More Talk From Tina Brown

The debut of CNBC’s Topic A.

On the hunt for historic bons mots

Tina Brown, on Wednesday night’s premiere of Topic A With Tina Brown (CNBC), did not stint on royalty: There was a knight, a lord, a daddy cool, a king of cable, and a queen of Jordan. At a semicircular table, semiringed with colored light boxes, Brown—late of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk— presided, reminding us first off that she’s new to television, having spent her career working, instead, with “words on the page.” To jog viewers’ memories, up came three iconic magazine covers: Demi Moore pregnant and nude; a Hasid kissing a Carribean woman; and Gwyneth Paltrow in S&M gear.

Brown—whose makeup had a browner palette than usual, which looked good—proved she’d studied up on cable television, brightened her self-presentation, and prepared for scintillating conversations with kings and queens.

As bloopers—yes, bloopers—at the show’s end revealed, Brown had worked hard to perfect her peppy “I’m Tina Brown and this is Topic A!” Her media training—at the hands of her producer, Kathy O’Hearn, whom she credited recently—has paid off. She has leveled her gaze and unset her jaw. And something else has changed. Having worked for Brown several years ago, I don’t remember seeing, let alone receiving, many of the Miss America smiles she now seems to flash regularly. Her new style becomes her.

Topic A itself turned out to be zero. Brown had already taped and scrapped a show on Hollywood and one on the war, so we in fact began on Topic C, which was merely a phrase, “all the noise,” designed to be capacious enough to permit the likes of Conrad Black, Barry Diller, Malcolm Gladwell, Queen Noor, Howard Stringer, Simon Schama, and Bill O’Reilly to visit Brown’s set. Good call on “noise”: so many deafening braggarts in so little time. Black, Diller, Schama, and O’Reilly—to say nothing of Brown herself—each style themselves as almost violent epigrammatists. How were they going to fire off even a single round with so many armed men present?

Diller, whom Brown had christened “daddy cool,” chose magisterial posturing and reckless interruption as his means of keeping the floor from Gladwell, with whom he was meant to be conversing. As Gladwell, in red, kept his cool, Diller kicked off his power presentation with a feint of charming self-deprecation. “Probably a seminal bad decision was not buying Paramount when I had the chance,” he said.

Gladwell, who is writing a book on decision-making, then graciously acknowledged that choking (Brown mistakenly called it “clutching”) is common among executives; he moved to let Diller off the hook by explaining that the reasons people choke can be elusive.

“Oh, no”—boomed Diller—”I can put my finger quite on it! … I was new to entrepreneurdom. I didn’t think I could go beyond the boundary. … I wasn’t solid in my shoes.” Spotlight regained, Diller went on to describe the numberless boundaries he had successfully transgressed with his many corporate triumphs: Fox, home-shopping, and USA Interactive. From there, he didn’t look back, tearing through topics like the “wussification” (no kidding) of the left, his terrific relationship with the French, and his willingness to buy the Democratic Party and whip it into shape were it to come up for sale.

Gladwell sat back during the protracted boast. He seemed rather above it, though his ears may have pricked up, as mine did, when Brown asked Diller to describe various executives with a single word. Marvin Davis, whom Diller had famously loathed at Paramount, he called “crafty.” Sumner Redstone was “willful.” And Michael Eisner, Diller’s partner at ABC and Paramount, was a “great creative executive.” (This was backhanded, of course; an “executive” is a sorry salary man compared to a swashbuckling entrepreneur.)

Gladwell was then asked for a word on Diller. “Well-dressed,” he said, underscoring the titan’s vanity. Diller looked pleased.

On to the set trundled Simon Schama, the bankable Magoo and Brown’s perennial go-to guy for “history.” Schama, who has a specialty in Dutch painting, was introduced as an expert on nation-building in the Middle East. Queen Noor, with early-Aniston hair and a well-preserved American accent, needed no introduction; Leap of Faith, her memoir of her life with Jordan’s King Hussein, is currently on best-seller lists.

Schama and Noor discussed, more or less, the future of Iraq. Schama opined, straight off, that establishing democracy there would not be as easy as it was when the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia scored it for America. (That was easy?) Noor cheered multilateralism, U.N. help, and the native peacemaking habits of women. “Euphoria and trauma are neighbors,” Schama then said dutifully, sensing correctly that Brown was trolling for bons mots.

The segment ended with this exchange:

“Let’s try to be optimistic, and keep our faith,” said Brown.

“Always,” mused Noor.

“It’s America!” shouted Schama.

And with that, the Jordanian and the two Britons beamed like real-life Yankee Doodles.

The last segment was hardly coherent. After Brown insulted the dour, clever bruiser of the British Empire, Conrad Black, by elaborately calling him “lord” (he had lobbied for the title), he sat back, moody, resisting invitations to join the game. Sir Howard Stringer was left to talk gamely and forgettably about the Dixie Chicks.

An appearance, beamed in from his Fox set, was also made by Bill O’Reilly. With no one to stand in his way, O’Reilly shouted Brown down, playing Joe Citizen while railing against no less than political correctness, a phantom threat that seems nonetheless to keep O’Reilly on his toes. Brown fulsomely addressed him (“the king of cable”) since he must now be her hero in personality-driven cable news. She entertained and even amplified his right-wing barking, just as she had entertained and even amplified the left-wing noises made by Gladwell, Diller, Schama, and Noor.

And that’s where Brown showed her colors: She has few principles, but she’s a relentless hostess, perpetually cueing her guests to say something, anything, that might have the ring of historic conversation. And she’s impatient, so her guests—and her employees, if I remember right—scramble to be aphoristic. The show, in fact, stages something like a tightly timed Bartlett’s Challenge, and it’s curious to see how well or poorly Brown’s alpha talkers respond to it. But Topic A—or any sense at all—is quickly lost amid all these brash chords. What’s left is royal cacophony.