Out of the Crossfire
Hitchens, Christopher, The Nation
A few months ago, I was watching CNN's Crossfire and saw Michael Kinsley do his regular sign-off. After some feral character had snarled into the screen and said, "From the right, I'm so-and-so," Kinsley picked up the cue and said, "From the left, from the right, from wherever, I'm Mike Kinsley." I knew then that he had had enough. And I knew anyway, because Kinsley is an honest person, that he had always felt like a phony having to say "From the left." The awkwardness felt by him was never quite a match for the impatience felt by many viewers, who had to watch authentic rightists like Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak matched against herbivores and centrists from the Rolodex of consensus. (In the early days of the show it was even worse. Tom Braden, C.I.A. man and valet to the Establishment, had to mouth the words "From the left" every night with his fingers crossed under the desk. To debate with the reactionaries in those days was to be invited to climb into the ring with a dead man strapped to your back.)
I'm touched to say that there was a write-in campaign on the Internet to have yours truly fill the Kinsley chair. And I did get asked on as a substitute for a few nights. And I do have a few friends at the network, and I do know that at one point - after an exchange of views I had with Ed Meese - I held the record for generating mail. I do not actually want to be a full-time television person, though it might have been a good test of character to do Crossfire for a season. But here, for anyone interested, is the reason why neither I, nor anyone with politics to the left of Al Gore, will ever get that job.
On one of my guest-host nights, the subject was the minimum wage. I had Rich Trumka (of the United Mine Workers and now the A.F.L.-C.I.O.) in my corner. Novak's man was Jim Miller, a former Reagan O.M.B. czar who has stated publicly that the ideal minimum wage would be nil. It was a proper crossfire, with well-matched antagonists and a bracing element of class warfare. But I kept being told, before and after the show, to watch my manners. My manners aren't actually all that bad, and would, I think, stand comparison with Buchanan's or Novak's. But it was made clear that if I was as rude to conservative guests as they are to the very occasional leftist ones, then there was a danger that the right would boycott the show. And then where would the producers be? Bet you didn't appreciate the importance of etiquette in the maintenance of "bipartisanship."
If Pat Buchanan had ever been told to watch his tongue, he might not have become the celebrity he is today. Here again we see the wondrous operations of consensus. A man who boasts that his real-life models are General Franco, Father Coughlin and Joseph McCarthy, who has nursed at the public tit and who can get a handful of votes in David Duke country is baptized by the commentators as a "populist." The only thoughtful dissent comes from neo-conservatives, who worry that he is a "socialist." If he were a socialist he would never have been allowed to fill a chair on CNN.
On the second night, the proposed subject was Whitewater. In the conference call in the morning I was told that "Bob and whoever we get will say it's a cover-up, and you'll put the case for the Clintons. …