"My last hurrah," says Martin Agronsky, peering out the door of the TV station and managing a rather sad little smile. But then he adds, "for this," by which he means "Agronsky & Company," the Washington-based political talk-show he has hosted since it began in 1969.
Tonight's is the last edition of "Agronsky & Company" as we and he have known it. Agronsky decided last June he would finish out the year and then leave the program to pursue other interests; as of next Saturday, it will be called "Inside Washington" and be anchored by WUSA's Gordon Peterson.
On Thursday, a day earlier than usual because of the holiday, Agronsky and company taped his final show, which Channel 9 will air in its customary time slot, 7 tonight. In a brisk three minutes at the end of the show, the panelists say goodbye to the man who founded the store.
"It's been a real honor and a stimulation and a pleasure and a lot of fun to be associated with you on this show," says Strobe Talbott.
"For half a century, Martin, you have been at the world's events ahead of everybody else," says Hugh Sidey. "Don't stop now."
"You've been one of the few people who fought the battle for the news and for seriousness against commercialism and schlock," says Tom Oliphant.
"It's been a great experience," James J. Kilpatrick tells Agronsky, joshing, "I won't miss you much, but I'll miss you some."
"I'm going to miss you all, a lot," Agronsky says, not joshing.
For Agronsky, who turns 73 today, his 18 years as the host of the show gave him the highest visibility of anything in his 47-year career as a broadcast journalist. But in that time he has covered just about everything and worked for just about everybody.
"I think Martin is truly one of a kind," says Jim Snyder, executive producer of "Agronsky & Company" from Night One. "He's the only man who has worked for all three networks and for PBS as a correspondent. I don't think any other person on the planet can claim that.
"He's had a very rich experience, and I think that paid off for him in many ways in doing the program. He is a man of principle and strong feelings, and that helped, too."
Fond farewells were bid at a huge Washington party in early December. It wasn't a wake for a career, because Agronsky wants to keep working, doing a series of 13 documentaries he has in mind or perhaps writing a book.
Agronsky says it was his idea to leave and he is glad he made the decision. And yet, he's clearly going to miss it. And it him.
"When I decided to leave, I asked myself, 'How do you feel?' " he recalled after the final taping. "And I guess my basic thing is, I felt like I'd done it enough and now I want to do something else. You know I think back to April of 1940, when I first signed on with NBC. During that entire period, I've never had more than two weeks off in a row. Because you're always meeting some damn deadline.
"Well that's a dopey way to live and I suppose that's when I sort of made up my mind about leaving."
But he has asked himself that other question. "Do you have regrets about leaving? Sure you do. I mean, look, I think it's a very good show, an opportunity to do something useful, to change things a little bit, perhaps -- to some tiny extent -- and I guess you regret giving that up."
Under Agronsky's guidance, the program became indisputably a Washington institution. "Everybody who is in public life watches Agronsky," said Ted Kennedy at the Agronsky bash. Saturday night dinner parties were planned around it, and an uncountable number have been given over to discussions of what was said on that night's show.
Sidey, Kilpatrick and Carl Rowan (absent from the Agronsky finale) have been with the program, like Agronsky, from the beginning. Their success helped inspire the ABC network's popular "This Week With David Brinkley," as well as a much more obvious copy, "The McLaughlin Group," the spatting image of "Agronsky" over on Channel 4.
When John McLaughlin and his charges first went on the air a few years ago, they attracted much attention with their bellicose imbroglios, and it was speculated that "Agronsky" was a trifle stodgy by comparison. The two shows do not air directly opposite each other, but are competitive in the ratings nevertheless. "Agronsky" remains dominant.
"Oh sure I've watched it," Agronsky says of McLaughlin's group. "Listen, he's got a way of doing it, and I've got a way of doing it. I wouldn't argue with his way of doing it at all." No one at Post-Newsweek Stations, which produces "Agronsky," ever suggested to him that he try to make his show more combustive to keep up with the challenger, Agronsky says.
