"M*A*S*H" is not just another television show-- it's an addiction. So its passing from prime time completely into syndication heaven will be observed with a mixture of bon voyage celebrations and sad good-byes.
Columnist James J. Kilpatrick will be watching at his home in the mountains of Rappahannock County, Va. Jack Valenti, in California for a dinner for Queen Elizabeth II, will settle back in his hotel room to watch. Democratic politico Bob Strauss won't be able to catch it tonight--he's going to a black-tie dinner given by the Democratic National Committee and the Democrats for the '80s--so he'll tape it. And Ring Lardner Jr., who wrote the screenplay for the movie "M*A*S*H," which inspired the television show (which he usually doesn't watch), will tune in. "I'm interested to see how they wrap it up," Lardner said.
Al Nodal, director of the Washington Project for the Arts, canceled a board meeting tonight because some of the members wanted to watch "M*A*S*H" instead. (Nodal will watch on a television in his office.) For Chris Middendorf, owner of the Middendorf/Lane art gallery and a twice-a-week viewer, the timing is perfect. "Fortunately, the gallery is closed on Monday," he said. Another Washington man's "M*A*S*H"-addicted family vetoed a "M*A*S*H" party, saying they preferred to keep this last show a family affair.
Okay, so not everyone in this city is participating in the "M*A*S*H"-mania sweeping the country. You know how Washington is--late work nights and not much time for television. Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole doesn't watch, reports her press officer. Neither does Mayor Marion Barry, says one of his staffers. And Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger doesn't see it much either. "He is never home to watch it," said Marylou Sheils, special assistant for public affairs at Defense. Sheils, however, is a fan.
Even the White House press office, when asked if the president would be watching, mustered a statement. "He doesn't know what his schedule will be Monday night," said Assistant Press Secretary Mark Weinberg. "If he has a chance to watch it, he might."
Fans include some with firsthand experience.
Former secretary of state Alexander M. Haig Jr., a retired Army general, can't watch tonight. He has to attend a dinner for retired admiral Hyman Rickover. But Haig, who was treated at a "M*A*S*H" unit when he got sick in Korea, had this to say: "As a graduate of a genuine M*A*S*H unit in June 1951 in Korea, I rejoiced at their termination in 1953. But on this occasion, one cannot but have the opposite sentiments."
Haig's favorite "M*A*S*H" character?
"I will miss especially the Field Manual ethics of Hot Lips Houlihan."
Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D-Ind.), who served with the Marine Corps in the Korean War, will be watching tonight. "It's not a question of will I be able to watch," he said. "I shall watch it." He catches a lot of the reruns. One of his favorite shows was "the one when they gave care to an enemy soldier. It seemed to me that there was quintessential Christianity in it. And, of course, they had Frank Burns as a foil, objecting to it for some superficial reason."
That episode had special meaning to Jacobs, who says his own life once was spared by enemy soldiers. It happened when he and another Marine were carrying a wounded man. Looking up at a hilltop about two football fields away, Jacobs recalled, they saw two Chinese soldiers, armed with missile launchers, "who had us in their recoil sight. They signaled us to go on."
Jacobs finds one part of the show unrealistic: "Those attacks on the M*A*S*H unit--there was little air power on the part of the enemy."
The press secretary for another former Marine and a former secretary of the Navy, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), first said, when asked if Warner was a fan, "He watches very little television and when he does, it's usually public affairs programs."
She called back later to say that apparently Warner does watch it sometimes. He issued this statement: "As a Marine in Korea and as secretary of the Navy, I've observed many front-line aid stations and the indescribable human suffering of the wounded and the dedication and quality care provided by the military medical personnel.
"While the 'M*A*S*H' program includes a lot of humorous, sometimes frivolous situations, it nevertheless leaves a lasting impression with the viewer of the suffering and sacrifice given by our servicemen and -women . . ."
Columnist Kilpatrick has been a "M*A*S*H" fan for a long time. He is a fan of Maj. Frank Burns--played by Larry Linville, who left the show several years ago--the obnoxious, pompous, petty character who was a delightful foil for the sharp-tongued, irreverent Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda), Trapper John (Wayne Rogers) and B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell). Frank Burns, said Kilpatrick, "is both a wimp and a nerd . . . Every now and then he turned into a human being. You always hoped he'd show some spine, but he never did. Just a real bastard, that one."
There are other Frank Burns fans around. Said Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, "Frank Burns brought pomposity and obnoxiousness to the level of art."
Carolyn Deaver, wife of Michael Deaver, Reagan's deputy chief of staff, is a fan of Klinger, the character who spent most of the years of the series dressed in drag in hopes of getting a psychiatric discharge. "He has this outrageous humor in the middle of everything else," she said.
She has a favorite episode: "One that was sad was when Hot Lips went off on some great romance and it went sour," said Deaver. "She came back and everyone was nice to her. They're always so mean to her and they showed her a little compassion that time."
Maj. Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan, of course, is the self-righteous, by-the-book Army nurse, who for many seasons was having a passionate affair with Frank Burns.
"Margaret was a terrible character in the beginning," said Lynda Van Devanter, a former M*A*S*H nurse in Vietnam, who wrote a recently published book about her experiences there. "She was such a classic lifer. She's gradually been allowed to grow."
Van Devanter, who is national women's director of the Vietnam Veterans of America, came back from Vietnam in 1970. "There was a period of time when I couldn't watch the show. I just couldn't. It must have been around 1978 or 1979 when I became obsessed with the Vietnam experience, and then the show became an obsession."
Now, Van Devanter says she is "the biggest addict in town" and often watches the 7:30 p.m. reruns. "Every once in a while when we've been working really hard here, someone will yell, ' "M*A*S*H" break!' We'll watch TV, then go back to stuffing envelopes or writing testimony or whatever."
Tonight she'll dig out her old fatigues for a party given by a former M*A*S*H medic who will require his guests to show up in M*A*S*H attire or operating room clothes.
Veteran news commentator Howard K. Smith said: "The one I liked best was Radar, the little farm boy from Iowa. And then the colonel (Potter)--he's good and salty."
Smith, who won't be able to catch "M*A*S*H" tonight--he has to introduce the French ambassador at a dinner given by the Institute for Foreign Affairs--isn't always the biggest fan. "Sometimes Hawkeye can get irritating," said Smith, who covered World War II as a reporter. Nor does he always agree with the program's philosophy. "They all seem to decry our role in Korea," he said. "I think it was rather noble. But I like the humor of the show. I don't like it when it gets serious."
Alan Alda's Hawkeye may irritate Smith, but Alda has lots of other fans. Who do you think Eleanor Smeal--the former president of the National Organization for Women, who spoke all over the country on behalf of ERA along with dedicated ERA-supporter Alan Alda--will want to see the most when she watches the show tonight?
"Alan," Smeal chuckles. "Obviously."
Among the fans who have to miss it, Bob Strauss won't be the only one taping it.
"As it happens, someone is giving me a lovely dinner party in California," said George Stevens Jr., chairman of the American Film Institute, last week. "So don't tell Jack Valenti, but I'm going to tape it."
But Jack Valenti, who has waged a campaign for royalties on all home video-taping, said, "As a matter of fact, I'll probably tape it myself, and then zap out the commercials."