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TV Reality's Hall of Fame (and Shame)

What I watched on Thursday was a fired FBI chief accusing a sitting president of lying about him and his former workplace. That ex-chief was conspiratorial enough to give a memo of his to a good friend to leak to the press for the sole purpose of provoking the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the president's gang and its relationship to Russia.

Imagine my surprise hours later when female social media postings from all over declared the 6-foot-8-inch conspirator James Comey to be a something of a new American heartthrob. Heaven knows the personality that we saw at the Senate committee was completely engaging – forthright, candid, as terse as possible and appealingly self-deprecating.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein observed that the former FBI director was "big and strong," so why wasn't he gutsy enough to tell the president he was wrong to try to influence him?

Well, said Comey, "I was so stunned by the conversation, I just took it in." True or not, it was believable. Then he admitted that perhaps he should have been more resolute. Game, set, match as far as I was concerned.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy, left, and Roy Cohn, his chief counsel, during the Army-McCarthy hearings before the Senate's Subcommittee on Investigations in Washington, in June 1954. (George Tames/The New York Times)

Life, said Forrest Gump's mother to the dismay of many, is "like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get."

You never know what you're going to get when history plays out on TV either. I'm talking about reality on TV, not the fictionalized and manipulative thing we call reality TV. Who could have known that James Comey might be on his way to matinee idol and fan T-shirt?

My reaction to the participants of Thursday's hearing was mostly confined to 80-year-old Sen. John McCain's befuddlement. He was trying to draw a tenuous parallel between investigations into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's emails and inquiries into Trump's bunch and their dealings with Russia. Unfortunately, he kept mixing up Comey's and Trump's names as he spoke, thereby losing all coherence and annoying the committee chairman who kept on tapping his table to tell him to wrap it up. I'll remember that, sadly, long after Comey's sudden reincarnation as an oversized Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks.

I was left without anyone to add to my personal Hall of Fame (and Shame) of Reality on TV. I'm going to list my most obvious candidates to give you an idea of the drama we didn't see on Thursday.

Joseph Welch at the Army-McCarthy hearings, June 9, 1954

The Army's Attorney Joseph Welch listened to snidely accusatory questioning of a young man by sweaty Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy and asked "At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" McCarthy, whose gift for nasty epithets caused him to label Missouri Sen. Stuart Symington "Sanctimonious Stu" was no match on television for Welch's genial, elderly sweetness and expression of sorrow at besmirched dignity. It was annihilation by elementary human drama. A couple of years later, Welch played the judge in Otto Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder," the one who, in a daring "actor's" choice, took an unusually long time to wind his watch while he thought something over.

Anita Hill testifies during the confirmation hearing for Justice Clarence Thomas on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 11, 1991. (Paul Hosefros/New York Times)

Richard Nixon on Sept. 26, 1960

The first Kennedy-Nixon debate. The cliche is that everyone who listened to it on radio thought Nixon won and everyone who watched on TV could see that Nixon, with his flop sweat and 5 o'clock shadow, was outclassed by Kennedy's well-rested youth, glowing suntan and patrician ease. Nixon's whole career, in fact, from his Checkers speech – defending himself by talking about his dog and his wife's "Republican cloth coat" – was weirdly electrifying, it not exactly appealing.

John F. Kennedy's press conferences

I used to hurry home from school to watch these in the afternoon. They were like nothing else America had seen. Kennedy was clearly to the manor born and yet those press conferences revealed what that "manor" was. He was articulate with the press, idealistic, witty and self-deprecatory in an elementary, gentlemanly way. His perfect foil was May Craig, a fixture on NBC's "Meet the Press" who had had a formidable career as a war correspondent and as a longtime White House reporter. There was nothing funny about Craig's questions about whether Kennedy was doing enough for women's rights or about eliminating "managed news." But with Kennedy's witty, patrician self-effacement, it seemed that way. If Craig disputatiously said about press access "I think we ought to get everything we want," Kennedy smiled slyly and replied "I'm for that." And brought the house down.

Johnnie L. Cochran, speaks at UB in 2000. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Alexander Butterfield on July 13, 1973

The most unlikely historical figure of the past century. But when Nixon's deputy assistant revealed to the world the White House taping system during the Watergate hearings, he became immortal. He became, at that moment, the most important bureaucrat America had yet seen.

Anita Hill on Oct. 11, 1991

Her deceptively bland testimony about Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas' alleged harassment was an unprecedented narrative melange of pubic hair found on Coke cans and porn stars introduced as conversational gambits. It was both powerful and unforgettable. But so, following it, was Thomas' smoldering public contention that he was the victim of a "high-tech lynching." Predictably, all that volatile "he said, she said" ended in zero and he became a Supreme Court justice famous for never asking a public question during attorney presentations.

Jim Everett and Jim Rome on April 7, 1994

Just how obnoxious can a sports interviewer become? America found out when Rome, on ESPN, kept referring to his interview guest, Rams quarterback Jim Everett, as "Chris Evert" because of his supposed reluctance to take a hit. Everett shoved the table between them into Rome's chest, jumped up and knocked him over. He was stopped by onlookers from going to the next step which appeared to be pounding Rome was into pumice. Rome later apologized. Meanwhile, every sports reporter in America learned what almost all knew already: that manhood, among athletes, is not a fit subject for inept slander.

Johnnie Cochran and Kato Kaelin at the O.J. Simpson trial, Sept. 25, 1995

Kaelin had almost nothing to contribute except a thud on his bedroom wall which made him the biggest mystery of the trial. That is, until Fran Lebowitz explained that Hollywood celebrities often have somewhat parasitic live-in gofers to do the less dignified and more treacherous tasks of their employers' everyday lives (such as securing pharmaceuticals). Cochran's "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit" was his outrageously jingoistic way of talking about the gloves in evidence and communicating to a Simpson jury that couldn't have been happier to follow his lead. Who knows how much bad doggerel courtrooms had to sit through after that?


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