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Moderating Connecticut Forum and My Ego

5/17/2009
By Colin McEnroe
Published in To Wit

 

Moderating Connecticut Forum And My Ego

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One day in 1995, Richard Sugarman called me up and invited me to moderate an edition of the Connecticut Forum.

It struck me as a courageous and generous choice at the time. The 1993-94 moderators, for example, had been Charlie Rose, Linda Ellerbee, Phil Donahue and Deborah Norville. Either Richard had decided to give a local guy a shot or somebody famous had suddenly contracted hepatitis. I never found out which.

My first Forum was "90 Minutes With 60 Minutes." Richard had told me there would be a set of day rooms at the Goodwin Hotel, so I carried a semi-presentable suit around with me in the car all morning, and, in the afternoon, stopped by the front desk to get myself ready. There was a bit of fumbling around on their part while I said, "Connecticut Forum? Sugarman? 60 Minutes?" until they came up with a room and a key.

I showered. I changed into most of my suit. I spread my notes out on the bed and lay on my side staring at them. It struck me that I didn't really know how to moderate a conversation in front of 2,700 people and make it seem natural, now did I?
There came an ominous sound of clicking and unlatching. The door swung open. Morley Safer and Andy Rooney walked in and found a most unprepossessing Goldilocks stretched out on their bed. It could have been worse. I could have been naked with live porcupines. Thank God it was a Tuesday. That's more of a Thursday thing for me.

I offered to leave. No, no. They wouldn''t hear of it. We sat around chatting, Safer smoking up a storm, Rooney musing on all sorts of minutiae, including some kind of special shoelaces he was wearing.

"Maybe I should ask you about them onstage," I suggested.

He brightened. "Yes! Yes! Ask me about the shoelaces."

So, in front of 2,700 people, plus Safer and Leslie Stahl, I brought up Rooney's shoelaces.

He frowned dramatically. "I don't think that's a very interesting topic."

God, had I been teed up. I could see Safer's shoulders shaking with laughter.

Later, in the program, I was probing the delicate subject of the political leanings of the staff of the show. Stahl and Safer insisted the subject just never came up and that they had no idea how anybody voted.

"Well, you have to know Mike Wallace isn't a Democrat," Rooney shot at them.

Safer wondered aloud whether Wallace might be a Republican.

"Republican? Try right-wing nut!" Rooney barked mischievously. He might have even used a harsher term. "Come on. Your office is next to his. You must hear him in there yelling!"

Suddenly, I understood what Richard and Doris Sugarman, creators of the Forum, were aiming for. The audience had briefly melted away, and the people on stage were having a "living room moment," bantering loosely as if they were the only ones present.

On Thursday night, I moderated my sixth Forum. I am far and away the record holder, although Juan Williams and Norah O'Donnell were giving me a run for my money for a while. The Sugarmans continue to slip me in among the big lighthouses like Gwen Ifill and Frank Deford.

I think not being very famous actually helps. Moderating is SO not about having your opinions or your own interesting little persona. If anybody remembers, afterward, what you said, it's a sign that something went drastically wrong. Conveniently, it has turned out that Kurt Vonnegut, Amy Tan, Mort Sahl, the cast and creators of "The Simpsons," and Anthony Bourdain were not really all that interested in my views, so I haven't ever felt tempted to share them onstage. (This may astonish those of you who regard me, not unreasonably, as an over-opinionated attention junkie. What can I say? Placed in the company of world-class egos, I seem to have some previously undiscovered sense of my actual place in the world.)

If there's anything else in the nation quite like the Connecticut Forum, I'm unaware of it. The Forum is nothing like a speech or a panel discussion. There's a real attempt to have an actual conversation onstage. Pull up the Forum on Wikipedia and scroll through the names since 1992. The list of people who have settled into chairs on the Bushnell stage is kind of amazing.

We''ve tried to export it a few times, although I find the less control given to the Big Red Sugarman Machine (a weird fusion of loose-limbed zaniness and hidden Swiss precision) the more likely we are to blunder down a blind alley or two. I had a great night with Salman Rushdie and Joyce Carol Oates in Wilmington, Del.; but in New Haven, I found myself onstage with Molly Ivins, Anita Hill and Ray Suarez, all of whom had fused over the course of an afternoon and evening into a single entity. I could have elicited more diversity of opinion from a beehive or the Borg Collective.

Thursday was the usual — and nothing like any of the others. Alice Waters toured the community gardens and Firebox restaurant at Billings Forge. She and Bourdain and "Ace of Cakes" baker Duff Goldman were wined and dined with several hundred Hartford swells. And then we got onstage and a kind of controlled conversational mayhem broke loose. Goldman told stories and threw grapes around the stage, Bourdain dropped urbane witticisms and f-bombs, and Waters shared her vision of a day when commercial airline travelers would somehow get local farmers market produce delivered to the airport for them to consume on planes. Along the way, some interesting ideas and funny insights were exchanged.

There were things happening offstage I can't talk about and (I believe) one or more minor lies told onstage. The next day a lot of people told me I did a great job or that I got it all wrong.

At least nobody saw me with wet hair and no pants, although that, apparently, does not disqualify you from being asked back.