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Putting ‘House’ and Past in Order : Old Nemeses Delta Burke and Thomasons Combine Forces for New CBS Series

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In one corner on the set of CBS’ “Women of the House” waits Delta Burke, ink-haired and flamboyant in the reprise of her “Designing Women” role as Suzanne Sugarbaker. In this new comedy about the politics and pretensions of Washington, the former beauty queen/interior decorator inherits her late fifth husband’s seat in the House of Representatives.

He was a Republican, but she, befitting a zany TV persona, is an Independent.

Along with a triumvirate of staff, including Teri Garr as her irreverent, somewhat loopy press secretary, Burke prepares to do a pickup scene for the hourlong pilot airing tonight. Her eyes are trained on the couple with whom she once feuded as ferociously as opponents in a hot election. Now she is their co-executive producer.

In the facing corner are that couple, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason, the high-profile, sometimes controversial FOBs (Friends of Bill--and Hillary). Bloodworth-Thomason is the creator/writer/executive producer powerhouse of “Women of the House” (and “Designing Women,” “Evening Shade"--which Hillary Rodham Clinton titled--and “Hearts Afire”). She also made “The Man From Hope,” the elegiac biopic about Bill Clinton that was shown at the 1992 Democratic Convention. Her husband, who was inaugural co-chairman, is the show’s director/executive producer.

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As Thomason peers into a TV monitor, his wife chats it up with longtime Clinton political adviser Paul Begala. So what’s he doing there?

“He’s just passing through. Oh, please don’t print that,” whispers Thomason, then amends: “You’ll see. We hit them both (Republicans and Democrats) equally.”

But in the scene they are taping, the target is the press. Cautioning Sugarbaker, newly arrived in Washington, is a tight hair-bunned chief of staff (Patricia Heaton). It doesn’t matter, she says, if President Bush was “never mystified by a supermarket scanner” or that President Clinton’s “haircut never held up any airplanes” at LAX. “All that matters is that it’s repeated over and over again . . . (and) the retractions are on page 78.”

Bloodworth-Thomason, who sees the series as “a ‘Designing Women’ on the Potomac,” said she felt Sugarbaker was “ the character to infiltrate Washington because she’s totally politically incorrect and (would) puncture all the pomposity and pretentiousness there.”

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Bloodworth-Thomason bases her opinion on her and her husband’s experiences with the national press, which helped inspire the series.

“I think,” she said, “we were assigned the role of Bill Clinton’s rich, sleazy, liberal friends from Hollywood who brought a steady stream of celebrities to the White House, arranged a haircut that held up international air traffic, attempted to steal the White House travel office for our own charter business and tried to change the U.S. Constitution.”

But what about the other bit of bad press: the stuff the Thomasons and Burke said about each other during the “Designing Women” acrimony? The actress accused Thomason of “abusive behavior” by screaming at her and others, and Bloodworth-Thomason of insulting her on numerous occasions.

On their side, the Thomasons got Churchillian, saying, “Never have so many done so much for one person and gotten so little in return.”

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It’s history. Both sides blame miscommunication and unnamed third parties for the breakup.

Watching Burke and the Thomasons working together again, sugar could melt. “Do you want me to be here? " Burke asks Thomason plaintively. “Right there. Fine, fine,” he replies soothingly.

Rather than zinging each other, now they are targeting a potpourri of politicians, from incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich--Garr’s press secretary jokes about having his “love child"--to Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, whom Garr parodies: “I Just Haven’t Met the Right Man Yet.”

To a degree, the Clintons get it too. Garr says she heard Hillary “threw” a lamp, a sofa “or maybe it was a party,” but it has “something to do with how she’s secretly running the country.” And the next week, Sugarbaker tells the President that his appearance is doing him in, that his hair has “a life of its own,” it will “stick straight up . . . a bad look even for Lyle Lovett,” and that his jogging shorts must go. “Nothing will make people turn on you faster than having big white thighs.”

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Burke, whose spiraling weight in 1990 seemed to fuel the feud with the Thomasons, supplied the last line--she knows about that from experience.

CNN’s “Crossfire” team of Michael Kinsley and former Bush Chief of Staff John Sununu appear in the first episode, interviewing Sugarbaker about “Knickknackgate"--her mentally disabled brother Jim makes ceramic spoon rests, which she tries to sell in the House gift store. (In the series, Sugarbaker also has an adopted daughter of Latino heritage.)

“Why on earth would I come all the way to Washington just to steal a little poorly run knickknack shop from the federal government?” retorts Sugarbaker. “Get real! That would be like me trying to take over a dinky little lemonade stand. Anyway, my five husbands left me plenty of money. . . .”

A ring of familiarity? In May, 1993, when Bloodworth-Thomason was defending against “Travel-gate,” she cited the couple’s six-figure weekly salary: “Setting our sights on the White House travel office would be the financial equivalent of us taking over someone’s lemonade stand.”

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Sugarbaker is “closer to a Republican” and “more toward the conservative except on women’s issues,” Bloodworth-Thomason explains. "(She’s) kind of a female Newt Gingrich--in style. Her mouth is as open as his,” she says with a laugh, “but what comes out of it, of course, is going to be quite different.”

So, on gays in the military, Sugarbaker allows “homosexuals have as much right to kill and be killed as anyone else. But . . . I wouldn’t want to leave the beauty salons shorthanded.”

“She’s perfectly capable of looking at things from a shallow perspective,” says her creator. But she’s no fool. “As the series evolves, she becomes a lot more savvy, (using) her street smarts and beauty-contest smarts.”

The producer dismisses any notion that she’s facing a double-edged sword: attack the Clintons and she’s hurting friends; let them off easy and viewers might tune out. “I’ve always put my ideals in my shows, and I’m not going to stop doing that just because I have a friend who’s President of the United States. He doesn’t tell me how to run this show, and I don’t tell him how to run the country. . . . They’ll handle this just fine.” Still, she tried out some lines on Clinton a while back. She won’t say which ones, but she did say that he laughed. A month or so ago, at the Thomasons home near Santa Barbara (the one once planned as the Clintons’ vacation retreat), she and Hillary watched the pilot at something like 3 a.m. She won’t say what the First Lady said.

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Bloodworth-Thomason made her first break-ice call to Burke during her “Travelgate” troubles. “I was struck dumb,” says the actress. Nevertheless they met and hugged, both say, but Burke, who was dealing with her failing ABC series “Delta,” said she needed time. When Burke was ready to go ahead last fall, Bloodworth-Thomason was busy on “Hearts Afire.” Ultimately it was CBS and Bloodworth-Thomason’s pursuit of Burke, along with the role itself--"a blessing"--that inspired her to take the show.

The series, Bloodworth-Thomason says, is “not (about) settling any scores--for my husband or myself.” She adds: “I have a big pen. I have a legal pad. My pen is bigger than (the critics) because I can reach 30 million people. . . . We’re just throwing some grenades back into their yards, the press yard . . . in the spirit of fun.”

* “Women of the House” debuts with a one-hour episode tonight at 8 on CBS .


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