Ron Reagan Jr. Steps Up to Bat With Left Chat

On Monday, July 28, Ron Reagan started a week-long run as guest co-host on MSNBC’s Buchanan & Press , with the son of the former President sitting decidedly to the left of Pat Buchanan. But Mr. Reagan was doing more than just filling the seat of vacationing co-host Bill Press; he told The Observer that he hopes to anchor his own liberal-leaning talk show. And what better place to test his talking head than against Old Man Crossfire himself, the squinty-eyed hatchet man who, after all, worked for his father back in the day. Having spent the past three years hosting dog shows on the cable network Animal Planet , Mr. Reagan relishes the idea of going up against the bark and bite of the right wing.

“I’d love to do another talk show, and I’m talking to some other people about that,” he said following his Buchanan & Press appearance. “I’m still in the planning stages, and I think there’s a lot of room for this. Despite this supposed ‘liberal bias’ in the media, I can hardly find any on TV.”

Mr. Reagan was invited to Buchanan & Press by the show’s new executive producer, Tammy Haddad, who helped invent Larry King Live in 1985. Ms. Haddad said she met Mr. Reagan at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000 and was impressed by the former ballet dancer and sometime TV presence.

“People think that there aren’t many good liberals out there that can carry a show,” said Ms. Haddad. “We had dinner together and I thought, ‘This guy is so good, he should be on TV.’ I’m sure he’ll get offers after this. Let’s hope he talks to MSNBC first.”

MSNBC might want to act fast: Mr. Reagan said he was approached by two journalists associated with an “Internet entity” who were pitching, he said, an “unabashedly” liberal show to cable networks. “We’ve had the conversations, and now we’re meeting people at various media outlets,” he said, adding that the proposed show is of the time-honored sit-down variety, “with the telltale, piquant little bits like ‘The Lie of the Week’ or a ‘Right-Wing Moment’-like Tom DeLay talking about teaching children about biology: ‘We evolutized up from the mud!’ O.K., we’re in trouble as a country.”

The show could be a tough sell. To date, the 45-year-old Mr. Reagan hasn’t shown much prime-time promise. Since working as the “adventure correspondent” on ABC’s Good Morning America in the late 1980’s, the thin, affable, occasionally acid-tongued Son of the Gipper has mostly bummed around the cable dial. After The Ron Reagan Show , a syndicated late-night chat-fest, failed to take off in 1991, he worked as a producer and host on E!, hosted a computer show for Cnet, did documentary voice-overs for the History Channel and co-hosted Fox’s short-lived newsmagazine Front Page. Things have been a bit better over at Animal Planet, where, he said, his pooch program gets the highest ratings on the network. Still, he’s yet to equal the sensation he caused during his father’s second administration when he hosted NBC’s Saturday Night Live and danced around the stage in his tighty-whities in a Risky Business skit.

Lately, he’s been edging back into the political fray. Mr. Reagan first went on MSNBC as Mr. Buchanan’s guest in April to discuss George W. Bush. During the Iraq war, Mr. Reagan described the Bush administration as “overly reaching, overly aggressive, overly secretive and just plain corrupt. I don’t trust these people.”

For his part, Mr. Buchanan, the former director of communications for Reagan père , said he’d made the younger Reagan’s acquaintance years ago.

“I’ve not known him well, but I saw him when I was out at his dad’s place in Pacific Palisades in 1976, when he was a teenager,” Mr. Buchanan said, adding, “His father’s a great hero of mine.”

Mr. Reagan said he knew liberals aren’t known for being great TV.

“I think the bar is set higher for liberals,” he said. “It’s easy to be Ann Coulter.”

Regarding Ms. Coulter’s recent comment about Joseph McCarthy being an American patriot, for instance, Mr. Reagan said that “to dignify those remarks by refuting them takes time. Conservatives have it easy: They just blurt out some nonsense.”

In preparation for the July 28 broadcast of Buchanan & Press , MSNBC’s Web site promised: “Sparks fly when Pat and guest host Ron Reagan Jr. tackle the controversy over America’s first gay high school.” But the sparks came mostly from Mr. Buchanan, who had the benefit of his trademark bark and tomahawk-chop gesture.

Mr. Reagan was smooth enough, but he didn’t leap off the screen. He did get in a slightly school-marmish jab at conservative guest Michael Long when he said: “Hey, Mike, I can’t help but notice that anything involving gay people gets you conservatives’ panties in a real twist. Why is that?” Then he cocked his head and looked quizzical for effect-a little too quizzical, maybe, but it seemed like a workable riff.

In any case, Mr. Long used volume to bark Mr. Reagan down. “Don’t play that kind of game with me, Ron!”

Mr. Buchanan ended things with the kind of zinger his audience laps up with a spoon. Talking about the gay-only Harvey Milk High School, he noted with a chuckle, “They might have a great football team!”

Ugly, but pure gravy to America’s channel surfers.

Tonight, Mr. Reagan sees if he can get Mr. Buchanan to fetch. [MSNBC, 43, 6 p.m.]

Thursday, July 31

Which reminds us, just how badly is MSNBC doing? … The week ending July 18-which was the week before Mr. Buchanan’s new executive producer, Ms. Haddad, arrived-the cable network continued to suck wind behind Fox and CNN. MSNBC averaged a 0.3 in prime time, according to Nielsen Media Research, tying its lowest performance ever. Some seven-year anniversary! Considering parent company General Electric, you could almost hear chief executive Jeffrey Immelt’s teeth grinding: The company’s longtime credo has been to be No. 1 or No. 2 in all its businesses, with laggards sold off to the glue factory.