"A lot of outside opinion said they were more 'exciting' to watch, for a while," says Agronsky, "but that wore off. People would say, 'Why don't you have more conflict?' I never felt you should create conflict artificially. I thought it should come out of the ideas. I have always felt very strongly that the ad hominem approach is wrong. I don't believe in it. But I don't fault McLaughlin for doing it that way."
Once, on "This Week," Sam Donaldson referred to "Group" as "Dr. McLaughlin's Gong Show." McLaughlin is heat, Agronsky is light. Snyder says there will be no major change in the look of the program, but adds, "We are interested in introducing some new faces as we go along."
On Thursday afternoon, the clock had struck, and passed, 1, the appointed hour of the taping, but no one looked particularly worried that Agronsky himself had yet to arrive at the studio -- even though at 2, the finished broadcast would have to be satellited to the 50 other stations that air it.
"Actually, the ruination of this show would be promptness, efficiency, and no technical screwups," said Sidey, waiting in the green room just off the studio for Agronsky to appear.
Rich Adams, producer of the show for the past 12 years, couldn't have looked less anxious. "I've loved working with Martin," he said. "We became very good friends very quickly." He said the big noise from the "McLaughlin Group" hadn't impressed him. "When you start letting another show have an effect on you, then you make changes or you react instead of doing what you do best."
The panelists were given instructions on the unusual windup for this week's show, a couple of minutes saved for goodbyes to Agronsky and Agronsky's own goodbye.
"One thing I can say with some pride is, I've never told anybody here what to say, and I'm not going to do it today," Snyder announced. Kilpatrick shot him a look that seemed to say, "Go ahead, try and tell me what to say." Then Snyder said, "We need to leave 30 or 35 seconds for Martin himself."
"That's been the same for the last 20 years," Sidey said sarcastically.
"He's not going to have 30 or 35 when I get through making my speech," huffed Kilpatrick.
"Thank God there was no news this week," said Talbott, a relative newcomer to the gang. Oliphant was on hand because regular Elizabeth Drew was home nursing a bad back.
Agronsky finally showed up, preceded by a kind of herald warning from his secretary, Barbara Miles. He sat in the makeup chair while his colleagues tossed wisecracks at him.
During the taping, Snyder, Miles and others associated with the program watched from the control room. Also on hand was Bill Lewis, who works for the Senate Judiciary Committee and said he's been an absolutely devoted follower of the show since 1975. That doesn't mean, in the video age, that he's always home on Saturday evening. "I can tape it," he said.
With whom on the panel does Lewis most often agree? "Carl Rowan." With whom does he least often agree? "It used to be George Will. Now it's Kilpatrick," Lewis said. And as for the competition from the McLaughlinites, "They shout too much."
Will, the wealthy syndicated columnist, broke into television on "Agronsky & Company" when Agronsky tapped him as a replacement for the brilliant Peter Lisagor, who died in 1976. But Will left in 1984 when ABC News president Roone Arledge, and scads of teledollars, beckoned. Agronsky says he doesn't take credit for making Will a star nor resent his leaving the show for incomparably greener pastures.
"Any show that guy had been on, he'd have done awfully well," Agronsky says. "But he always felt that he owed me something, which has always amused me -- because George is not exactly modest." No hard feelings when Will left? "No. It was money. I couldn't possibly offer him what Brinkley offered him. No hard feelings whatsoever."
Will was the panelist most likely to make Agronsky lose his temper, Agronsky says, but that anger always stayed within the show and never spilled out beyond it. Snyder says that when Will was negotiating with Arledge, he tried to work out a deal that would allow him to continue on "Agronsky."
Arledge would have been nuts to go for that, and didn't.
And though Will didn't show up for the Agronsky party last month, Snyder says he sent Agronsky "a lovely note." Agronsky says he also got lovely notes from James Reston and Peter Jennings. The notes were so lovely they started Agronsky thinking, "What the hell, if the show's that good, why are you leaving?" Then he snapped out of it again.
