Reality Television

Among The Gladiators In The Green Room

I have been spending a lot of time in "green rooms" lately. Those are a television show guest's equivalent of cattle holding pens. You sit there until the show's producer tells you it's time to get into the studio. "Charitable choice," President George W. Bush's method of funneling tax money into religious groups so they can deliver social services, has been a very hot talk show topic. I've been asked to do a lot of the talking.

Green rooms can get quite crowded. Some people get shuttled off to green room annexes where makeup artists try to make the most of the sometimes sorry faces they see before them. In my case, I consider them miracle workers.

There is usually a lot of camaraderie in these places. Years ago, though, in an NBC makeup room, I got into such a raucous argument with actor Kirk Douglas (remember him from "Spartacus"?) about some topic now lost to me that the network sent in a camera crew, presumably just in case I was skewered in some gladiatorial fashion. Remember, this was before "reality television." Luckily, he calmed down before it went too far.

During the spate of recent appearances, I ran into a lot of people to chat with in green rooms. Conservative syndicated columnist Cal Thomas told me he was writing a column for the next day in which he was going to agree with Americans United and express reservations about the Bush initiative. He said it was dangerous for the church. I told him it was dangerous for the Constitution and the church, so we were halfway in agreement.

In CNN's green room I talked with U.S. Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) about the then-unfinished John Ashcroft confirmation business. I told him my theory (addressed in last month's column) that some jobs are inappropriate for people who hold strong beliefs about God's will (as in, abortion is murder) and who will be asked to defend laws that run diametrically opposite.

Sen. Kyl explained that good lawyers can defend either side, and that as a college debater he was taught to argue opposite positions. Actually, I have debating trophies from college and am a member of the bar, but somehow the analogy was lost on me. Ex-Watergate figure Charles Colson chimed in that under his "two kingdoms" theology, you can serve God and man. Well, a theological disagreement beats a shouting match with Spartacus.

A little caution is always wise. In the Fox News Channel makeup room, I was joking with one of the makeup artists about what I considered some of President Bush's bad ideas. The woman in the chair next to me looked familiar, but I couldn't place her. She wasn't reacting to the Bush comments. It turns out she was the new Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, so it was good that I hadn't suggested the president probably had poached spotted owl eggs for breakfast.

I was once interviewed by a writer for a story she was doing about humorous things media guests had seen or heard in green rooms. I ran into her a few months later (in another green room) and asked her how her article had turned out. She turned a lighter shade of pale as a producer cried out, "You wrote that article!" Oops. Apparently it had been published anonymously. It may actually be safer to be quiet.

Occasionally, though, valid things come out of these encounters. I was able to chat briefly with Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont about some problems with "faith-based initiatives," and his staff followed up with some thoughtful strategies. I learned from Tom Lewis, the founder of The Fishing School one of the places where President Bush touted his initiative about some of the truly good work he is doing with troubled teenagers. I've sent him a check, though I'm sad that he thinks government funds are the answer to his problem, instead of letting the power of private voluntary giving grow his program.

Oh, yes, after makeup and green rooms, there are actual television appearances. While waiting for an interview on CBS's "Early Show" with Bryant Gumbel, I saw on a studio monitor that Rob Boston, AU's assistant director of communications, was on a news segment on NBC's "Today." I was sorry I couldn't hear him. He gives me a lot of good lines I might have been able to use.

Going in front of cameras to talk about Bush's "faith-based" plan is time well spent. I've tried to take advantage of every opportunity I've been given because I genuinely believe that the president's initiative represents the most radical threat to church-state separation I've ever seen.

Bush's crusade is one of those rare proposals that harms virtually everyone affected by it. It threatens the religious liberties of those in need, jeopardizes the freedom and independence of America's faith communities, puts the government in an impossible position, undermines the rights of all taxpayers and overturns two centuries of constitutional protections.

While Americans United will continue to proudly take on a number of challenges, this issue has quickly risen to the very top of our priority list. I hope all of our members, supporters and allies will work diligently with us to see that Bush's plan is defeated.

I, for one, will be giving it all I've got even if I have to spend every day for the next four years in green rooms.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.