By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 4, 2010; C01
NEW YORK -- They are, somewhat self-consciously, an odd couple, the Northern pol and the Southern belle, the prosecutor and the journalist, the man trying to recover from disgrace and the woman graciously forgiving his sins.
"I bring the everyday American perspective to the table," says Kathleen Parker. "I get 'em. I've been living with them."
"I'm not gonna concede that we aren't real Americans up here in the big urban," says Eliot Spitzer.
"I'm not saying New Yorkers aren't. I'm just saying you aren't."
They are sitting with two producers in a small CNN office at Columbus Circle, hours before their 16th rehearsal of the prime-time show that launches Monday night. All the attention has been on the former New York governor, who resigned two years ago, and it is clear that Parker, the right-leaning columnist syndicated by The Washington Post, is, in television terms, his escort back to polite society.
Spitzer faces a huge hurdle: He must somehow persuade those tuning in to put aside the image of a prostitute-patronizing politician who humiliated his family and view him instead as a thoughtful and engaging personality. The images from the scandal that drove him from Albany -- Ashley Dupre, his designation as Client 9, his pain-stricken wife Silda standing beside him -- are draped around him like a ragged old coat.
Why is Parker, whose husband remains in South Carolina while she commutes, willing to lend her Pulitzer Prize-winning credibility to a role as half of a fondly bickering couple? When Spitzer stepped down, "I remember making a conscious decision not to write about it," she says. "We all struggle in our lives. . . . I didn't need to pile on."
"There's a maturity to her," Spitzer observes from across the room.
He is on the couch, in a crisp white shirt, gold cuff links and blue tie. She is at a desk, in a purple blouse and tan skirt, her blind white poodle, Ollie, curled up in a basket near her feet. He is 51, she is 59. He is smart but a bit starchy; she is sardonic but witty, and he considers her "a hoot." As with every other male-female combination on network morning shows or local newscasts, they are trying to create that mixture of warmth and tension known as chemistry.
One problem with the pairing is that they're not natural antagonists, and cable shows thrive on disagreement. "Parker Spitzer" will be up against Bill O'Reilly on Fox News and Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, and pleasant chat is going to be a tough sell.
Spitzer defends Bill Clinton; Parker didn't think he should have been impeached. Spitzer thinks the Democratic Party has sold out to Wall Street; Parker believes Anita Hill was telling the truth. At one point, she tells executive producer Liza McGuirk: "It's going to be hard to pin me down on a right-wing position."
That, in part, is McGuirk's challenge. "Traditionally," she says, "government officials and journalists have an antagonistic relationship, which should make for good television." But despite the awkwardness of their initial blind date, when Spitzer concluded Parker was a star, they hit it off.
"Because they're now friends and they really enjoy yakking, they try to smooth over the opinions in conversation," McGuirk says. "What I often hear is, 'Gosh, Eliot, I guess I can see what you mean,' and 'You've got a point there, Kathleen.' What I want to hear is them clearly stating their differences."
Each show is supposed to include a light segment, and at the moment they are toying with a discussion about couples who disagree politically. The script says: "Eliot riff. Kathleen riff. Last point."
But they struggle to find the right tone. Pizza vs. Chinese food? Sounds trivial. Favorite novel? Spitzer hasn't read one since college. Favorite actor? They both like Anthony Hopkins. Finally, they give up.
"That got a little too cute, which can happen," McGuirk says.
* * *
Spitzer knew that stepping into the television spotlight would dredge up the past. He discussed it with his family.
"I care about this stuff," he says. "If your heart and soul is in participating -- I hate the phrase 'The Conversation' -- but if you enjoy that, this is one way to do it."
Spitzer is in the front seat of a black Town Car, which is creeping crosstown in the rain so he can give a speech to a real estate company that has done business with his family. He addresses the subject of his rehabilitation slowly, impassively, as if it is the price of admission to an exclusive club.
"There will be people who say things intentionally to cause pain," he says. "Schadenfreude is a genuine human emotion."
He recalls the events of 2008, two years after his landslide victory: "I apologized. I said I did it. I resigned. Not everyone thought I should. I now go to a new chapter. If people are interested in what I have to say, that's great, I'm thrilled."
