Did you catch my broadcast debut last Friday night? If you blinked, you probably missed it. Not to worry, I’ll recap it for you.
ABC’s “Nightline” (the show hosted by Ted Koppel that competes with Dave Letterman and Jay Leno for weirdest late-night hairdo) originally was supposed to broadcast live from GW’s own Lisner Auditorium.
The rumor mill was buzzing that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger and Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen were going to be guests on a town hall-type get-together about Kosovo. Tickets were going to be available for students on a first-come, first-served basis.
But then problems arose. The Clinton foreign policy team’s Three Musketeers suddenly became unavailable. The Lisner gig was canceled. The plug was pulled on GW’s chance to be in the spotlight. It seems that someone at the White House remembered what happened when the same Three Musketeers went before a live crowd at Ohio State University.
For those who don’t immediately recall that debacle, let me refresh your memory – the Albright, Berger and Cohen went to OSU to talk about the U.S. sanctions on Iraq. They were confronted by lots of angry students who shouted them down and made speeches during the Q-and-A session. And it was all broadcast live on CNN.
So the White House had flashbacks to the previous disaster and pulled the plug on the Lisner gig.
So, you ask, how did I manage to get on “Nightline”?
My reason: Because I won several prestigious journalism awards, in addition to the Nobel Peace Prize, my participation was requested.
Real reason: The Hatchet was supposed to get some tickets to the Lisner event and one of the “Nightline” producers held on to my name and phone number.
When the producer told me they’d let me ask a question, I had the kind of thoughts any normal person would have when given the chance to be on the show with Koppel:
1. Is that really Koppel’s hair or is it a wig?
2. Who is going to watch this show at 11:30 on a Friday night?
3. What the hell am I going to say?
After a brief nervous convulsion, I told the woman I would come up with a few questions. She then asked me if my question could correspond to some she had written down.
Huh? Was she insinuating that a live television broadcast was not completely spontaneous? Things were scripted? TV is not real? I was horrified. I was disgusted. I couldn’t believe she wanted me to follow their pre-determined plan.
“Sure,” I said.
She said I should ask something about NATO’s credibility and Europe being unable to take care of itself.
Finally the long-awaited day arrived. Most of Friday, I worried about what I would ask. I even went online and looked at what other pundits had to say. I wrote questions down, re-worked them and then came up with new versions of the same question.
After a while, I finally came up with the perfect questions: What will happen to the credibility of both NATO and the United States if, at the end of the Kosovo military campaign, Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic remains in power? What does the lack of action on the part of the European nations in Kosovo say about the future prospects of an effective European Union?
I was ready for prime time. All I had to do was remember the questions and deliver them exactly as I had written them.
At 10 p.m., I showed up at the ABC studios with two fellow Hatcheteers as my moral support backup team. After going through metal detectors, I was ushered into the studio and my moral support team was relegated to the “spillover room” to watch the TV broadcast.
For an hour and a half, the crowd of about 80 people sat and waited. There were some veterans, a man from Rwanda and representatives from Serbian, Croatian, Kosovar and Albanian groups. Vesna Perak from the GW women’s basketball team. And me.
Ted Koppel came out and welcomed the crowd. The five guest panelists for the discussion arrived and took their places. The crowd quieted down and waited as the last few minutes before airtime ticked away.
The panel talked about Kosovo and U.S. options. After five minutes, Koppel opened it up to questions from the audience. The first question was from a World War II vet asking about defense spending levels.
While the man spoke, a producer sitting in front of me turned around and told me I had the first question after the commercial break.
At this point, I felt like a little kid in elementary school who has to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in front of the entire school. At least I didn’t wet my pants.
After the commercial, Koppel talked for a minute or so and then turned around for the next question. My question!
I got up, introduced myself and began to rattle off the questions I had spent so much time developing. Then I hit a minor snag.
Stage fright. Absolute, unabashed terror gripped me as I stood there babbling. I managed to get the NATO question off reasonably well.
But when I was asking the one about Europe, it suddenly dawned on me that everyone in the studio was looking at me. People at home were watching me on TV. Friends, co-workers and classmates (at least those who had nothing better to do on a Friday night than watch “Nightline”) were watching me.
When I finished my sad attempt at forming a coherent question, further disaster struck. Koppel cut me off and said that the European Union was an economic group, not a political one.
To be visibly nervous on TV is one thing. To be visibly nervous and corrected by the anchor is something else altogether. My broadcast career was over before it began.
“But, but,” I tried to stammer, “the European Union was more than an economic group.” I had learned that in my European history class. Koppel was wrong, dammit!
My attempted clarification was in vain. Koppel had already swiveled his chair back to the panel, and I was left standing there, exposed to the world as a clueless college kid.
The panel talked about my NATO question, we went to a commercial break and then they talked about my Europe question. I felt some vindication in that the panelists spent a decent amount of time on my questions. But I still felt like an idiot for freezing up on camera.
All that work, all that preparation, all those dreams of becoming a regular television talking head, all those supermodels that would be fawning over me – all gone.
After the show was over, I got on the elevator to leave the studio. One of the panelists – former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger – also got on, saw me and remembered my question. He said I asked a good question, but the panel answered it badly. I just smiled, nodded my head and said thanks.
It was a small boost to my self-esteem. But hey, I got to be on TV and people saw me. I just hope they didn’t notice my deer-caught-in-headlights performance.
And yes, Ted Koppel’s hairdo appears to be composed of his actual hair.