September 2, 2009


One Man's Diane Sawyer Problem: As the ABC newswoman prepares to take the anchor chair, look back at one of the author's last essays, "If Nixon Could Possess the Soul of This Woman, Why The Hell Can't I?" — a brutally honest account of his encounter with Sawyer at the end of the 1980s. (Frederick Exley, December 1989, Esquire)

More than anything, it is absolutely essential to the health of Diane Sawyer's psyche that she never be reduced to anything as unseemly as saying, "Okay hotshot, I blew it." It is essential because Diane Sawyer, along with the rest of her TV colleagues, those glowing stars in our pedestrian firmaments, is creating her own biography, her own version of herself. Equable is the watchword here. Her life must at all costs be as poised and calm as her beauty is blond and cool, and she cannot afford to have a picky, picky, picky ding-a-ling like me disrupt the serenity, the gentleness of the pond by throwing meanspirited little pebbles into it. Sawyer's nonautobiography will, of course, one day head the best seller list for ten years, the only anomaly being that in lieu of heading up the nonfiction it would find a more appropriate home topping off the other column. If one wanted to be unkind, one might say it'll be not unlike the nonbook Sawyer wasted four years of life helping to create for Nixon. As, indeed, her inability to say I blew it might also have been learned at the feet of the master. And what fascinating feet they evidently were.

"... You are constantly chasing Nixon around corners trying to find out who he is," she said. "I wanted to know more about him.... His public life is too long and too blistering for you ever to go back and retrieve the private man. There's too much. When it works, it's a natural dual personality [the public and the private man] with politicians. Some of them, you can figure out who they really are. The ones like him — highly intelligent, almost congenitally embattled, and wary to the point of extreme elusiveness — are a lifetime's work of trying to diagnose.... Part of what keeps him such a living presence, think how long, when you are switching the television screen, you see him there, you stop, and you continue to stop, and I don't believe that even you continue to switch when you see him come on.... Think how long, in an age when people get used up really fast, and use themselves up really fast, when it takes very little to parch a person's life, and their life history, to dry them out, he stays riveting. And hat in itself is an accomplishment of some phenomenal and mysterious kind.... Any of the people who find it inexplicable [Sawyer's loyalty to Nixon] I bet would have done the same thing, standing there seeing a man on that day [Nixon's impeachment day], with the destruction all around him, however self-created, would have done the same thing...

"Everybody talks about his awkwardness with social talk. Not only is he not awkward when he gets into substance, he weaves magic in a room.... It used to be one of the rate amusements in San Clemente to see people come in who held no brief for him, who were firmly defended by their political and personal preconceptions, and watch how long it took for their mouths to drop open. It usually took somewhere between three and four minutes, and then they were captive. And it happened over and over again...."

All this has been delivered with an apostolic fervor, so that when Sawyer finishes I simply sit there stunned and limp, in many ways more limp that an orgasm has ever left me. Because I admire her so much, I naturally yearn for her approval in return, and were I to tell her what I'd been thinking about throughout her breathless, obtuse paean, thereby revealing to her the gaping, the terrifying division between our outlooks, a vast area in which Sawyer and I could not even find enough common mud to circle each other warily, least of all affectionately, were I to reveal to her what I'd been thinking — I'd be compelled to tell her that the only way Richard M. Nixon could rivet my attention would be to strap me to a chair and blowtorch my testicles. What Sawyer could hot have known — and would now never know — was that from the first time I became aware of her — as I recall, she was interviewing Pete Rose (some irony here!) on the CBS Morning News — I had been collaring anyone who would listen to tell him that she was going to become the biggest thing on TV, including succeeding where Barbara Walters had failed, as co-anchor on the evening news (and she will, she will). Moreover, I had asked editors for years if I could write about her, only to be told, "Naw, all you want to do is get into her pants," and honestly answering, "Yeah, well, that too, in the miraculously unlikely event it happens." And of course I had sat back bemusedly and watched as everything I had predicted for her began coming true, and had to read that spate, that avalanche of dreary and laughable cover stories and articles that necessarily accompany such a meteoric rise in our star-struck society. Having Sawyer on the brain would seem to be a more pleasant state than having water there, though assuredly not as serene an existence as the cheerful idiocy that comes with having a no brain at all — a condition one might arguably ascribe to a good part of the TV audience to which Diane appeals. I had a vision of legions of cub reporters wearing fedoras with a card bearing the legend SCOOP stuck into the hatbands, their pencils poised quavering over their notebooks, dutifully and industriously taking down and accepting Diane's version of the primal scenes of her life.

...consider that he also had one for Frank Gifford.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 2, 2009 4:37 PM
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