As he talks, Agronsky realizes he has reached the end of one of the several Camels he smokes within about an hour. He gets up, walks across the carpet to a part of the floor covered with tile, stamps out the cigarette, walks back to the couch, and immediately lights another. He once quit for two years, he says, and then one day, while working on a documentary, a film editor handed him a cigarette, he absent-mindedly lit up, and fell off the wagon with a bang.
In addition to everybody else in official Washington, presidents have been among the show's loyal following, or loyal opposition, over the years. Ronald Reagan, who used to phone Will after his "Agronsky" appearances, now calls Sidey and Kilpatrick to bitch, Agronsky says. "Carter called me once. Nixon would send word; his press secretary would call sometimes to complain about something.
"We had an opportunity with Nixon and with Carter; they let it be known that they would come on the show. I always wanted to do it, but my feeling was that the only way you could do the president is outside the framework of the show, because no president is going to sit down there as the peer of a group of reporters."
Or, dare we say, vice versa!
For all the hubbub that "Agronsky & Company" has caused, and attention it has received, Agronsky does not necessarily consider it the undisputed high point of his career. On the last program, he makes reference to having covered the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann from Jerusalem in 1961 and '62, and he continued talking about it after the show.
"I did the trial from beginning to end, nine months, for NBC," he said. "I was on the Huntley-Brinkley show every night. NBC was really the only network that had someone there the whole time. We couldn't flash a picture, even a still picture, across the Atlantic at that point. We could do art, drawings. So I hired a good young artist and I would tell her to do this scene or that and then I'd write my piece to it and we'd send that on whatever system we had to New York.
"I think perhaps that was the story I was most drawn into. I always took that story very seriously."
He took it so seriously that it affected his health. "There was one day during the trial when I just couldn't breathe. I couldn't catch my breath. I was frightened, thought there was something the matter with me. I went to a doctor, he examined me, and he said, 'There's nothing the matter with you. The trial is what's the matter with you.' "
But he had to continue covering it. The doctor said to try it for a while from the closed-circuit telecast, which Agronsky could watch from the basement of the building. "I did, and the breathing problem went away. The trial had a hell of an impact on all of us."
Sidey had said before Thursday's taping that Agronsky confided to him he still got nervous before each show. Agronsky smiled guiltily when he heard that. "Hell, I still get nervous before a lecture, and I don't know how many lectures I've done. You get uptight. I do, yeah. It's stupid, but I do."
After the taping, panel and moderator met again in the green room to drink champagne from plastic glasses and toast the new year -- and the retiring host. There was a small stab at reminiscence.
"All these rich Republican women who watch the show," said Sidey. "They were distressed for 20 years with Martin and now they feel they don't know what they're going to do without him." One lady in a Maryland hospital has been writing Agronsky lately to say she is "totally in love" with him, Miles said.
"When did your hair recede?" Sidey asked Agronsky suddenly. This is something men over 40 always talk about when together. Agronsky growled, "I won't concede that it ever did recede."
"Appeasement, appeasement!" said Kilpatrick. "That's what George used to get you with, Martin -- appeasement."
And then the party began to break up. Kilpatrick picked up the bird feeder he'd left in a corner and shook Agronsky's hand. The others did the same -- without bird feeders, that is. Adams told Agronsky, "I'll probably call you next Friday out of habit" and said, "Don't be a stranger." Agronsky may guest-host the new show on weeks when Peterson can't make it.
But this was, really, goodbye, and not a long one or a loud one. Soon Agronsky was alone in the green room. "You know, when I made the decision to leave, my wife looked at me and the first thing she said was, 'Does that mean you're going to be around the house all the time?' " She was joking. Well, mostly.
Agronsky was off to the airport to catch a plane to Florida, where his wife was waiting for him. He thought he'd return with her this weekend but then reminded himself he didn't have to be back. "The trouble is, you get on a high with all this ending stuff and I realize that isn't the greatest thing in the world, you know. So I think I'll go down and spend the week and try to turn it off." Pause. "Sure I will."
Will he tune in "Inside Washington" next week to make certain they don't screw it up? "Oh they won't screw it up, but sure, I'm going to tune in. It's a good show, and I'm going to watch it."