In one screening room Soviet tankers loomed fat and plentiful, while in another, a Saudi princess was shot to death.Grim, gruesome and mighty good stuff it was for a Monday night cocktail party.
WETA was promoting a new television series called "Ben Wattenberg's 1980," and so had invited about 300 folks to the Four Seasons Hotel to meet Wattenberg and see what he had to offer. That turned out to be one in a series of 10 half-hour programs about a "New Moment" in American life. The one screened last night warns against America's willing military capability and Russia's creeping totalitarianism.
"Can we in good conscience assign to our children a world where a totalitarian nation becomes the most powerful on earth," Wattenberg, a public opinion pollster and former LBJ speechwriter, says from the screen. During the course of the program he wears a jaunty U.S. Navy cap while sleek, sparkling American ships (but not enough of them, he says) lilt and roll beneath him.
If you didn't like that, there was always the double execution of PBS' controversial "Death of a Princess." It was aired at 8 p.m. on WETA and so the WETA people, thinking their guests might like to watch some of the gore and also be able to participate in Washington rehashes of it for the next few days, provided an appropriately tuned set in the Algonquin Room. t
The actual party, as well as the assessments of what "Death of a Princess" means to public television, occurred across the hall in the Dumbarton Room. There, especially if you were a PBS or WETA executive, you could eat and drink to dull any pain you might feel coming on.
"I had an old World War II friend who was in the Middle East with me, whom I haven't seen in five years, call and say, 'What the hell are you doing?'" said Ward Chamberlin, president of WETA. A short time later, Chamberlin added: "We've had about 10 people threaten to drop their memberships from WETA -- people who've said, 'Look, if you even play that program, you'll never get another nickel from me.'"
There were also about 1,500 phone calls, and 400 letters or telegrams to WETA, Chamberlin said, adding that opinion ran 4-to-1 against airing it.
"We really had no alternative but to broadcast it," he said, "but I certainly do it with mixed feelings. I think it is quite an interesting work, but it has all the flaws that the treacherous forms of docudrama always have. You know, a docudrama is a bastard -- in between a true documentary and a fictionalized piece."
At this point, David Carley, the president of the newly formed Association for Publi Broadcasting (a budgeting, lobbying and political arm of PBS) entered the conversation.
"What do I think of the film?" he said. "Ahhhhhhhh. . . ." He looked around the room, then into his drink. But finally and stiffly: "I think it's a good film that protrays a view of a very important culture in the world today."
And what of its impact on PBS?
"It may not help," he sighed, "and it may not hurt."
But back to Wattenberg's film. Out in the hallway, guests were congratulating him as he and a weak gin and tonic held forth at a corner talbe. c
"I think you are most magnetic personality on the screen," said Rebecca Sobel of NBC. "When you come on the screen, it just comes alive."
"Hey, call me, will you?" Wattenberg responded.
Then up trundled columnist Victor Lasky. "Brilliant," he said to Wattenberg, "even if it is Communist propaganda. Heh, heh, heh."
Lasky then offered this thought on the Saudi princess to anyone listening: "If she came over to this country," he said, "I would have given her $5 million for her memoirs. That's the difference between the Saudis and us."
In the "Death of a Princess" screening room, meanwhile, a handful of guests had stayed and watched.
"Fabulous," said Joan Vayo, a congressional staffer.
"I don't think it was as bad as we were led to believe," Margaret Hand, a WETA board member, said after she watched the execution.
A little earlier, Michael Halberstam, Washington doctor and author, stood out in the hallway and asked people if they were going to watch of not watch.
"Hey, are you going to see 'Death of a Princess?'" he asked one guest.
"I didn't even know she was sick," replied the guest.