There was the time a stage manager infuriated Neil MacNeil by hiding his shoes, rendering him barefoot on the air; and a very different time, in 1973, when the show was dropped briefly because of President Nixon's disdain for public television.
It has witnessed intense hilarity and drama, and last night the staff of "Washington Week in Review" celebrated 15 years of such temporal extremes at the Georgetown home of Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) and his wife, Teresa. The Heinzes gave the cocktail reception for 150 people partly because Heinz and WETA President Ward Chamberlin are both alumni of Phillips Exeter Academy, and partly because Teresa Heinz is a founder of the National Council for Children's Television.
Fifteen years of survival is a feat for any television program, but for a public affairs show on public broadcasting, it's practically a miracle. "Fifteen years in television is like old age in human terms," said Paul Duke, who has been host of the show since the beginning. Or as WETA's chairman of the board, Aaron Goldman, put it: "Only a program like this could get this many people on 'Brideshead Revisited' night."
About 150 guests crowded into the foyer of the Heinzes' home, including Rep. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.), chairman of a subcommittee on telecommunications, who said last night that legislation will soon be introduced to assure PBS funding.
"Washington Week in Review" is the Public Broadcasting System's longest-running program. It began as a local public affairs show on WETA in 1967 and two years later was broadcast over the newborn PBS. Now, according to Chamberlin, it airs on "every single one" of PBS' stations--about 280--and has a following of some 13 million people who tune in every Friday night to watch a round-table discussion of the week's events.
One fan of the show is Philip Caldwell, president of the Ford Motor Co., who, in spite of Ford's own financial problems, has insisted on underwriting the entire program--about $500,000 a year--for the past three years. So, unlike other PBS projects, the show has no funding worries. Caldwell wasn't present last night, but representing Ford were executives Gerald terHorst (former press secretary to Gerald Ford) and William Sheehan (former head of ABC News). "It's one of Ford's better ideas," said terHorst.
Meanwhile, Duke and "Washington Week's" producer, Ricki Green, recalled the time a fly was circulating about the table, somehow buzzing around whoever was in the camera's frame. Finally, it landed on the nose of The Chicago Sun-Times' Lisa Myers, who looked cross-eyed, giggled and brushed it away.
Charles Corddry, a regular on the panel from The Baltimore Sun, said his worst moment on the air was when he declared that Anwar Sadat would never go to Jerusalem. That, he said, was shortly before Walter Cronkite publicly invited the late Egyptian president to go. But Corddry had a letter in his pocket that he was dying to show to somebody. It was from an Ontario couple who said they had named their son after him: Corddry George.
When the program nearly folded in 1973, producer Green said, it received 15,000 letters within two weeks, many containing small sums of money. Duke's former research assistant said they used to get lots of mail about Al Hunt's hair, complaining that he looked like a rock star. Hunt, of The Wall Street Journal, said he still gets letters asking if he wears a wig.
Hunt recalled the first time he was on the show, his first time on television. The next day he was at O'Hare Airport when a man recognized him. "I was shellshocked and my head swelled up," Hunt said. "Then he called to his wife, 'Honey! I want you to meet Charlie Corddry!' My head went back to normal size."