He is a bare-knuckles practitioner of politics who got knocked out of the ring. As governor, he used the state police to monitor the state Senate's top Republican, a scandal known as Troopergate. Less than six months later, the New York Times reported that Spitzer had patronized a high-priced call girl operation known as the Emperors Club. He was gone within 48 hours.
Spitzer gingerly eased his way back into the limelight. He did a mea culpa on "Today," which he describes as "enormously painful." He wrote columns for Slate, made some appearances on MSNBC. "I did not pick up the phone and say I want a TV gig," Spitzer insists, though he clearly signaled he was available.
He would hardly be the first comeback kid. Bill Clinton (who carried on with the thong-baring intern) is now a respected global figure. David Vitter (associated with the D.C. Madam's escort service) is heading for reelection to the Senate from Louisiana. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (who cheated with a top aide's wife) is running for lieutenant governor of California. Maybe second acts are now the norm in short-term-memory America, particularly if you're good in front of the camera.
The man who hired Spitzer and Parker, Jon Klein, was abruptly fired as CNN president 10 days ago, which should make the program easier to cancel if the hosts stumble out of the gate. In the brutal math of cable news -- Campbell Brown quit CNN after less than three years because she couldn't make ratings headway against O'Reilly and Olbermann at 8 p.m. -- the show doesn't have that long to prove itself. Klein's dismissal will make it easier for the network to pull the plug and blame the guy who's no longer there.
Spitzer, having donned his power pinstripes, walks into the Park Avenue luncheon and is greeted like an old friend. He checks his BlackBerry and sees an e-mail from his wife: "Do you exist?" It's been a crazy day. Spitzer gulps down a cup of black coffee and takes the lectern.
He speaks fluidly for half an hour without notes. "Albany is a horror show," he says, describing a dysfunctional capital. He boasts that he doubled the number of charter schools. That he took on the hospitals to reform Medicaid. That he battled special interests who he thought were "ultimately going to bring down the state." He sounds like he is running for reelection, which -- except for the hookers -- he would be right now.
* * *
Parker and Spitzer are chatting and laughing as they review the scripts. She nudges her co-host, pats him on the back, rolls her eyes.
She has never been entirely comfortable on television, saying she doesn't like "celebrity journalism." In writing, says Parker, "you can fine-tune and tweak and hone." But here she is, on a circular platform surrounded by "Star Trek"-like graphics with splashes of orange and purple, taking the plunge.
The format is a work in progress, the rehearsal just another run-through. After a brief interlude of jazz, they try the opening segment.
"What is this, Eliot?"
"A debate?" Spitzer asks.
"A nightly boxing match?" Parker asks.
"A shouting match?" says Spitzer.
It sounds stilted and scripted, the opposite of their natural banter in the office. He declares himself a pragmatic liberal. She dubs herself a pragmatic conservative.
"I'm from New York, where everyone has an opinion," Spitzer says.
"I'm from the South, where manners are more important than opinions," Parker says.
The exchange is followed by "Eliot's Take," in which he holds forth on the "tea party," populist anger and the need to create more jobs. He sounds like a politician in a 30-second ad.
"Eliot, you're missing the mark here," Parker says in "Kathleen's Take."
In a cheesy moment of on-air camaraderie, an aide brings out a blue box with a white bow. It is Spitzer's birthday present to Parker, a scented candle with the brand name "Fringe."
Up next is "The Clash," with Thomas Frank of Harper's and Kate Zernike of the New York Times. The conversation about the tea party meanders, with the guests doing most of the talking -- sometimes all four talk at once -- and the hosts fail to put their stamp on the segment. Spitzer finally says that President Obama has been coming off like a mediocre legislator; Parker asks questions but doesn't take a clear stand.
The net effect is of a cocktail party conversation where the hosts often share private jokes. Some moments are amusing, others make you wince; at times their body language is more attention-grabbing than their arguments. Perhaps, in light of Spitzer's embarrassing exit from the public stage, that is inevitable and will fade over time.
During a pause in the taping, Spitzer announces to the staff: "I think we just found out what happens when a Democrat and Republican try to do a TV marriage together." The question is whether America wants to tune in to that marriage.
Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."