Ted Koppel had confronted the world’s most powerful figures since the inception of ABC’s “Nightline” seven years ago.
He’d handled master propagandists, interviewed villains and heroes, held his own with tyrants, revolutionaries, political and spiritual leaders and just about everyone else. He’d presided over late-night jubilation and tragedy. He’d traveled to South Africa and the Philippines in the heat of turmoil and was battle-hardened.
But Wednesday was the first time he’d been told on national TV that God loved him.
No wonder that at that point, after nearly 80 minutes of amazing dialogue with two of the best performers ever to smile innocently at a TV camera, he seemed awed by Jim and Tammy Bakker.
ABC’s “Nightline” returned to the scene of some of its greatest ratings this week with two special, hour-plus programs on the soaring shame of PTL, concluding with Wednesday’s live satellite interview of the exiled Bakkers from the living room of their Palm Springs home-away-from-home.
This time “Nightline” was airing the Bakkers’ first extended, live-TV interview since they were barred from returning to their scandalized PTL ministry by a new board headed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
Koppel applied the pressure, but the Bakkers were brilliant.
“Is it going to be possible for you to get through an interview without wrapping yourselves in the Bible?” he began, sternly.
He had only his intelligence and journalistic skills, though. They had their scriptures and TV charismas, shaped and polished from years of teary preaching to millions of their Christian followers.
“I want to go home to our puppies and the people we love,” said Tammy, helplessly, her eyes glistening, her voice cracking.
Oh, yes. Pour it on. And when the Bakkers ended the program by exclaiming, one after the other, “God loves you,” it was standing-ovation time. What’s a few million bucks out the window? These people were downright adorable.
TV just does not get any better than this. Someone--surely the entrepreneurial Bakkers have thought of it themselves--can make a fortune by marketing this as a home video.
If Koppel can only sign the entire gang from the PTL melodrama to regular appearances, moreover, he will do what Joan Rivers couldn’t do: put Johnny Carson out of business. “Nightline” had more than twice the audience of “The Tonight Show” Wednesday, according to overnight Nielsen ratings.
And speaking of that, what irony. The Bakkers’ late nighter with Koppel put them opposite “The Late Show” on KTTV Channel 11, the very talk program from Fox Broadcasting Co. that they claim they were asked to host temporarily following Rivers’ recent ouster.
The Bakkers hosting “The Late Show”? Cynical but logical.
After all, the PTL scandal is a story about TV that is being played out on TV by TV people.
What strikes you about all of the principals is their command of the camera, how comfortable and persuasive they are using TV as both a pulpit to reach their flocks and a link to the secular public.
They’re easy to believe. Falwell accuses Bakker; you believe Falwell. Bakker accuses Falwell; you believe Bakker. These are the Lord’s electronic militia, heavily armed with smiles, seductive deliveries and insights into human nature. Years of TV preaching have made video smoothies of the Bakkers, Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart, who also was overpowering in rejecting early charges that he sought control of PTL. And no slouch either is John Ankerberg, the TV minister who was the first to go public on TV with details of Bakkers’ alleged unministerly behavior.
Tuesday’s first “Nightline” program was devoted to charges by Bakker, in a taped interview with Koppel, that Falwell, now the chairman of PTL, had plotted from the outset to steal the TV ministry from Bakker and subvert its brand of fundamentalism.
On the same program, Falwell press spokesman Mark DeMoss and PTL attorney Norman Roy Grutman defended Falwell against accusations from former PTL executive Gary Evans and the Rev. Mike Smith, who at various points exasperated Koppel by first waving a piece of paper and then an audio tape that he insisted contained incriminating evidence against Falwell.
The screen was split into quarters for the four squabbling men, making “Nightline” resemble “Hollywood Squares” as the program bogged down in confusing charges and counter-charges.
It was absolutely uninformative--and absolutely wonderful TV.
Then came the ever-smiling Falwell’s remarkable Wednesday-morning press conference--carried live by CNN--at which he rejected the charges made against him on “Nightline” while accusing Bakker of being greedy, unrepentant and unfit to return to PTL, with having “homosexual problems” dating to 1956 and with having lied about the extent of his tryst with Jessica Hahn.
Falwell added that he loved Bakker.
That set the stage for Wednesday night’s live interview with the Bakkers, in which “Nightline” beat scores of other TV programs and news organizations to the punch.
The interview came about only after Koppel--who rarely personally calls prospective guests--spoke several times on the phone to the Bakkers and got Jim to agree in Tuesday’s brief taped interview to return Wednesday.
Among other shows with long-standing bids in to the Bakkers was CNN’s “Larry King Live,” whose extended live interviews of Ankerberg, Falwell and Swaggart had placed it in the forefront of the PTL coverage.
“I’m not suicidal, but let’s just say I’m not going out to a party, either,” producer Tammy Haddad said by phone from Washington on Wednesday about Koppel getting to the Bakkers first. “Do you want to see the scars and gray hairs I have on this one?”
She was philosophical, however. “I love ‘Nightline,’ ” she said. “But they do a news interview; we do a discussion interview.”
Haddad is convinced that the Bakkers carefully planned their media coming out--and specifically wanted it to be on TV. “These are TV people,” she said. “They are smart people. They know what they are doing.”
Haddad called back Thursday morning to say that the Bakkers had chosen King’s show as their second TV stop. “It’s definite for tonight,” she said. Then Haddad called back Thursday afternoon to report that the Bakkers had canceled. “And we have a million dollars of equipment in their front yard,” she said angrily.
The atmosphere was said to be tense inside the Bakker home prior to Koppel’s Wednesday interview, meanwhile. Before the satellite hook-up, according to sources, the Bakkers and a dozen of their friends and supporters went into the kitchen, held hands and prayed.
Koppel had done his homework and he was tough, calling the so-called holy war of evangelists “a disgusting display on both sides.” He got Bakker to admit that he mismanaged PTL.
Shrewdly, gingerly, Koppel tiptoed toward the homosexual issue. If the charges weren’t true, he asked, why would a smart man like Falwell make them, knowing that Bakker could sue him for libel? Bakker denied homosexual activity.
“He is not a homosexual or a bisexual,” said Tammy, patting Jim’s knee. “He’s a wonderful, loving husband.”
Koppel pressed the Bakkers’ on their extravagant life style and on the enormous salary and bonuses paid them by the former board of the debt-ridden PTL. Tammy said that when she would protest the pay they were getting, the board would reply, “Listen, you guys, you’re worth it.”
Then Tammy dropped a bombshell by revealing: “I shop outlet stores an awful lot.”
Koppel asked the Bakkers why they consented to the interview. “If it was me, I think I would want to hide for the rest of my life,” Koppel said.
“We want to help people, and we want to love people,” Jim said.
The Bakkers also were able to use “Nightline” as a platform to ask forgiveness, rally support and invite their followers to write if they wished them to return to PTL or to establish a ministry elsewhere, perhaps in California.
“Dear God,” Jim began in an eloquent summation, “how could we have our ministry stolen from us? How could it be?” Tammy’s eyes were watery. Koppel was silent. It was awesome.
Earlier Baker had told Koppel: “This may be the last newscast we do.” Don’t bank on it, though. The Lord works in mysterious ways.