First Wives’ Club

Washington Wives exposes the banality beneath the PR machine.

So, last night I caught the A&E documentary Washington Wives, which follows Teresa Heinz Kerry and Elizabeth Edwards around the campaign trail with their husbands. Given that Kerry chose Edwards as his running mate less than three weeks ago, this thing must have been thrown together in no time flat, but it’s more than worth watching as the campaign kicks into its final season (if you missed the doc, it will air again this Saturday afternoon; check your local listings for airtimes).

Running mate
Running mate

A blurb in this week’s TV Guide mentions the remarkably un-newsworthy moment when the camera lingers on Mrs. Kerry, ordering soup in a diner as the press hovers nearby (“Does this chowder have shellfish in it? Because I’m allergic.”). I don’t know if the writer was being facetious or not—unlike Homer Simpson, writers seldom pop back at the end of a sentence to point out, “I was being sarcastic!”—but I for one love these glimpses of the empty, banal moments of life on the campaign trail. I think every political profile should be jam-packed with them. The funniest moments on the Daily Show’s campaign coverage—and among the most instructive when it comes to the electoral process—are those clips when the camera at a stump speech or press conference is allowed to run just a little too long, and we see the candidate (or, at times, the president) milling randomly, fresh out of rhetorical nuggets, twiddling with his microphone. Washington Wives dwells in this gray zone of semipublic time, exposing the contrivance of political PR even as it performs a bit of its own—in the all-Democratic world of this documentary, Laura Bush, and indeed the Bush administration as a whole, go practically unmentioned.

While Kerry chooses her soup, autographs Heinz ketchup bottles, and speaks of her concern for “the human condition,” Elizabeth Edwards cheerfully wrangles her two young children, recalcitrant, strong-willed Emma Claire, 6 (who, with her love for the limelight and refusal to take “no” for an answer, seems a likely prospective candidate in 2056), and her placid younger brother, 4-year-old Jack. Both spouses seem likable enough in one-on-one interviews, but the most illuminating moments happen by mistake. At one point, Elizabeth Edwards inadvertently reveals more than you wanted to know about her sex life with the senator; asked if his good looks make her jealous of other women on the campaign trail, she waves the suggestion aside with the assurance that, after a two-and-a-half decades of conjugal life, “you don’t think of him that way any longer.” Political groupies, start your engines.

The most astute talking-head commentary comes from Sally Quinn, the no-nonsense Washington social maven and wife of WaPo honcho Ben Bradlee. Among Sally’s sharp aperçus: “Everybody in Vermont looks like Judy Dean.” If so, get me to the Green Mountain State, because the 50-year-old Dean is cute as a bug’s ear in her blue jeans, collegiate sweaters, and big toothy smile. The brief Dean section of the film is the most depressingly revealing of all, as Judy Steinberg Dean’s insistence on staying in Vermont to run her medical practice emerges as one of the key reasons her husband’s campaign lost steam so quickly after the Gore endorsement. Sally Quinn opines that in 20 years, all first wives (or husbands) will be as independent as Judy Dean, but that the country is not yet ready—a hunch endorsed by Teresa Heinz Kerry’s stipulation to reporters that “I’m not a feminist in the sense of being angry at all men.” Oh, there’s another kind?

A&E is one of those networks that can’t decide quite how high (Washington Wives), low ( Airline) or middle (Biography) it wants its brow to be—a struggle embodied last night in the moment when a promo for an upcoming program titled The Secret Nazi Killing Squads was followed by the cheery network slogan: “The Art of Entertainment.” Based on the relative success (and at times unintentional brilliance) of Washington Wives, here’s my advice: Keep the middle- to high-level documentaries coming, scrap the reality stuff, and leave the Nazis to the History Channel.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Results of the Jeopardy! Drinking Game Contest

The overwhelming reader response to last week’s call for a Jeopardy!-based drinking game had me sniffling like Sally Field at the Oscars: You like me, you really like me! Or maybe you just like drinking. The important thing is, we have a winning game, cobbled together from several of the hundred or so fine entries that have poured in over the last five days.

