Serious Kitsch

Off the Record

Bob Beckel hates boring political discussion. Interest rates--bleh. Transportation policy--funerals are more fun. But the Willie Smith rape trial? A real winner.

Beckel is the host of Off the Record, a Washington-based (and soon to be national) political talk show that defies all the stuffy rules of Face the Nation and This Week with David Brinkley. (You might remember Beckel from the 1984 presidential race, when he managed Walter Mondale's "campaign." Don't be scared off, though. He does better with this show.)

Beckel will do anything to attract viewers--especially young ones bored by the cynical, faux-academic caterwauling of a Sam Donaldson or a Pat Buchanan. He peppers the short news reviews in the show with pop music. One show dumped hard news to offer a segment on the new lost generation--the "twentysomethings."

Even the setting--a relaxed (and very cheesy) living room with cups and magazines scattered on a coffee table--throws off the yes-it's-TV-but-it's-still-serious-journalism attitude of the other D.C. shows.

But the show is not all kitsch. The panel includes bright journalists like Dan Goodgame of Time and Michael Elliott of The Economist who thankfully spend more time actually reporting stories than commenting on them.


In short, Off the Record isn't just journalistic schmoozing. The fiesty (and, well, dense) Rep. Susan Molinari (R-NY) is one of Beckel's regulars, consistently adding an outsider to the TV journalists' club for the first time in the genre.

Still, Beckel is clearly the creative force behind the show, which expands on Capital Gang's "Outrages of the Week" and the McLaughlin Group's "Predictions" by offering every week a "Star," a "Goat" AND a "Back Page" from each host--which are, respectively, an upbeat story, an angering one and one that received little attention.

The gimmicks often leave little time for insightful discussion. But gimmicks are what a struggling network is about, and Meet the Press is boring anyway.

The virtues are vanquished, and the Simpson family returns to the same banal, television-numbed, escapist life.

This goes a long way toward explaining the popularity of the Simpsons and other Fox shows at Harvard. It is essentially a safe, easy kind of condescension or snobbism. The kids in Beverly Hills 90210 get mocked for cheesiness, Married With Children for stupidity, Studs for its total idiocy. We laugh at them for being so lame, and our own lives look much better by comparison.