The pros from Walt Whitman High School surveyed the amateurs from Congress and the press, and with the confidence that comes of knowing the difference between a secant and a cosine, placed their bets.
"It's going to be the Republicans by 30 points," said Mark Ferguson, a senior on Whitman's "It's Academic" team, which tends to clean up on the televised quiz show. "The average IQ of a Republican is 11 points higher than a Democrat's -- I read that somewhere."
Other members of the Whitman team were placing their confidence in the Democrats, but nobody had a good word to say for the press. "No way," they said. "Esserman's Law -- you can't win with a woman on your team."
It was a "celebrity special" version of the weekly half-hour show and the contestants included Jessica Savitch of NBC, syndicated columnist Art Buchwald and Washington Post columnist David Broder on the press team; Sens. Lowell Weicker (Conn.), John Danforth (Mo.) and H.J. Heinz III (Pa.) on the Republican team, and Sens. Daniel Moynihan (N.Y.), Lloyd Bentsen (Texas) and Alan Cranston (Calif.) for the Democrats.
Presumably, Esserman did better on his college boards than he did laying down the law. The press team managed a 20-point victory over the Republican score of 480, with the Democrats nowhere in sight with a score of 360.
"We were robbed," said a rather miffed Moynihan at the end of it all, but of course everyone hastened to point out that the ultimate victors were the abused children for whom the participants had come to raise money. Giant Food, sponsor of the weekly "It's Academic" program, had promised to convert the points to dollars for a center for abused children.
At the reception before the Thursday night taping (the show will be shown locally later in the year); there were omens aplenty of the eventual outcome. The press was maintaining a nonchalant humility, the Republicans had figured out a breezy no-lose theory to apply to the contest, and the Democrats seemed a bit befuddled. Like all omens, naturally, these worked best in hindsight.
"No matter what happens, we win," said Heinz. "If we get the most points, we demonstrate our clear intellectual superiority, and if we lose, we get the sympathy vote, which is about all Carter's got going for him these days."
Bentsen was ased if the honor of his party was at stake. "I hope it doesn't depend on this," he said rather mournfully. "We're in enough trouble as it is." Moynihan, meanwhile, was markedly successful at cultivating an absentminded-professor approach to the event, claiming never to have seen the show or any of its counterparts.
Finally, after a suitable amount of liquid stimulation at the party, it was time for the taping to begin. The Democrats wore gray and looked terrified. The Republicans wore blue and looked terrified. The press looked hungry.
There were bands and cheerleaders in full voice and costume. There was the Walt Whitman "It's Academic" team cheer.
"Pericles Sophocles! Peloponnesian War!
"X squared! Y squared! H-two-S-Oifour!"
The cheer, after several verses of unintelligible mathematical formulae, finished with a rousing "integral, secant, arc cosine! Three point one four one five nine! Line, angle, segment, ray! Republicans" (or Democrats, depending on the shouter) "all the way!"
The way was strewn with softballs. "Who had the slogan 'New Frontier?'... Identify this quote from an Italian strongman during World War II..."
"Wow," said the pros from Whitman, "they must really want to give money away."
At the end of it all, the press team was looking contented with "I lost my mind on 'It's Academic'" T-shirts. Moynihan, who had thrown heart and soul into his search for answers, was complaining that the winning team had been awarded points for answers that he had arrived at first; and tribute was paid to a member of an earlier celebrity press team who had died in 1976.
"As David Broder said," Lowell Weicker commented, "They won this one for Peter Lisagor [who had been a reporter for the Chicago Daily News], and I can't think of a better reason."