One of the bigger questions of the universe awaits you


Do you really want to see Miss America without her swimsuit on?

Let me put that another way.

Do you really care whether the Miss America pageant eliminates the swimsuit competition?

I suspect most of you do not care. But those Americans who do, care deeply.

Leonard Horn, head of the pageant, announced Wednesday that the fate of this year's swimsuit competition would be decided by having viewers call a 900 number during the Sept. 16 telecast.

"I personally hope today's announcement will engender a national debate," Horn said with an absolutely straight face.

Everything the pageant does, however, is done with an absolutely straight face. Even when a smile is called for.

Ever wonder, for instance, why the pageant calls them swimsuits and not bathing suits?

Bathing, the pageant ruled long ago, implies nudity. And so the word was banned.

But what is the driving force behind the pageant? What makes people tune in?

Sex. Good, wholesome, unattainable girl-next-door sex, but sex nonetheless.

So why have millions of Americans stopped tuning in? (Viewership has dropped 3 million TV households in just three years.)

The answer accidentally was provided by Horn, who thought he was describing how modest the Miss America one-piece swimsuits are. "You can see more on 'Baywatch,' " he said.

Exactly. Which is why "Baywatch" is the most watched show in TV history.

But since the appeal of "Baywatch" is people in swimsuits, why is the Miss America pageant contemplating dropping the swimsuit competition?

I doubt that it really is. I suspect pageant officials and NBC know that most viewers will call that 900 number and vote to keep the contestants in spandex.

The people who take the pageant seriously, the people who look upon it as a piece of Americana, do not like change. And the others just like swimsuits.

I watch the pageant every year. I feel a bond. Some years ago, I was a Miss America judge in Atlantic City.

I had a great time even though spending a week in Atlantic City in late summer is a little like spending a week inside a ripe cheese.

The judges are treated royally, but there is no fooling around. We were chaperoned. And I had to sign a statement saying that if I took a bribe or failed to report a bribe attempt, I would be violating a federal law.

(As it turned out, the only thing I got that week besides heat rash was fellow judge Gavin MacLeod's red silk pocket handkerchief. He gave it to me to add a little -- to my rented tuxedo. And he insisted I keep it. I now wear that handkerchief once a year to the White House Correspondents' Dinner. When I die, it will go to the Smithsonian Institution to be displayed next to Burt Reynolds' toupee.)

I knew that it was not politically correct to be a Miss America judge, but I told myself that as a chronicler of the American saga, I could not turn down the opportunity.

I also wondered if the rumors were true that the judges got to date the contestants after the pageant was over.

(I'm not going to tell. Let's just say that to this day I still get Christmas cards from the entire Pacific Northwest.)

Is the pageant silly? Sure. About as silly as the World Series or the Super Bowl: It is a competition that many people take very seriously but in the grand scheme of things does not mean much.

Still, to many it is almost holy.

Everywhere I went during pageant week, I was required to wear a large purple badge identifying me as a judge.

One night, waiting for the elevator in the lobby of my hotel, I found myself standing next to a true legend, a man who once symbolized the American ideal.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a young man approach, clearly to ask the legend for an autograph.

And he turned to give it, only to see the young man walk past him and stop in front of me.

"Hey, whaddya think of Miss New Jersey?" the young man asked breathlessly. "She gotta chance?"

The elevator came while I was babbling some neutral reply.

And as the doors closed, I saw Joe DiMaggio smile a knowing smile.

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