Mfume erases line dividing TV, politics

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Oprah.

Sally.

Geraldo.

Montel.

Kweisi.

Kweisi?

Yes, Kweisi.

As in Mfume. As in the congressman from the 7th District of the state of Maryland. As in, more relevantly, the host of "The Bottom Line," a weekly television talk show and ratings surprise on WBAL.

Every Sunday morning the congressman wades Donahue-like into an excitable studio audience, thrusting a microphone into the crowd. Inevitably, the questions or comments prompt applause, even if the point contradicts the preceding one. But then, as in most talk shows, enthusiasm seems to be as much the intent behind "The Bottom Line" as illumination.

"Be animated," Mr. Mfume instructs his guests before air time.

Be animated and do not, DO NOT, refer to his other role.

"I'm not the congressman tonight," he amiably instructs his guests before the hourlong taping. "He's in Washington. Just call me Kweisi or Mr. Mfume. Or hey you."

Less than 24 hours earlier, he was the congressman sitting in the Speaker's chair while presiding over the NAFTA debate in the U.S. House of Representatives. (It was he who ordered the Greenpeace demonstrators arrested when they threw play money from the gallery. "I had no choice," he sheepishly explains.)

Tonight he's the TV talk show host heading into a studio to moderate a debate of a different kind, this one about television violence, a subject that is working its way toward him in Congress.

Got that?

If the role-reversing Sununus, Gergens and Buchanans had already blurred the line between media and politics, Mr. Mfume, 45, completely erases it. Unlike those others, he fulfills both roles simultaneously, acting as host of a television program while holding elective office. This cross-pollination ruffles neither Mr. Mfume nor his bosses at WBAL.

"We're not approaching this program with Kweisi from the point of view that he is a politician," said Emerson Coleman, WBAL's director of broadcast operations. "He was just a good person to play the role of moderator."

But others see more nefarious alchemy at work. Mr. Mfume's television work, they say, is part of a continuing trend that confuses news makers with news gatherers and entertainment with news.

"I don't think politicians should be in the business of talk shows and I don't think talk show hosts should be in the business of politics," said Marvin Kalb, director of the Shorenstein Baron Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University and a former reporter for CBS and NBC. "It further blurs the distinction between talk shows and real news shows in the eyes of the viewers and the voters."

"The Bottom Line" also provides Mr. Mfume steady access to tens of thousands of voters. "Personally, I have problems with it," said Frank DeFilippo, the Maryland political commentator. "At the same time there is legislation in Congress to minimize the advantages of incumbency, this show gives [Mr. Mfume] a distinct advantage with this kind of wholesale exposure every week. Who's ever going to challenge him?"

Polished performer

It is an advantage that doesn't escape others in Congress, who use government studios to produce their own shows for use back home. The difference is that while their programs appear on obscure, little-watched cable channels, Mr. Mfume is on a network affiliate.

A few minutes before the taping, Mr. Mfume is closeted in a small room watching "Beavis and Butt-head" and practicing the voice-over he will deliver as part of the show's introduction.

"Try to do it with a little more animation," says Terry Todesco, the show's producer.

"Do we really need to show that?" he muses while peering at the cartoon characters.

"No," Ms. Todesco, a 30-ish TV veteran says in mock exasperation as they leave the booth. "We'll show Ozzie and Harriet for a show on television violence."

The head of the Congressional Black Caucus, one of the five most influential African-Americans, according to National Public Radio, laughs.

In Ms. Todesco's office, Mr. Mfume settles under a plastic sheet, eating a turkey sandwich, rehearsing the pronunciation of guests' names ("ra-KAL-to, ra-KAL-to, ra-KAL-to," he says over and over) and listening to Ms. Todesco's instructions as a woman paints makeup on his face. When the director pokes his head in, Mr. Mfume asks him to use tight camera shots.

"What kind of audience do we have tonight?" he calls to a production assistant.

"Lively," she replies. "Very lively."

While Mr. Mfume is the marquee name, it is clear that "The Bottom Line" is at least as much Ms. Todesco's show. She selects most of the topics and the guests and does the research. Though they talk frequently during the most of Mr. Mfume's preparations occur just before the Friday evening tapings.

In the year they have worked together, star and producer have developed a comfortable, patient mother-naughty son rapport. She will chide him over his tie selection, warn him not to walk in front of the camera, order him to stop socializing so he can read the material she has prepared for him.

He will roll his eyes good-humoredly, yet, whenever she drifts from him, it isn't long before he calls her back with a "Terry, I need you."

Ms. Todesco marvels at Mr. Mfume's on-air polish. Once a radio talk show host, he is confident on television, even if he occasionally walks in front of a camera or is forced into an abrupt sign-off. Though Mr. Mfume alone is not responsible for a sometimes amateurish production. Frequently, the names of guests are misspelled on the television screen.

Ms. Todesco says Mr. Mfume is continually improving, poring over the tape of his most recent show and reviewing Ms. Todesco's critique of his performance.

