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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

On the Grill: Half-Baked Perot and a Top Suspect

July 12, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

It's a rare week when the Baltimore cops of "Homicide: Life on the Street" and CNN's Larry King find themselves in the same fix.

But this is such a week. NBC's fictional police tonight get nowhere grilling an accused killer in an episode airing two evenings after the overmatched King's own grueling TV session with accused presidential hopeful Ross Perot.

The Reform Party founder's responses Wednesday were largely nonstop conveyor belts of obfuscation, affirming what a baffling bird he'd be if he ever were president, addressing the nation largely through TV.

The "Homicide" episode is a rerun from 1993, one of the most stirring hours of TV drama you'll ever see, consisting almost entirely of an elderly suspect being questioned through the night by a pair of tenacious detectives.

Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) and Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) have only 12 hours to wring a confession from Risley Tucker (the late Moses Gunn), an ambiguous street peddler they believe murdered, molested and mutilated Adena Watson, the 11-year-old girl who tended his horses. The direction by Martin Campbell and the performances, especially by Gunn, are scintillating.

The extraordinary script, which earned executive producer Tom Fontana an Emmy, finds Tucker bending but not quite folding under relentless pressure inside an interrogation room that cops call "the box."

"You see Adena any time Tuesday?"

"No." "You didn't see Adena Tuesday at all." "No."

"You didn't see Adena Tuesday AT ALL!"

"No."

Watching even such skilled inquisitors as Bayliss and Pembleton strike out gives you greater appreciation for the amiable King, whose past TV encounters with Perot had the tone of a toddler sitting on Santa's lap.

Yet give this guy a break. Unlike Bayliss and Pembleton, King has a TV show to put on, one whose health depends on such VIPs as Perot (who in 1992 made "Larry King Live" the launch pad of his third-party presidential bid) being of a mind to return. So no bruising. Not that it would work, anyway, for if Bayliss and Pembleton thought Risley was a rock, Perot would have them babbling to themselves.

You understand what Perot said?

No.

You didn't understand Perot at all.

No.

You didn't understand Perot AT ALL!

No.

Credit King also for what he did accomplish, getting Perot to acknowledge that he was joining former Colorado Gov. Richard D. Lamm in seeking the Reform Party nomination for president.

Well, acknowledge . . . sort of. After asking Perot straight out, "Are you a candidate?," King had to repeatedly prod and listen to several tangled monologues before ultimately getting Perot to say that he was running.

Well, running . . . sort of, it seemed, maybe, for there was interviewer Elizabeth Vargas on ABC's "Good Morning America" Thursday, urging Perot to be more explicit.

"Didn't you watch last night?" Perot asked. "Certainly, sir," Vargas replied, then pressed him again. "I just have my own way of expressing myself," Perot said with finality, "and I guess you're stuck with it."

As were "Larry King Live" viewers Wednesday night, shown by these excerpts.

King: "Tobacco. Should the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] regulate it?"

Perot: "In the real world, most of what we talk about in politics is the superficial issue. You know, I know, I want everybody in America to know why this is an issue. It's the tobacco lobby's money. If you take it, then you're obligated to support them."

King: "Both parties take it."

Perot: "Of course, they do. And they're gonna finesse it and play games with it, and if they do anything, it'll be a sham."

King: "Would you, if you ran the FDA, would you want to regulate it . . . as a drug?"

Perot: "Well, I like to approach everything from a common sense point of view. I say, is this bad for your health? Yes. Should people smoke? No. In a free society, can people smoke if they want to? Sure. All right, let's assume a fellow wants to smoke three packs a day all his life, and then when he's 60, he's gotta have a lung transplant. Should I ask some fine, decent person who's workin' third shift to pay for that with taxes? I don't think so."

Perot paused, smiling at King, who apparently was trying to mentally regroup.

King: "So, if you smoke you don't get benefits?"

Perot: "Well, no. Add taxes to the cigarettes, build a pool there, and let the guys, in effect, take care of themselves. That's the heart of what a free society's all about."

At this stage, King seemed either not to have the will to further pursue his original question or to have no memory of what it was, so he moved on.

King: "Should abortion be discussed in a national election?"

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