“The past is a tabula rasa,” Henri Cartier-Bresson said. “But it usually comes back like a burp.” For several weeks straight, America has belched Watergate.
It was always there as the teachable moment, as the far stake bearing the red flag for comparisons of corruption. But now it lives in the media as an interactive timeline, allowing us to match yesteryear’s high crime or obstruction to today’s analog.
Watergate’s precipitating event—the DNC break-in—pales in comparison to possible collusion with the Russians. But a more disturbing disconnect between then and now is our loss of a common vocabulary to talk about democratic values.
This struck me forcefully while watching clips of the recent White House cabinet meeting, where the secretaries go round-robin to sing the praises of a boss who grins like a gremlin on a Gothic cathedral. You kept waiting for one or another of the faithful to break into hysterical laughter. But they kept on with their renditions of the odes of Horace, straight-faced and sans lute.
This odd display brought to mind something I hadn’t realized I remembered so clearly—an episode of the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati I had seen as a teen, when it was broadcast in 1980.
The episode parodies a popular new format TV show called Real People. The show portrayed on WKRP, Real Families, features an insidious handheld camera that follows around real families while co-hosts offer commentary in front of a studio audience.
WKRP’s real family belongs to Herb Tarlek, the station’s sleazy, ethically challenged ad salesman. Herb’s plaid-suit narcissism—comic bordering on pathos—has propelled him to get his family on the show. But it’s clear from the footage that the Tarleks are not prepared for this level of scrutiny. It’s also clear that, with the cameras following Herb around the radio station, he has coached his coworkers on how they should describe him to the world.
“Herb Tarlek is a hard worker, a loyal husband, and an all-around fine person.” We hear it verbatim from Johnny Fever, Jennifer Marlowe, Venus Flytrap, Andy Travis, Bailey Quarters, Les Nessman, and Arthur Carlson.
For a while, the Real Families hosts amicably go along with the ruse. But eventually they move in for the kill. “What are these people doing?” one of them—played by Peter Marshall of Holly Squares renown—asks of the familiar Tarlek refrain. His audience of everyday Americans shouts back gleefully, “They’re lying!”
Watching the Trump cabinet meeting, I realized that in the America of 2017, we can’t even agree on the words to call out what’s going on right in front of our faces.
At the time of the Watergate break-in, reality television was pretty much Candid Camera (children and adults caught unawares doing goofy things) at the low brow and Seven Up! (children aging in real time) at the high. The closest we got to the intimate lives of regular people was daytime TV like The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game (wives whacking husbands with cardboard slates).
In 1973, PBS brought out An American Family, a series about a real family going through a divorce. But this was presented as an edited documentary. It wasn’t until the drip-drip-drip months of the Carter administration that America got a hit reality show in NBC’s Real People, which ran from 1979 to 1984. The other networks immediately followed suit and a genre began to expand and evolve.
“Unmasking”—an early entry in the glossary of Watergate II—is a good term to describe the roots of reality TV. What WKRP sought to parody in 1980 was Real People’s implicit desire to unmask ordinary Americans, to reveal what motivates the façade of propriety they present to the world.
There has always been a mass audience for this. But few could have predicted in 1980 that the desire for attention and flash celebrity would so easily trounce fears of public humiliation. Rather than run away from these shows, ordinary Americans dove into the fire. They unmasked themselves.
Reality TV didn’t take off until 2000, but two of its progenitors hit their stride in the 1990s: tabloid talk shows and celebrity confessionals. Jerry Springer and Geraldo featured the same sinners, miscreants, and boundary-pushers whose broken lives would later shape reality programming. And the spectacle of celebrities breaking down on primetime ranged from Tammy Faye Bakker’s running mascara to OJ in the Bronco to Barbara Walters’s two hours of blotted teardrops with Monica Lewinsky.
The conflation of these genres in reality TV meant that its subjects were no longer ordinary Americans but not-quite-celebrities whose diva meltdowns and ballsy power plays audiences accepted as the way of the world.
With cheating and lying as everyday as reaching into a bag of Doritos, feeling superior to fatuous nobodies gave way to feeling justified to act as badly as people with money. It used to be that Americans aspired to have what their neighbors had. But with reality TV, they know the closets of celebrities better than the front yards of the people across the street. Hence they synchronize their aspirations with the accoutrements of people who throw shoes at the help, have tantrums at funerals, and fire people while admiring their cufflink.
Americans trusted reality programming because it paid dividends. It taught them to wax their pubes, juice a mango, stage a house, pawn Grandma’s musket, and fillet bluefish. It taught them the jargon of Hollywood therapists, astrologers, plastic surgeons, and focus groups.
The stunts and exploitation on the lowest forms of these shows gave them a seen-it-all worldliness; witnessing contrived events with one-dimensional story lines made them hardened experts on greed and laziness with little patience for extenuating circumstances. Because there was no perceived showrunner, truth was taken at the skirmish level.
Reality TV has made Americans dwellers in artificial communities of co-consumers. It is easy to see how Fox News has exploited this self-segregation, nudging viewers to demonize whatever lies beyond these artificial boundaries. When all members of the opposing political party are liars—half of them moochers and the other half elites—then “liar” is just another word for the person in front of you at the grocery store.
In one sense the 1980 Cincinnati of the Tarlek family seems worlds away—especially the vision of propriety that Herb and his wife, Lucille, perceive as ideal. And yet the transgressions caught on camera are the same issues we grapple with today: Herb keeps trying to yank away the doll that his young son carries around; he refers to a football player as “colored.”
I think the reason I remembered the episode so well is this: The reality show’s violation of the family’s integrity induced compassion for a character who is normally a jerk. The Herb Tarlek of 2017 could very well be wearing a Lock Her Up! T-shirt at an anti-sharia rally.
As America faces a new constitutional crisis, we would do well to remember the things that our country could agree on during the last one, when the “community” in people’s heads was the one they actually lived in. Things like how we should respect and not mock the different ways our fellow citizens try to present a good and noble face to the world. In scratching away the mask, there is always the risk of scratching away what it sought to stand for. §