"He's surprisingly good," Ms. Todesco says. "He's up-to-date on whatever issue we use. I can't give him an issue that he doesn't know something about."

As a talk show host, he projects the on-camera image that politicians die for -- commanding, sincere and caring. He's also mastered the art of extracting intimate personal revelations.

On one show on domestic violence, the camera focused on him as he squeezed the hand of a woman who had just recounted how she fatally shot her husband after enduring years of brutal abuse. "Evelyn," he said quietly when she concluded her heart-wrenching tale, "you've been very strong to relive that. We appreciate that."

On a recent program on obese people's rights, he shook his head sympathetically as one guest told of the insults she had weathered, and leaned toward another, soberly asking, "Now Delene, how much do you weigh, for the record?" Her answer: 450 pounds.

Returning to the first, he inquired about her sex life. Men, she told him, are secretly attracted to heavy women. "In a bar, they will go to a thin woman, but they want to come home to a fat woman," she tells him as the audience gasps in delight. "They want to snuggle up to her when it's cold. Honey, it's better than a German shepherd."

The host seemed embarrassed.

WBAL officials say it is Mr. Mfume's charisma and knowledge rather than his public office that made him the choice for host of "The Bottom Line" when it premiered a year ago.

Mr. Coleman said the station wanted to produce a show that would examine local issues. But no one wanted to do another ho-hum, talking heads local program that satisfied the station's public service obligations but was watched by no one. That's how they developed the idea of using a studio audience, which would be invited to grill guests, applaud, laugh and otherwise make its presence known.

From the beginning, Mr. Coleman said, the station wanted Mr. Mfume. "We wanted it to be someone who was informed," Mr. Coleman said. "He's also very dynamic. . . . He has had some communications background, so we didn't have to really retrain him.

L "We also wanted someone who would help attract an audience."

That he has. On Sunday mornings, "The Bottom Line" is holding its own, even against such heavyweight fare as "This Week With David Brinkley."

"We decided that we weren't going to be guided by the ratings," Mr. Mfume says. "The twist is that the show is doing very well in the ratings. The only thing that consistently beats us on Sundays is Andy and Opie. Don't ask me why."

Although he is treated with informality at the station, sometimes Mr. Mfume's other persona is inescapable. During a taping in June, for example, the control booth at WBAL told him through an earpiece that he had a phone call. It was the president. Of the United States.

Mr. Mfume cut to a commercial.

Creative outlet

Animation is not a problem with the show this night. The guests are forceful, particularly so when one accuses another of "shilling" for the television networks, and Mr. Mfume, no camera hog, gives them time to make their points. The audience hardly needs the stage director's cues for applause.

Mr. Mfume is peppering guests with his own questions and even, uncharacteristically, gently needling one of them. When the camera is not on him, he smiles with satisfaction.

He says after the show that he regards "The Bottom Line" as a public service, a way to air issues of importance while giving the citizenry a chance to participate. But he is more convincing when he talks about his own pleasure in the show.

"It provides a creative outlet. You can't be that creative writing laws. You can be innovative, not creative. All my life, I flocked to the theater and dreamed of a theatrical career, ever since I played Sneezy in the second grade. There was something about acting and the live theater that I couldn't walk away from."

For 18 years, Mr. Mfume was on local radio, the last five as the host of a nightly talk show on WEAA that started the night Ronald Reagan was inaugurated president. "In that format, like this one, you're making yourself vulnerable every night," he says. "You never know what the next person might say."

In 1989, he began doing a monthly interview on WBAL. Re-election forced him off the air in late 1991, but a year later, WBAL called with the offer for "The Bottom Line." Because federal law prohibits Mr. Mfume from being paid for the show, WBAL donates $400 to charity every week. He will have to temporarily leave the program during re-election campaigns.

The show often attracts guests from out of town, but Ms. Todesco says she rarely has to make reference to Mr. Mfume's congressional stature to lure them onto the show. She believes that some people have agreed to be on the show in the hopes of currying favor with Mr. Mfume, the congressman.

The show on obesity aside, the topics of "The Bottom Line" have been nearly uniformly serious, even somber, from Norplant in the schools to child support to interracial adoptions. The show is usually spirited, but sometimes Mr. Mfume flounders when the topics fail to generate debate.

He says his function on the show is moderator and devil's advocate. Aside from keeping his congressional persona under wraps, he never reveals his own views. Disclosure of his own stands would compromise the show, he says. "I never promote myself or my legislative beliefs because then I don't think we'd have any legitimacy," he says. "I put up a fire wall between the two roles."

There is another reason he should remain on the air, he says. He's good at it. "I was in the media before I ever entered politics," he said. "I think you can't do both unless you are you proficient at both."

Some people, rather than objecting to Mr. Mfume's dual jobs, like the idea of a congressman being willing to hear differing opinions and being accessible the public. "The Bottom Line" should be copied, not discouraged, they say.

"I'd rather see members of Congress do that than engage in illegal contributions or shady book contracts," said Ben Ginsberg, director of Johns Hopkins' Center for the Study of American Government. "Put them all on television so we can keep an eye on them."

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