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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Why Johnny Mattered

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2005; 7:52 AM

I've spent days trying to put my finger on why the passing of Johnny Carson seemed to touch so many people.

I think it says a lot about the way the media world has changed.

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As the eulogists have noted, just about everyone loved Johnny. He was funny night after night, he introduced America to lots of comedic talent, he did everything from political satire to vaudeville-type skits. And he commanded the kind of broad audience that was only possible when people had four or five channels to choose among, and will never be possible again.

Imagine having the talent and the adaptability to put on a successful show in both 1962 and 1992. The man wore well, to put it mildly, because the show didn't revolve around his ego. He often played the straight man or set up his guests for a good line or a good story. One of the enduring images, beyond the wacky characters he played, is of Carson at the desk, roaring at what some guest, even an animal trainer or a child, had said.

(Politicians noticed, too, which is why Richard Nixon went on the show and Bill Clinton scrambled to poke fun at himself after his endless Democratic convention speech in '88.)

Johnny's sheer longevity means that so many people remember what their lives were like when they saw Rich Little or Don Rickles or Tony Bennett or Bette Midler on the show. So his death became about us as much as it was about him, like recalling your first Beatles album.

But then you come to the yawning gap between Carson the genial late-night performer and Carson the shy loner who had few close friends and kept his professional associates and guests at a distance, withdrawing even more in his final years. And there, I think, lies the answer: He did not allow himself to be chewed up by the celebrity media machine.

He didn't hit the talk show circuit or offer up sappy People interviews. He joked about his three divorces, but we knew little about his four marriages. He kept his political opinions to himself. And once he left the televised stage, nothing, except for a brief appearance with Dave, could lure him back.

In short, Johnny never gave us a chance to get tired of him. He was a guest in our living rooms but never an invader. Compare that to the current era of Paris Hilton, Brad & Jen, J. Lo, The Donald, and the various pundit talking heads. Sometimes, as Carson understood, less is more. It's a louder, more in-your-face era now. He chose to stay behind the gates in Malibu, leaving us only with memories.

Former "Tonight Show" writer Raymond Siller has some great insights on

OpinionJournal:"The rap on Carson was that he was aloof. If he was at times standoffish, he might have been driven by a need for self-preservation. When Johnny showed up at a Hollywood party, stars pounced on him for a shot on his TV couch. When in public, he was never free of his fans. It must have been hard for someone with his power to have a lot of close friends. Associates, maybe. Colleagues, sure. But do-or-die guys? Your friends are usually your peers. How many peers could he have?

"When you were that sought after, the first rule was to screen your calls. One day I buzzed Johnny from my office. His secretary must have been in the ladies' room. The phone rang a dozen times. With no way to monitor the phone, he picked up and spoke into his mouthpiece...as Aunt Blabby. . . .

"And he had moody moments. Sometimes they lasted for weeks. During those periods, he hated the guests, the production staff, and most of all the writing. Fred deCordova would call me with a whispered heads-up on the moods.

"But Johnny often did the right thing by me. He took the time to record a taped greeting to my parents for their 50th anniversary party. However, at the end of his remarks, lest anyone catch him in a moment of sentiment, he added, 'This is in lieu of a raise for your son.'"

The New Republic's Lee Siegel offers some sociological observations:

"Carson's distillation and refinement of averageness, his seeming modesty and good will, had a lot to do with the warmth with which, for 30 years, Americans welcomed him into their homes before hitting the sack. The last, or second-to-last, face you see before going to sleep is a significant existential fact. That this face now often appears as the remote, electronic image of a face is a significance no one has really fathomed. Carson gave up his show over twelve years ago, and for all the velocity and instant forgetfulness of American culture, he's being mourned as if he had still been on the air.

"Part of his currency is the lingering electronic bedroom intimacy of that face. Part of it is that television caters to our pleasure; that is to say, to our appetite for pleasure, which is ruled by our id, which--as Freud said--exists in an eternal present. Popular culture is our eternal present, our illusion of deathlessness. Its constant recycling has about it the tinge of a religious thirst for the eternal. We don't really mourn the death of a pop-culture icon. We use his extinction to resurrect his life. In America, the death of an American star is really the occasion for a garrulous, obsessive, round-the-clock denial of death. . . .

"It wasn't his modesty, it was his gently punitive awareness of the electronically inflated size of his ego and his guests' egos that made Carson so popular. He refused to be complicit with his chosen medium's outlandish magnifying sorcery. Rather, he set himself playfully against it. He was the last big little guy on late-night television. Whatever his successors' charms, they have gotten so large that they couldn't even touch the top of his shoes."

Before we move on, I've found another columnist praising Bush policies while on the Bush administration payroll. You can check out the details here.

On to the world of politics: A few senators are using Condi Rice as a punching bag, even though there hasn't been a serious party effort to derail her nomination. This has led some conservatives, including Fred Barnes, to say imagine the howls of racism if Republican senators had impugned the integrity of an African-American nominated by a Democrat to be secretary of state. But isn't that playing the race card hypothetically: suggesting that Rice should be above criticism (even on as serious a matter as the Iraq war) because she's black, simply because you imagine that Dems might have made similar charges if the tables were turned?

"Senate Democrats on Tuesday attacked the nomination of Condoleezza Rice to be secretary of State, saying she had misled or even lied in order to sell the American public and the Congress on the need for war against Iraq," reports the Los Angeles Times.

"While Rice was expected to win confirmation easily in a Senate vote scheduled for Wednesday, Senate staff members said that at least 10, and as many as 20 senators, were expected to vote against her nomination. If so, Rice would be the first secretary of State not to win unanimous confirmation since 1981, when six senators voted against the nomination of Alexander M. Haig.

