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Snyder’s CBS Debut: Between You and Me

It’s human nature to recall where you were and what you were doing when something epic happened in your lifetime. The assassination of J.F.K., the moonwalk, the Berlin Wall coming down and so on.

I’ll never forget the moment. I was in Costa Rica, in the lobby of a hotel overlooking a pristine white beach on the Pacific, when I picked up an English-language news fax containing a blurb about another cosmic event.

The words exploded off the page. Newt Gingrich’s mother had disclosed that her son, the powerful new House speaker, had called Hillary Rodham Clinton a bitch. Kathleen Gingrich had blabbed this to Connie Chung of CBS on national TV. A mother blowing the whistle on her son like that? Why that . . . little . . .

Snitch!

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On the other hand, what was the big deal? Whatever that sonofasnitch Newt Gingrich had privately called the First Lady, it probably was soft, sweet cooing measured against what those inside the White House had been saying about him. Thus all the hand-wringing about Gingrich seemed related to gender, his sin being not mere crudeness but something much more unthinkable, crudeness directed at a female. You had to laugh, for such a commandment--A gentleman shall not speak ill of a woman--carries a Victorian quaintness that probably amuses Hillary Clinton herself.

It was only later, after returning to the United States, that I learned that the “bitch” issue had been eclipsed by the ethics issue regarding charges that “Eye to Eye” host Chung had cynically suckered Gingrich’s mother into her “bitch” disclosure by saying that her comments would be “just between you and me.” And compounding that, CBS had advertised the quote as if it were the scoop of the century. Whether Mrs. Gingrich was truly a guileless victim or was aware (as Chung and CBS now insist she was) that her revelation would be beamed coast to coast, only she knows.

Has Chung’s credibility been damaged? What credibility? In any case, the most revealing element of this affair is not that Gingrich used a coarse word in private to describe Hillary Clinton, but that CBS News regarded it as news.

With this as background, I awaited the appearance of Kathleen Gingrich and her husband, Bob, on Monday’s debut of that colossus, “The Late Late Show With Tom Snyder” on CBS. Ahead of them, though, would be “Murphy Brown” star Candice Bergen, all golden and radiant.

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I’ll never forget the moment. I was at home, in my office, when, after numerous whimsical plugs from David Letterman on his preceding show, Snyder greeted the United States from Los Angeles, where, until planting himself under this brighter spotlight, he had been hosting a similar call-in talk show on cable’s CNBC.

It was a return to the big, big time. Years ago, Snyder was a celebrated wee-hours maven with NBC. So there was a sense of deja vu as he faced the camera Monday, this time as the CBS late-late-night savior, again aiming his laser eyes at America. His famed laugh a mere Richter 8, down from a once-thunderous 10, he was neither brash nor rash. Although known for impulsively slinging thoughts and one-liners, he was near gaffeless.

This is a very preliminary verdict, of course, but, minus the din of a formulaic band and studio audience, “The Late Late Show With Tom Snyder” projects a cozy serenity that veers sharply from the preceding Letterman hour. The show seems “later” than its NBC competitor, “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” which makes it at least an alternative.

At one point, Snyder appeared to lament all the stories--from the Simpson-Goldman murders to the Gingrich affair--"that we have been bombarded with.” Of course, his own show was adding to that bombardment by having on Gingrich’s parents and extending their five minutes of fame.

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Speaking by satellite from their home in Dauphin, Pa., the Gingriches were right out of Norman Rockwell. They could have been a couple of square dancers. Her hair freshly coifed into a gray bubble, Kathleen Gingrich was no loose-tongued, loose-cannoned Martha Mitchell. Instead, she proudly displayed a photograph of her little “Newtie” at age 2.

“He was a beautiful little boy,” she said. “He sure was, he sure was,” echoed Snyder, who was sounding more and more like Edward R. Murrow. The Murrow of “Person to Person.”

Snyder did twit Mrs. Gingrich for her heavy smoking. “How many of those things do you smoke in a day?” he asked after she took a drag. “Have you read the surgeon general’s report?” She replied: “It wouldn’t do me any good.”

Nor would hashing over old news, apparently. With Snyder tiptoeing gingerly, the “bitch” snit was hardly mentioned. At no point did Snyder ask Kathleen Gingrich whether she did or didn’t know her “bitch” quote would be public. He didn’t ask her how she couldn’t have known, given the maze of TV equipment in view. If he wasn’t going to ask her these critical questions, then what was the point of having the Gingriches on, to convince Mrs. Gingrich to kick her smoking habit? And if there was a prior agreement not to ask certain questions, then viewers should have been informed.

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The question you wanted to ask after the interview was whether Snyder was uncharacteristically passive because he now works for CBS and didn’t want to further embarrass Chung, who is now a colleague. If so, that doesn’t bode well for a talk-show host who made his reputation by being outspoken and aggressive.

“It’s a done deed,” Bob Gingrich said about the incident. “Let’s bury it and move on.” Although at first vowing that this would be their TV “swan song,” the Gingriches then agreed to return to the Snyder show following their scheduled White House visit with Hillary Clinton at the invitation of the First Lady. Surely somewhere, little “Newtie” was smiling.


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