Friday, September 28, 2007

Talk Show: Dick Cavett Speaks Again


September 26, 2007, 11:09 pm

Witness for the…Who, Exactly?

I was too young to understand what everyone was so excited about on a seemingly ordinary Sunday afternoon one December when my mother came out to collar my (only) friend Mary and me where we had been playing “Indians” — and marched us inside to hear the radio.

“I want you to hear this because it will mean something to you when you get older. The Japs have gotten us into the war.”

I was at a total loss. I didn’t know who “the Japs” were and I didn’t know what or where “the war” was, and there was a woman next door whose name was Pearl Evans. I liked her, and you simply have to take this on faith, but I was glad she wasn’t the Pearl who had gotten attacked.

What, I hear you cry, could this have to do with what I promised last time: more about R.M. Nixon? The somewhat strained connection is that it was the first time something thrillingly dramatic came into my life via a broadcast medium. That phrase was still singular way back then. There were to be four more such instances (the best was Watergate).

The very day my dad brought home our first television set, the Army-McCarthy hearings began — and were riveting. One met the great Joseph Welch and, at the other end of the human scale, the sparsely lamented lawyer Roy Cohn. So reptilian was Cohn in appearance — and in fact — that you expected him, at any moment, to shed his skin.

If you, dear reader, would rather hear more about Groucho than about Dicko (R.M.N.), I agree with you. But for the moment, the Yorba Linda Wonder must remain center stage, at least until I’ve therapeutically exorcised his ghost on your time, so to say.

John and Yoko came on my show in 1971. And came on again. Their appearances have been preserved on my “Dick Cavett Show” John and Yoko DVD. (I insert this for historical reference purposes only. Certainly not as an egregious commercial plug. And it just hit me that there are people out there who may wonder, “John and Yoko who?”)

A bit later certain things began to entangle John. He very nicely asked if I would be willing to do him a favor. Recklessly, perhaps, I said I would. Of course.

Especially considering what he and his wife had done for my Nielsen numbers. Would I help him resist the Nixon White House’s plan to have him deported?

Deported, for God’s sake!

Sure! I said. [Ominous chord]

How did this lowdown scheme by the famously klutzy golfer get spawned? I didn’t learn until years later that on one of the infamous tapes out of which Nixon wove his own noose, the wily H. R. Haldeman can be heard inveighing against the top Beatle. Having presumably educated his boss as to who John Lennon was, Haldeman deftly stimulates the Nixon venom sacs with these fateful words: “This guy could sway an election.”

The justice department was enlisted and the only deportation proceeding against a musical artist that I know of began. (Think of it! A politicized justice department!)

Nervously approaching for the first time those lofty, majestic buildings with the grand pillars scared this still somewhat innocent lad from the Great Plains. I knew the main court building, with those long steps, from multiple viewings of Sidney Lumet’s classic “Twelve Angry Men.” With my heart at least halfway to my mouth, I entered what looked like the courtroom on “Law and Order,” although both it and Sam Waterston were still in my future.

And there down an echoing marble corridor stood John Lennon, dwarfed by the high-ceilinged architecture of this Temple of the Law. He was solemnly clad in a respectful black suit, pants tightly pegged, and those awful round glasses.

I was not a brilliant witness. Trusting my usual facility for ad-libbing to carry me through, it evaded me. Every few words were accompanied by unaccustomed internal self-criticism. As in:

“Mr. Cavett, what is good about John Lennon, in your view?”

[Gulp] “He’s a force for… [Dry mouth stops me for a moment as I wonder what in hell the rest of that sentence is going to be. What am I going to say?]…um…for good,” I managed to squeeze out. Haltingly, I bore on: “…for young people.”

“How, Mr. Cavett, for young people?”

“Well, as an example for young people who want to do… [Do just what, Dickie? Think of something!] “Who want to do something good with their lives.” [Jesus, Dick, that’s pitiful!]

I couldn’t look down from the stand at John, figuring he was thinking he might have done better inviting Sly Stone than me.

I got a chance to wince again at my alleged testimony when it was quoted in The New Yorker the following week. Somehow I can’t imagine I played a major role in the fact that John’s side won. But his victory supplied the administration with yet another self-inflicted wound to lick.

I’m sure that even the dullest reader can see how my aligning myself with John Lennon in court could well have narrowed my chances of, say, being invited to Tricia’s wedding.

And, reading your comments, I see that a perceptive reader has asked whether I had any other evidence of additional darts winged my way from Pennsylvania Avenue.

Yes. Years later I was stunned to learn that, post-Lennon, my entire staff was audited by the IRS, right down to the lowest secretary. (In rank, I mean. Nothing personal.)

I had nearly forgotten how “screwing” enemies real and imagined by illegally wielding the IRS as a weapon — sometimes ruining lives — was one of the paranoid-in-chief’s favorite amusements. Of course there is the possibility that more than a dozen people’s IRS audits — in defiance of the laws of probability — just happened to come up simultaneously, by coincidence. If so, I’ll just have to live somehow with the thought that I have done a posthumous injustice to an innocent man.

To those who feel I am too hard on Mr. Nixon, yes, I willingly acknowledge his many gifts, his intellect and his great accomplishments.

Of course I have not forgotten his remarkable feat of “opening up” China.

Without him, what would we have done for poisoned toys?

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