As the culling process wore on, conceptual issues emerged, chief among them the question: What is the raison d’être of the television-based drinking game? Should it, like Jeopardy! itself, require strategy and skill? If the game is just an excuse to get schnockered in front of the tube, how does it differ from, say, last Thursday night? One of the most venerable of all TV-based games, “Hi, Bob!” is blissfully strategy-free: Contestants simply watch the classic Bob Newhart Show (or, in a pinch, the far inferior Newhart) and drink when any character greets Newhart with the titular phrase. As Deke Haskell, a self-professed “layabout” in New York City, pointed out, there’s something wonderful about the passivity of “Hi, Bob!”, the way it leaves the players at the mercy of a given episode’s dialogue. But Jeopardy!, unlike a sitcom, is itself already a game, which raises the bar considerably. The best contest entries combined the sadism of competition (the attempt to get your friends drunk faster than you) with the self-destructive masochism of the group chug. The overall goal was to maximize jollity and bonhomie, while minimizing the chances of ending up with your head in the toilet as the words “WHEEL … OF … FORTUNE!” blare in the next room. With that in mind, Surfergirl is proud to unveil Jeopardrink!: the KenJen Edition (credit for the name goes to Christopher Collins, a program developer in Indianapolis).

The guiding principle of the game is elegantly simple: The worse Ken does, the drunker you get. This structure satisfies both KenJen fans (who can regard their increasing inebriation as solace for their hero’s downfall) and the anti-Ken contingent (who can jubilantly toast the demise of their foe). The rules combine elements from too many entries to mention them all, but you know who you are.

1) If KenJen misses a question, everybody drinks once. If one of his opponents gets that same question right, drink again.

2) If KenJen misses a Daily Double, drink twice.

3) Responding to clues during regular play is optional (though who can resist shouting out the ones you know?), but Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy can be used as occasions for competitive drinking. When Daily Doubles come up, each player shouts out his or her answer, and whoever misses (or of course, forgets to phrase her response in the form of a question) must take another swig. During the commercial before Final Jeopardy, drinks may be wagered on the outcome: “U.S. Presidents? I’ll take that for three.” If you’re right, you get to make your opponents take three drinks; if you’re wrong, take them yourself.

4) Finally, a few “Hi, Bob!”-style rules to keep everyone on their toes and celebrate the quirks that make KenJen so lovable or loathsome, depending on your point of view. Everybody drinks once whenever:

a) Alex Trebek mentions Ken’s affiliation with the Mormon church *;

b) KenJen’s answer ends with a stylistic flourish, like last night’s, “What are the munchies, man?” in response to a clue about an 8-letter word for “hunger pangs”;

c) The banter between Alex and Ken becomes disturbingly intimate. A few nights ago, one of KenJen’s victims mentioned in the chat segment that if he beat the champ that night, he planned to get a tattoo of Alex Trebek in celebration. This anecdote inspired an odd KenJen riff about having 30-odd tattoos of Alex all over his body, one for each night of his winning streak thus far. A mental image like that one is definitely an excuse for a drink.

Finally, as Steven Reynolds, a technical writer from Cohasset, Mass., writes, “Something special needs to be in place for whenever Ken is finally defeated. I think either a bottle of the finest champagne for a quiet and modest celebration of this greatest of Jeopardy! champions … or maybe a few bottles of Mad Dog 20/20 to wash away the sorrow that comes with the prospect of Jeopardy! without Mr. Jennings.” There are only four games remaining until the season ender this Friday, when we find out whether KenJen will make the jump to come back as next season’s returning champion. So stock up on Potent Potables, and remember: Always Jeopardrink! responsibly. Thanks for playing!

Correction, July 20, 2004:The article originally misstated the name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the Church of Mormon; it is informally referred to as the Mormon church. (Return to the corrected sentence.)