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Camp Pain

Jim Lehrer's romp in the pols-and-press swamp gets the right overwrought spin; The Michael Richards Show is Kramer, lamer.

Fifth estate: James Garner plays a political columnist in Showtime's The Last Debate.  

From a media-bashing novel by NewsHour anchorface Jim Lehrer, the cable pixies have concocted a media-bashing TV movie called The Last Debate, just in time to distract us from the aspirin taste of the first presidential election of the third millennium, and also perhaps to explain Lehrer's own performance as a referee at one of the Gore-Bush smackdowns. Casting about for a cardinal principle of journalistic practice, Lehrer has apparently settled for something like the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm. I wish, you wash, and both of us are wishy-washy.

Imagine a panel of media heavies that includes James Garner, political columnist for the "Washington Herald"; Donna Murphy, weekend anchorwoman for the "YBC network"; Marco Sanchez, a right-wing reporter for "Continental Radio"; and Audra McDonald, a left-wing writer for "Capitol Observer magazine." Just 24 hours before they are to quiz Bruce Gray, a liberal governor, and Stephen Young, a conservative pundit, in the only televised debate of the major-party nominees for president, the panelists receive unsubstantiated word from an unimpeachable source that one of the candidates has a history of abusing women. They agree, in secret, to scrap the usual rules and grill the miscreant. At first, the hell that breaks loose is directed more at the panelists than at the candidate. But after a number of women step forward to confirm the allegations, McDonald and Sanchez get their very own Crossfire/ Moonlighting Sunday-morning yakshow, Murphy is promoted to nightly-news anchor, and Garner moves to New Zealand.

Everybody talks about character, but nobody has any.

But to Peter Gallagher, an editor at "The 5th" magazine, this Clarence Thomas sort of journalistic "lynching" is not just less than filling; it also doesn't taste great. He "Woodwardizes." That is, through a variety of reportorial tricks like impersonation, fabrication, and pretending to know more than he does, while playing off one panelist's incautious remarks against another's vagrant memories, he pieces together the real story and gets on a Larry King sort of TV show -- "Tomorrow night, Tony Blair and Cher!" -- where he reveals the shocking truth . . . But I don't want to spoil Jim Lehrer's fun. So I won't even tell you that one of the panelists is gay.

"Democracy," H. L. Mencken said, "is that system of government under which the people, having 35,717,342 native-born adult whites to choose from, including thousands who are handsome and many who are wise, pick out a Coolidge to be head of the State. It is as if a hungry man, set before a banquet prepared by master cooks and covering a table an acre in area, should turn his back upon the feast and stay his stomach by catching and eating flies."

Audra McDonald, without singing a note, is still wonderful. Dorian Harewood shows up in an underground parking garage with a Hal Holbrook joke, which is pretty funny for those who remember Watergate. John Badham not only does a snappy job of directing The Last Debate but also appears on camera, as the anchor Murphy replaces. In fact, almost everybody who wants to be anybody shows up for a cameo: Fred Barnes, Paul Begala, Eleanor Clift, E. J. Dionne Jr., Al Hunt, Susan Molinari, Bob Novak, Mark Shields, etc. And over the closing credits, Ethel Merman sings "There's No Business Like Show Business."

Never mind that the candidate was abusing women. Never mind that journalists who do no harm are useless. Never even mind that character probably has less to do with good government than we'd wish. We are in a no-win situation. If these people didn't make so much money being wrong about almost everything every night on TV, they'd vanish from our radar screen as fast as any other soft-boiled fifteen-minute Warhol egg. But money is the only way we keep score.

And the qualifications for big-score celebrityhood have expanded -- from honor to buzz. From war glory, kingship, sainthood, and genius to television personality and serial killing. From the fabulous surprise, the terrible waste, the superbly athletic, and the self-sacrificial to the filthy rich, power-mad, and merely kinky. From Achilles sulking in his tent, Lindbergh over the Atlantic, Alex the Great on a coin, and Elvis on a stamp to rock musicians addled on cobra venom, war criminals whose mothers never loved them, and starlets who babble about their substance abuse, their molestations, their anorexia, and their liposuction.

For instance: Jackie O and Dracula.