)

I gather that the phrase is generally used for something positive; a pleasant reunion with or reminder of something good, like a favorite song. Recently I’ve had a rather startling BFTP, but pleasant is not, shall we say, the first adjective that leaps to mind in describing it.

Here’s what happened. I was called to Hollywood to be part of an event honoring “Pioneers of Television.” The previous year’s honorees had included Sid Caesar, whom I had avidly watched and worshipped in my teens while still in Nebraska. If he was a pioneer, was I -­ who came to TV a quarter century after Sid -­ really one also? And if so, what did that make Pinky Lee, Jerry Lester and Dagmar, and Kukla and Ollie’s Fran? Aborigines?

And what, then, was the man whose name I knew but had never seen until the coaxial cable finally stretched as far as Nebraska? I mean, of course, the then-king of the new medium, Milton Berle. About whom the great Fred Allen once said, “Milton…is the moron’s messiah.”

This year, Betty White, Ed McMahon, Tony Orlando and the hilarious Tim Conway were my fellow “pioneers.” Impertinently, I asked whether we would be making our entrance in a covered wagon.

But let’s get to the blast.

I arrive at LAX, and a nicely groomed and dressed young man approaches, puts out his hand and says, “My name is Trinklein.”

“Not your first name, I hope,” I reply, proving that one should not try to be funny with jet lag.
He is good-naturedly aware that the name is unusual. What remains of my German allows me to translate it mentally into “little drink.” Or even, “drinklet.” Graciously, he concurs with my translations.

Leading me to the obligatory black limo, he says, “I have something in the car that I’m pretty certain will interest you.” Something about all this begins to resemble the harmless-seeming beginning of a spy novel.

In lower levels of showbiz, the surprise in the limo is sometimes a cutie, sporting merely shoes and a baseball cap. I’m told. But Trinklein is clearly too classy for that. As we glide into the river of traffic, he produces a laptop and inserts a DVD, saying that a woman friend of his who has access to such things has gotten this for him. In the sense of the phrase, “Are you ready for this?”, I was not.

The screen is filled by a black and white photo of two men, seated facing each other across a vast desk. The background décor includes various national flags on flagstands. The two men are instantly recognizable; or they are, at least, to everyone above a certain age.

One ­- the one whose office it was ­- is The Great Unindicted Co-conspirator himself. Yes, the admirably earnest but unskilled former member of the Whittier College football team. From Yorba Linda. (Anyone who hasn’t guessed his identity by now must move to the back of the class.)

The other gent’s visual trademark is his tough-guy crew cut: it is the notorious loyal henchman and lickspittle, H.R. Haldeman.

Up comes a sign: NIXON WANTS REVENGE ON TALK SHOW HOST CAVETT. And my blood runs, well, if not cold, at least chilly.

As the chunk of dialogue you are about to read plays out audibly, the still of the two men remains onscreen, creating the illusion that you are seeing them speak the words now being heard in their actual voices.

When the scene begins, it seems my name has just been uttered.

Nixon: So what is Cavett?

Haldeman: He’s…Oh, Christ, he’s…God, he’s..

Nixon: He’s terrible?

Haldeman: He’s impossible. He loads every program…automatically he’ll…

Nixon: Nothing you can do about it, obviously?

Haldeman: We’ve complained bitterly about the Cavett shows.

Nixon: Well, well is there any way we can screw him? That’s what I mean. There must be ways.

Haldeman: We’ve been trying to.

A blast from the past indeed. My jet-fogged head didn’t know quite what to make of it. Oddly, I thought, “Is this real?” But Trinklein was clearly not a computer-nerd prankster.

I promise you that, even this long after the fact, there is something unsettling when it’s your name being abused by the chief executive of the United States. And isn’t there something nauseating about the spectacle of the most powerful man in the world scheming to “screw” a late-night chat show that he apparently sees as part of a widespread conspiracy to bring him down? Were there no more important international issues, perhaps, to be worrying about?
I was told that many people think the Nixon tapes have all been heard by now and, like the LBJ tapes, can even be listened to recreationally at home or at the beach.

Not so. It is only recently that the vast body of them were wrested from wherever they were being withheld, and are now the property of the Smithsonian.

I’ve been told that I’m on other tapes, too, embedded along with who knows how rich a lode of still-undiscovered Nixonian utterances of anti-Semitism, homophobia and his somewhat alarming preoccupation with being “a real man.”

Has history ever known so prominent a figure to be at once so frighteningly bizarre and so greatly gifted? Nixon’s rise and fall is almost classical. I’d be surprised if no theater director has yet staged a modern-dress, slightly updated “Richard III” with the lead actor got up as our Tricky Dick: “Plots I have laid, inductions dangerous, by drunken [!] prophecies, libels and dreams to set [those on my enemies list] in deadly hate the one against the other…” etc. And certainly both had winters of discontent.

There’s more to tell in this strange Tale of Two Richards, but I must draw the curtain of discretion for now.

But don’t let me forget to tell you how John Lennon figures in all this.


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