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HOWARD ROSENBERG

How Hokey Can You Get? Pretty Hokey : 'Firing Line,' 'Titanic' Share Hot-Air Honors

October 30, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

How magnificently hokey. How exquisitely gauche. What a great bloated blimp of a two-hour program it was, so splendidly pumped full of hot air that it almost sailed off the screen.

It was the infinite, long-expected historic exploration of ghostly hulks amid layers of slime and rust in a field of debris. It was the story of evasive action, attempts to avoid disaster, the inevitable plunge to eerie depths.

What secrets and mysteries awaited? What treasures? What baubles? The suspense built unbearably and you chewed your nails in anticipation of the heavily advertised opening.

Of GOP mouths.

As it turned out, Wednesday's "Firing Line" special on PBS--the first nationally televised forum involving the six Republican presidential candidates--was a lot more interesting than the competing "Return to the Titanic" on KTLA Channel 5.

The two-hour programs had striking similarities.

Both were live--but only in some time zones and not on the West Coast, where they were aired on a three-hour delay. And the syndicated Titanic special--concluding with the grossly hyped opening of a safe discovered in the wreckage--was not all that live in any event, despite its billing.

Both programs featured actors and entertainment values.

Both also had famous hosts--rumpled William F. Buckley Jr. for the debate and tuxedoed Telly Savalas for the Titanic. When it came to show biz, Telly was no match for Billy, especially when Buckley traded digs with the show's token Democrat, homespun Bob Strauss, his party's former national committee chairman.

Finally, both programs were keyed to sinkings, with some of these Republicans destined to end up like the Titanic.

If most of the Democratic presidential hopefuls looked like TV anchormen when they appeared on a similar "Firing Line" show last July, the Republicans looked like investment bankers.

But Wednesday's program from Houston proved that Republicans are a lot more fun than Democrats. Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) zinged front-running Vice President George Bush, and Bush zinged Sam Donaldson, who wasn't even there to zing back. Former Delaware governor Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV zinged Bush, and Bush zinged Du Pont. Former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. seemed to imply that Bush was a wimp. Bush, who was bushwacked by almost everyone, seemed to imply that Du Pont was a nut.

Du Pont took honors for answering the most questions that weren't asked. Former TV evangelist Pat Robertson took geniality honors by smiling non-stop. And at the urging of Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, Haig unleashed his favorite anti-Dole campaign joke:

"Beware Dole pineapple juice. Haig and Haig is the real McCoy." Where are laugh tracks when you need them?

It appeared that the GOP nomination ultimately may hinge on the Europe factor, however. Bush declared that he had just returned from Europe, where he'd met with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Haig said he's also just returned from Europe.

"Did you talk to Mrs. Thatcher?" asked Bush, as a challenge.

"Yes, I talked to Mrs. Thatcher," Haig replied coolly.

Strauss revealed that he also had been to Europe recently, but that he had not talked to any high officials there, which seemed to disqualify him from switching parties and becoming a GOP nominee.

While Dole, Haig and Strauss were talking about returning from Europe, Telly Savalas was in Europe. And as Dole was addressing the nation's budget deficit, Savalas was in Paris, surrounded by period artifacts, watching the opening of the Titanic assistant purser's safe.

By then, Westgate Productions and LBS Communications had rejected charges that they had already opened the safe to see what was inside, hoping to avoid the embarrassment of their earlier colossus, "The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults," which yielded nothing but record ratings.

Finally, the moment had arrived for their latest public safecracking.

"The time has come," Telly said.

Ooooooooh .

The staging was, well, stagey. Rubber-gloved experts were at a nearby table, waiting to examine the contents. What would be inside? Diamonds? Rubies? Al Capone?

As it turned out, the yield was small--some paper money, a purse, a little jewelry, a few gold coins--and so was the excitement. "Now where's that thing that had the initials on it?" Telly asked.

A small sack was plucked from the safe. "Whadda we got here?" Telly asked. "Looks like a bunch of gold coins, huh?" The coin expert took a look.

"Around $5,000," she said.

"Oh, really," Telly said.

"I think so," she said.

"Oh, great," he said.

"Yeah, sure," she said.

Far more interesting than the program's safecracking was the process of recovery, featuring closeup underwater footage of the Titanic wreckage. That was as intriguing as the pictures on the same topic that appeared in an earlier "National Geographic" program that aired months ago and was a top seller in home video.

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