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Snyder: Better With Schmooze Than News

The star and producers of “The Late Late Show With Tom Snyder” should decide whether they want him to be a hard-news guy or a fun guy. As Snyder’s initial outings on CBS prove, wearing both hats simultaneously is a bad fit.

As a wee-hours schmoozer, breezily and warmly passing the time with celebs and others who are not in the headlines, Snyder has a personal magnetism that’s hard to ignore. It’s while unwinding in front of America in this chummy, cozy arena that his presence is most commanding, and that his quick, opinionated wit and affable aggression are best put to use.

He can give you a relaxing good time, as he did Monday night with Garry Shandling, frisky star of “The Larry Sanders Show” on HBO, and even with the Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., not forgetting to ask her about the rift her family has with the National Park Service over a proposed memorial to her slain father.

When it comes to one-on-one ease with the medium, the revved-up late-night competition can’t touch Snyder, who manages somehow to speak softly with a booming voice.

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Now, Snyder is plenty smart, too. Yet when quizzing newsmakers who demand questions with some bite, he is curiously playful. Like a kitten with a ball of yarn, he just wants to have fun.

He showed that side on his Jan. 9 premiere during a merry chat with the parents of House Speaker Newt Gingrich. And he showed it again, in 3-D, during last Thursday’s amiable concluding segment with Christina F. Jeffrey, the Georgia college teacher whose fleeting stint as House historian was aborted recently after Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other Democrats angrily noted her inflammatory criticism in 1986 of a course designed to teach junior high school students about the Holocaust.

After an entertaining visit with Kelsey Grammer, star of NBC’s hit “Frasier,” and a shorter amusing interview with two guys who had returned a fortune in cash they found, Snyder gave the last 15 minutes of his show to Jeffrey, in effect delivering a primer on how not to conduct a television interview.

“Whatever his name is,” Jeffrey said at one point about Schumer. “Beats me,” said Snyder. So much for preparation.

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As a consultant to the U.S. Department of Education nine years ago, Jeffrey had written about the proposed curriculum that it “gives no evidence of balance and objectivity. The Nazi point of view, however unpopular, is still a point of view and it is not presented. Nor is that of the Ku Klux Klan.”

Given the House historian job by her friend and former teaching colleague, Speaker Gingrich, as a reward for her partisan support--and reportedly fired swiftly by him after the appointment blew up in his face--Jeffrey had been widely lambasted in some circles by the time she arrived in Los Angeles for her easy ride with Snyder.

“You’re not going to get beat up here,” he assured her.

Credit Snyder at least with honoring his vow. He began by noting that Jeffrey had appeared to advocate the inclusion of Nazi and Klan views in the Holocaust study. “But I don’t think that is the real issue, having read about you in the Washington Post today,” he added. “This is not what you were attempting to do.”

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Yet even if she were, it made perfect sense. How can anyone be taught the evils of bigotry and racial hatred without being told the hater’s motivation? Are students to believe that Hitler’s Third Reich slaughtered millions of Jews, Gypsies and others merely because he didn’t like the way they dressed?

But wait. According to media reports, Nazi and Klan perspectives were, indeed, part of the curriculum that Jeffrey had faulted for lacking “balance.” Hmmmm.

And, thickening the confusion, Snyder was saying now that, despite what she wrote, the inclusion of Nazi and Klan positions was not what Jeffrey was seeking. Thus, Snyder himself logically wondered aloud, why did she write what she did in her review of the course?

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Jeffrey replied, “I would try to explain that except for this: I was reading on the plane that every nine years you are completely remade. You’re not the same person you were nine years ago, so I’m not the same person who wrote those remarks, so I don’t have to explain them.”

The mightily impressed Snyder laughed his big laugh before rewarding her evasiveness with praise. “If you could have gotten that kind of humor into the review,” he said, “you might still be there.” Yes, they were having fun.

And what was Jeffrey’s agenda concerning the Holocaust program? Suggesting she opposed Holocaust education as a concept, Jeffrey had also written in her review, according to media reports, that “it is not true that you educate people by teaching them to deal with problems they do not face. This program may be appropriate for a limited religious audience, but not for widespread distribution.”

“Late Late Show” viewers weren’t going to learn that from either Jeffrey or Snyder. Nor would they learn what article in the Post Snyder was referring to, or what it said to persuade him that Jeffrey had been wronged for advocating a position that his show never even defined. Instead, he allowed and even helped her to reframe the undefined dispute on her own terms.

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Contradicting numerous other reports, she denied being fired by Gingrich (“He really basically left it up to me”), and Snyder accepted her account at face value. When a caller asked Jeffrey, “If he didn’t fire you, who did?,” Snyder swiftly jumped in to say, “She quit!” Jeffrey echoed: “I quit. Take this job and shove it.” Snyder added later: “You don’t need that aggravation anyway.” The aggravation he never defined.

By denying that Gingrich fired her despite being under enormous political pressure to do so, Jeffrey could relieve him of any fault in the matter and instead portray herself as a victim of “Washington elitism,” political correctness, the media and partisan sexism. She agreed with a caller that there was a trend on Capitol Hill to “butcher women.”

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At that point, Snyder might have jumped in--but didn’t--to ask her if she was extending this indictment to include Gingrich himself, who, his mother recently disclosed, called First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton a “bitch.” Instead, he allowed Jeffrey to play the Anita Hill card by contending that the media would have reacted differently if her case had been one of “Republican men beating up on a Democratic woman.”

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Hill is the University of Oklahoma law professor whose explosive charges of sexual harassment almost derailed the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of conservative Clarence Thomas in 1991. Hill--severely attacked by Republicans at the time--is “held up as a wonderful example of womanhood,” Jeffrey complained to Snyder, “whereas, I’m held up as an anti-Semite and as a racist. . . .” With the hour winding down, there was no time to explore that dubious reasoning (not that Snyder would have done so anyway). Nor was there time to explore questions about Holocaust revisionism or whether the school program attacked by Jeffrey strayed too far in including other genocides and forms of discrimination. Anyway, how could that be done when Snyder never even bothered to properly define the dispute?

The “Late Late Show” version of Jeffrey Strikes Back was a powerful argument against squeezing complex, highly volatile issues into the narrow keyholes of programs formatted primarily for entertainment. It was also an argument for Snyder sticking to light topics.

He did take time, however, to tell Jeffrey at the end of the hour, “Don’t lose your smile.” You, too, Tom.


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