"However, the Senate Democratic leadership did not attempt to rally votes against Rice, who was described even by her fiercest critics as impeccably qualified for the job, a candidate with an inspiring personal history, and an official who will be known to speak with the president's voice when talking to foreign leaders. Instead, the Democratic leadership was mustering its political capital to make a stand against President Bush's nominee for attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales."

Here's the New York Times account: "Senate Democrats on Tuesday denounced Condoleezza Rice as the architect of a failed and misleading Iraq policy, turning a daylong debate on her nomination as secretary of state into a prolonged discussion of the conduct of the war.

"Even as they acknowledged that her confirmation was a foregone conclusion, Democrats assailed Ms. Rice - and, by extension, President Bush - and accused her of having exaggerated the threat of unconventional weapons before the war and failing to offer a realistic portrait of the continuing difficulties facing American forces in Iraq...

"'I don't like to impugn anyone's integrity, but I really don't like being lied to repeatedly, flagrantly, intentionally,' said Senator Mark Dayton, Democrat of Minnesota. 'It's wrong; it's undemocratic; it's un-American; and it's very dangerous. It is very, very dangerous. And it is occurring far too frequently in this administration.'"

Here's some eye-popping numbers, from the Wall Street Journal:

"The short-term federal budget outlook worsened somewhat since the fall, the Congressional Budget Office said, due to more spending and tax breaks.

"But the Bush administration said it could still hit its five-year goal of halving the annual budget deficit, even as it announced it was seeking $80 billion more for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The CBO said the fiscal 2005 budget deficit would reach about $368 billion, but that didn't include the new money for the military. In announcing its supplemental spending request yesterday, the White House estimated that the deficit for fiscal 2005, which ends Sept. 30, would hit about $427 billion."

The red states that elected Bush are getting plenty of red ink.

Do you think the New York Post is editorializing just a tad with the headline on this news story about Michael Moore being bypassed for an Oscar nomination?


I'm getting a distinct feeling of deja vu from this Boston Globe piece:

"Vowing to use his new 'national voice' in the wake of his presidential campaign, Senator John F. Kerry yesterday unveiled a sweeping plan to bring health coverage to all children, paid for by repealing recent tax cuts for the highest-income Americans."

Thirty-second ad to follow.

In National Review, Bill Bennett praises Bush's inaugural address, adding:

"But the speech obviously did not delight everyone, not even everyone in the Republican party. Since the address, many concerns, cautions, and qualifiers have been raised -- unfortunately, most of them by people in the White House. One troubling after-event has been the attempted 'calming' of those who took President Bush's words literally. It has now been explained to us that this should not be done, that there are shadings and nuances of time and modality.

"For example, officials from the White House have said, 'Bush did not say when all this would occur' and 'the process for all this has no time frame.' Well, I am not budged; go to the text. President Bush stated, 'All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.' There is no vacillation here, or really any nuance. From these words there is no question about when we will act. It is emphatic and clear. The perfectly clear answer to the question, 'When will the U.S. help?' is we will stand when you stand. Could not be more clear. The question of 'how' is a different question and does remain unanswered."

American Prospect's Sam Rosenfeld dismisses the notion that high-handed House Republicans are just copying their Democratic predecessors:

"This is getting old. Republicans have long peddled the moral-equivalence line in order to rationalize their behavior in the majority as just deserts and to characterize all Democratic complaints as sour grapes. The mainstream acceptance of the notion that the Jim Wright-Tom Foley era was some cesspool of moral lassitude and institutional autocracy only serves to frame contemporary Republican practices as a natural progression in a political cycle, a version of politics as usual. It behooves Democrats seeking to revive their party's fortunes through a reformist appeal to challenge this received wisdom -- not the least because, in fact, it's utter nonsense.

"There are two components of the majority 'arrogance' one hears about: autocratic rule and corruption. On both counts, the claim of moral equivalence between the later Democratic majorities and the modern GOP congress is unfounded.

"Regarding institutional tyranny -- the use of procedural powers to squelch deliberation and marginalize minority input -- a brilliant Boston Globe series on the modern Republican Congress should have silenced the moral-equivalence crowd forevermore. As reporter Susan Milligan and her team documented in October, by any and all measures of majority autocracy, the modern GOP brooks no comparison. Conference committees added 3,407 pork projects -- never subject to any debate or amendments -- to the 2004 appropriations bills, compared with 47 additions to the final budget passed under Democratic control a decade ago. The House leadership allowed floor amendments for about half the proportion of all legislation last year that the Democratic majority allowed to be amended in the final Congress it controlled.

"Let's recall just a few things that the Democrats did not do, even during the tenure of their most aggressive and partisan modern speaker, Jim Wright. They did not sic the Capitol police on a group of the minority members attempting to confer in an empty room, as the Republican Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas did in 2003. They did not exclude non-pliant Republicans from negotiations on conference reports, as Republicans now do to them as a matter of course."

Jeff Jarvis opines on the 36 TV incidents (including, as The Washington Post cleverly put it, the use of a common nickname for Richard) that the federal decency czars have ruled okay:

"I have a theory that the people in the FCC -- including even lame prude Michael Powell -- are secretly embarrassed that they have turned themselves into the nation's chief prigs and mouth-washers, that they have kneecapped the First Amendment, and that their tenure will be marked in history for the stupidity of following along with what they thought was a political movement but turned out to be only a few religious nutjobs with no lives. But that's just a theory. If it were true, it would explain how the FCC decided to reject these 36 PTC complaints just as Michael Powell ducks out of office."

Jarvis's Buzz Machine details the complaints (without newspaper euphemisms).

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