Until last April, Buchanan & Press was much like the network as a whole: a wayward program, tic-tac-toeing through different time slots and all but disappearing during the war. But Ms. Haddad’s entrance may signify that the network is trying to solidify a bit, after a year of rotating talking heads (Phil Donahue, Ashleigh Banfield) like hub caps on a sputtering Studebaker. With the network running on four cylinders-Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Joe Scarborough and Dan Abrams- Buchanan & Press will now be the lead-in to prime time.

“If you want to win the night, you’ve got to have a strong lead-in,” said Ms. Haddad, who was contracted by MSNBC to work on Buchanan & Press through the 2004 Democratic campaign. “And MSNBC is committed to starting the evening at 6 p.m. And I think that’s right.”

She said she wouldn’t do anything drastic, just retool the show from a daytime program to a prime-time one-which means less straight news and more yelling about straight news.

“The show has been more news of the moment,” she said. “We’re not going to be news of the moment. It’s going to be more of a discussion and less of an interview.”

Depending on the budget, they might take Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Press to New Hampshire and Iowa to follow the Democratic Presidential candidates. Woo-hoo!

Meanwhile, a special investigation finds that Fox’s Brit Hume , whose Special Report handily wins in the 6 p.m. ratings, does indeed have his eyes closed. [FOX, 5, 6 p.m.]

Saturday, August 2

Tonight, we pray for another Best of Will Ferrell rerun. [NBC, 4, 11:30 p.m.]

Sunday, August 3

CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman moves to New York from Los Angeles this week, and he’s not necessarily thrilled about it. After all, the last two guys who did the Andy Rooney “essayist” gig on 60 Minutes II -well, let’s just say they’re no longer at West 57th Street.

“It’s going to be quite a challenge,” said Mr. Hartman, calling from Lakeside, Ohio, where he was staying in a summer cottage with his parents until his stuff arrives in New York. “It’s one of the biggest challenges of my career. I don’t know if you know the history of that spot, but they’ve plugged in two people and neither worked out.”

“I’m in Charles Grodin’s old office,” he added, by way of illustration. (The other one was Jimmy Tingle.)

You may have seen Mr. Hartman on The Early Show , or occasionally on the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather . He does those “Everybody Has a Story” segments, in which he tosses a dart at a map of the U.S.-wherever it lands, he goes there, picks a random schlub from the phone book and does a heartbreaking story on him or her. There was, for instance, the 5-year-old boy in Tennessee who let a helium balloon float up to his deceased grandma every year on her birthday; and the free-spirited crackpot who lives in Alaska and worries his mother silly; or the cowboy in Texas whose daughter almost got shellacked in a horse-riding accident, but who lived and learned life lessons. He usually ends up with a poignant, soft-focus nugget that owes a lot to his hero, Charles Kuralt.

Mr. Hartman is used to the comparison.

“I’m flattered, but I kind of know I’ll never be at that level,” he said. “He was an effortless writer, and I could never write like that. I certainly can’t talk like that. I guess he’s who I look up to most.”

He said the dart-toss concept came from a newspaper columnist for the Lewiston Morning Tribune , David Johnson, who used to do it locally, and Mr. Hartman thinks it has a magical, serendipitous quality to it. Folks in the hinterlands seem to like it, and so does Jim Murphy, the executive producer of the CBS Evening New s, who decided to run a segment of it every night in the month of August. But Mr. Rather had to be convinced. “Dan wasn’t gung-ho right away,” said Mr. Hartman, “because it was so untraditional.”

Mr. Murphy said of Mr. Hartman, “The bottom line on him is, he’s really a great storyteller.”

Mr. Hartman said he’d like to see his “Everybody Has a Story” project get incorporated into a prime-time newsmagazine at some point. In the meantime, he’s the caboose on the 60 Minutes II train, trading off week to week with Bill Geist, the CBS News Sunday Morning correspondent. Producers road-tested Mr. Hartman last spring, and Jeffrey Fager, executive producer of II , apparently liked what he saw. In one essay, Mr. Hartman rigged up his parents’ house and filmed them shuffling around and examining bills-to show how boring a “real” reality show would be. It had a whiff of Tom Green, but only a whiff. He also did a segment in which he went to a 20-year high-school reunion for a high school he didn’t attend. He had a hidden camera in his eyeglasses, and a lot of people thought they recognized him. It was a comment on memory.

Mr. Hartman is moving to New York on orders from Mr. Fager, who wants him in town while he’s a resident 60 staffer. So Mr. Hartman and his girlfriend-Susan Gibbs, who operates a small jams and preserves company called Jam I Am Inc.-are moving into a brownstone in Harlem. Mr. Hartman worked at WABC in New York nine years ago, but he hadn’t planned on coming back to Manhattan. Ever.

“It’s funny,” he said. “There’s a lot of great things about New York and a lot of great things about Los Angeles, and I lean toward Los Angles. But I’m jumping into the urban life up to my head. We’re not moving up to Westchester or anything like that. But the weather is really nice in Los Angeles, and it’s going to be hard to give that up.”

Tonight on the flagship 60 Minutes , Andy Rooney’s eyebrows pick up messages from a lost civilization. [CBS, 2, 7 p.m.]

Monday, August 4

Federal law now requires you to see it: Bob Hope: The Road to Laughter …. [WNET, 13, 10 p.m.]