THE WHOLE thing started over Barbara Walters, which is a silly damn thing to fight over, but there you have it.
What happened was, Nancy was reading a magazine profile on Barbara Walters, one of those long-winded puff jobs wherein the subject is portrayed as the logical successor to St. Francis of Assisi in terms of warmth, compassion and contributions to humanity.
Just to get the conversation rolling, I said: "A Barbara Walters piece. Boy, there's a lot of trees that died for nothing."
Well. You know how you'll say something and, even as the words are leaving your mouth, you know it's the wrong thing to say?
This was the wrong thing to say.
"You have a problem with Barbara Walters?" she said.
"I have a lot of problems with Barbara Walters," I said.
"You have a lot of problems, period," she said.
"Barbara Walters is smarmy, maudlin, egotistical . . ."
"Are you through?" she said.
"And that sickening oh-so-earnest look she fixes on people. God! I have to leave the room when I see that."
"Why don't you leave the room now?"
Nine-thirty at night and we're fighting about Barbara Walters. Apparently there was nothing on TV.
"Here's what really gets me," I said. "Your buddy Barbara will be interviewing someone like, oh, Stallone, OK? But instead of asking him something normal, like how many guys will Rocky beat the crap out of in his next movie, she'll furrow her brow and look at him with those big cow eyes and say: 'Sly, do you think the Far Eastern religions are on to something with this emphasis on a middle course between mortification and the pursuit of ambition?'
"And Stallone will look at her like: 'Wha-a-a?' "
"Stallone is a jerk," said my wife.
"OK. Fine. But what kind of stupid question is that? Even i you're interviewing someone like Jeanne Kirkpatrick, it's still a stupid question."
"Maybe she just . . ."
"Or Roseanne Barr," I said. "Or Arnold. Or whatever her name i now. She'll be sitting there scratching herself or playing footsie with her husband -- you want to talk about a jerk -- and Barbara will ask her something about the Balkanization of our society, how we seem to be increasingly fragmented and . . . I mean, this is Roseanne Arnold, not Henry Kissinger."
"Barbara Walters is the best interviewer in the business," sai my wife.
" The best in the business?! Let me say two little words, OK Mike Wallace. And Mike Wallace isn't going to sit down with Yasser Arafat in some sun-dappled villa in Tunis and look deeply into the man's eyes and say: 'Yasser, if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?' "
"Barbara Walters never said that," Nancy said. "That was something the media . . . "
"Oh, here we go with the media," I said.
". . . blew completely out of proportion. Look, I don't want to talk about it anymore."
For a moment, silence descended upon the room. Sh pretended to go back to her reading. But I knew she still wanted to talk about it.
Thirteen years of marriage, you can tell when a person wants to talk about something.
"Hugh Downs has carried '20/20' for years," I said quietly.
"HUGH DOWNS?!" She looked at me like I said Doogie Howser.
"The man is a rock," I said. "Solid, dependable. A real pro."
"Hugh Downs is boring."
"Only boring people would find Hugh Downs boring."
"He looks so ill-at-ease," my wife said.
"I'd be ill-at-ease, too, with Barbara across from me. I'd be afraid we'd be in the middle of some big story on, oh, lead pollutants and she'd ask me what my favorite color was."
"I'm sure Barbara would be delighted to hear the flattering things you're . . ."
"Listen," I said, "you think Barbara Walters cares what some hack writer from Baltimore thinks? She's a big-shot. Fabulously wealthy, powerful. A jet-setter. Someone hands her a critical column at dinner, she just yawns and turns to one of the servants and says: 'James, throw another five lobsters in the pot.' "
"I don't want to talk about it anymore," she said.
"Fine with me," I said.
I'm glad we got that settled.