A Political Pop Quiz: Who Cares About TV? Movies?

The heiress was chatting on the telephone the other night, her first real telephone conversation with a friend in her six years on earth. I just happened to be sitting in the same room, so I couldn’t help but listen in-I assume that by doing so, I was not violating some judge’s notion of a child’s right to privacy.

The conversation, at least the one end of it I could hear, seemed charming and precious enough, until that moment came, that moment I knew would arrive sooner or later as the heiress made her way outside the cocoon of hearth and home. She was listening intently to her friend, and then she turned to me and, without excusing herself (I must teach her telephone manners), she asked me what a movie theater was.

Later research would show that the heiress is alone among her friends in having never seen the inside of a movie theater. That no doubt qualifies as little more than child abuse in some quarters of this city. I prefer to consider it a case of cultural disobedience: I’m not quite ready to cede my values and parental power to entertainment moguls whose products seem to define our very existence.

I knew what was coming next: She returned her attention to her friend, listened for a more few minutes, and then directed a flood of inquiries to me concerning movie stars I barely could identify, followed by equally earnest questions about singers whose names meant nothing to me. (She mentioned something about something she called “In Sync” and someone called Britney something-or-other. I’m far too uninterested to find out Britney’s last name.)

The heiress awaited my reply. “What do I look like, a candidate for president?” I said, finally. This seemed to amuse the heiress, and successfully shifted the conversation back to more familiar ground-school projects, swimming lessons and the like.

If she continues to go through life as blissfully ignorant of pop culture as she is now, the heiress had better forget about a life in public service. As long as smirking, jaded baby boomers are in charge of the nation’s dialogue, candidates for public office will have to be better informed about sitcoms and movie stars than they are about, oh, stuff like national defense and social policy.

The pop quiz is all the rage this year. Don Imus subjected an all-too-willing Rick Lazio to questions about television shows the other day. And, of course, George W. Bush was held up to media contempt when he had trouble with a magazine writer’s questions about television shows, including Sex and the City , a program that apparently concerns itself with vacuous New Yorkers and their sex lives. This led certain quasi-political columnists to assail the governor as a pop-culture ignoramus. In the rarefied circles of the elite media, there can be no harsher charge.

When Americans were saving the world from the Nazis and leading the Free World against communism, presidential candidates who professed ignorance about television shows no doubt would have won praise for their gravitas and sense of priorities. Today, a candidate who can’t identify sitcom characters can expect nothing but scorn and loathing from those who can’t seem to summon an opinion on, say, the death penalty or a tax cut or the future of Social Security.

The media-obsessed boomer commentators no doubt think they’ve created something original with their ironic pop quizzes. Ah, but if their taste in pop culture were any better, they’d know that the Monty Python troupe had them beat by three decades. Of course, the Pythons’ goal was satire, not empty irony. In a skit the Pythons produced in 1970, Eric Idle was the pompous-looking moderator of a show called “World Forum.” His “guests” were Karl Marx, Lenin, Che Guevara and Mao Zedong. After introducing the four grave-looking commies and expounding on their historical importance, Mr. Idle fired a question at Guevara: “Che Guevara-Coventry City last won the F.A. Cup in what year?” It was a trick question: Coventry City, in 1970, had never won England’s Football Association Cup!

The skit ended with Karl Marx answering a series of questions in hopes of winning a lounge suite. He got two right, about the political origins of the class struggle and the development of the industrial bourgeoisie. But he missed Mr. Idle’s last question: “Who won the Cup final in 1949?” (It was the Wolverhampton Wanderers, who beat Leicester 3-1.)

Poor Karl never got the lounge suite.

The quizmasters who would control the tenor of American politics think they’re mighty funny people, indeed. And they figure we’re laughing along with them.

Personally, though, I’m pretty happy George W. Bush doesn’t spend his time watching sitcoms. Maybe there’s hope for the heiress after all.