“The Daily Show” used to do a segment called “Great Moments In Punditry” in which talk show transcripts were re-read by actors. It was funny because the actual arguments were too childish to take seriously — and because the actors reading the lines were children.
For grownups who care about politics, but don’t care for partisan echo chambers boiling things down to “our side good, other side bad,” there aren’t many places to hear a fair and balanced discussion of the real issues.
Santa Monica College’s beautiful Broad Stage was one such place on Sunday when it hosted the annual live version of KCRW’s weekly political roundtable, “Left, Right & Center.”
The show’s genius is in its simplicity, though its appeal lies in the way it elevates the discourse without taking itself too seriously. Every Friday, Matt Miller, a smart, interesting person steadfastly in the center moderates as a smart, interesting person committed to the right (Tony Blankley) joins a smart, interesting person passionately from and of the left (Bob Scheer), and a smart, fascinating person (Arianna Huffington, the star of the show — though producer Sarah Spitz says no one is) described as “somewhere beyond, politically” in a discussion of the week’s events. Miller, with a David Byrne-like consistency, opens by referring to the show as a “civilized, yet provocative antidote to the screaming talking heads that dominate political debate,” and because of that provocative civility, the show is so popular that a quarter-million people download a dose of political sanity every month.
I listen religiously, though it takes me much longer than 30 minutes to get through the show. First, I’m usually taking notes; and when Bob and Matt start arguing, I have to rewind to get the details. I also rely on Tony for a relatively rational representation of the right’s reasoning every week, and his input bears repeating as he is quite the cunning linguist. As Scheer told me, “If anyone can make a plausible argument for an implausible position, it’s Tony.” I used to be bothered by what I thought was Tony’s condescension, but after meeting him I realized that he’s just genuinely amused — as I would be if I found myself in a place where I believed I was right and just about everyone else was nice, but wrong.
And the show takes me a while to listen to because my dear Arianna is still mastering the art of the spoken word in English. But her contributions are so good that it’s worth taking the time. In response to the question I was lucky enough to ask Tony about FOX News, for example, she said, “It’s OK to have any opinions we want, but we cannot have two sets of facts — and that’s really the difference … . MSNBC has passionate opinions based on facts. So does the Huffington Post, incidentally.” It’s my question and I don’t get in a plug for my column or my paper, but she gets one in for HuffPo — just as the show ended. You can’t teach that.
When Matt told me he thinks “folks have come to see us as a kind of political talk version of a soap opera or sitcom, where each of us has a role that listeners understand,” I remembered a moment before the show. Tony was receiving an Ambassador from the People’s Republic of Santa Monica while wearing a contented grin, Bob and his wife were talking to some people, Arianna was totally engaged with KCRW’s Ruth Seymour, and Matt was nearby with his family and some listeners. The actor Steven Weber (who, all due respect to D.L Hughley, was the best thing about “Studio 60”) introduced himself to Matt and said, “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. Some of my friends are going to see U2 or watch the Yankees — talk about a no brainer.”
I realized that these hosts may walk the halls of power, but they’re regular people committed to coming back to our humble little public radio station on a college campus and letting us in on what’s going on. It doesn’t matter if Bob is in Cambodia during a civil war and has to find a Buddhist Temple or if Arianna is on a yacht in the Aegean Sea and has to call in on a satellite phone. The show goes on. And three of them live on the Westside of Los Angeles in the “30 Mile Zone” just like the rest of us. “LRC” isn’t a soap or a sitcom, it’s the best (first?) political reality show ever because these are real people. You might bump into Arianna at the Jamba Juice in Brentwood, catch Bob having sushi at the Hump, Tony having a drink at the Miramar, or spot Matt having fried chicken at the Ivy with his wife and daughter. As Matt perfectly describes it, the radio show is great because it’s “a dinner party conversation.” The live show was better because it gave us a chance to sit at the table.
The question is, will Arianna and Sarah join Bob, Matt, and Tony in making it a semi-annual event?
Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider with four-quadrant crossover appeal whose question can be found at about 1:13 into the podcast. His past columns are archived at www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org