Geraldo’s Glasses-And Our Spectacles

The challenge here is going to be to prove to you there’s a unifying thread in my thoughts on Geraldo Rivera, Karla Faye Tucker, death rows, death watches, my idiosyncratic views on capital punishment and the emerging media phenomenon I’d call MSNBC consciousness.

I think the link, the thread, will turn out to be Geraldo’s glasses, the super-studious Serious Spectacles, the Horn-Rims of Respectability Geraldo took to wearing on his nighttime network (well, CNBC) talk show Rivera Live , as opposed to the naked eyes he flashed on his syndicated show Geraldo , where he regularly seemed to get his nose broken by indulging skinheads and skin peddlers. (Geraldo’s spokesman insists it’s only a coincidence he started wearing glasses about the time he inaugurated his new, more serious show four years ago. And that may be true, but even coincidences have symbolic dimensions.)

Yes, the link may be Geraldo’s glasses, but let me start with death row. I think I’ve spent a lot more time than the average non-murderer-more than most journalists-on America’s death rows. There was my first harrowing experience at “Q,” as San Quentin used to be called, when I walked into the super, über -maximum-security facility whose Orwellian name at the time was “the Adjustment Center,” the site of the bloody riot in which revolutionary prison prophet George Jackson was killed and several guards had their throats cut. There was a visit with Heath Wilkins, who was then America’s youngest killer on death row (in Missouri). There was a strange encounter in Texas’ famous Death Factory in Huntsville, the one that just executed Karla Faye Tucker, where I tried to sort out with the notorious Henry Lee Lucas (once known as the single worst serial killer in American history) which of what he once claimed were 300 kills were real and which were hoaxes (it was more like three). And finally, there was trip to the worst one of them all, Florida’s death row in Starke, probably the worst place on earth, the worst place I’ve ever been, anyway, a place that made Huntsville look like Club Med. A place where I was locked into a cell with probably the worst person I’d ever met, the repulsive murderer and demented firebug Ottis Toole, who, at the time I was interviewing him, was claiming to have killed and eaten little Adam Walsh, the long-missing child of America’s Most Wanted crime fighter John Walsh. (I don’t think ol’ Ottis actually did it, but I had no doubt he was capable of it-he probably would have eaten Adam’s carcass with relish if he could have-and for years he’d enjoyed tormenting Mr. Walsh by teasing him with supposed details of the purported butchery and cannibalism he’d performed.)

I’m not sure what has drawn me to death row stories, to travel the Lone Star prairies with Texas’ dread “Doctor Death”-Doctor John Grigson, the forensic psychiatrist whose testimony in death-penalty trials has sent some 250 condemned men to die in Huntsville with his dubious psychologizing about their “future dangerousness.” (I watched him knock off three in two days once.) I guess it’s because stories about the minds of murderers and the distinctions the state makes about their mindset when it decides to murder murderers raise ultimate issues about human nature and state power, as well as structuring life-and-death dramas of unbearable intensity.

But I’ve also been to some even more difficult and painful places to be than any death row: the homes and living rooms of families of the victims of some of the murderers I’ve spoken to, people who have lost children, mothers, wives, brothers and sisters, and who don’t want to hear about the killers sitting around smirking for the rest of their lives at state expense, at their expense, writing poetry for gullible liberals to rhapsodize over. (The great thing about the Karla Faye Tucker phenomenon is that it demonstrates conservatives can be suckered just as easily by the phony sentiments of condemned killers.) Spend some time with the families of murder victims before being so certain about such things.

I’m not as certain about these things as I used to be. I’m not as certain as I’d like to be about this issue, but I’ve evolved what might seem like a paradoxical or self-contradictory position: I’m not opposed to capital punishment in theory, I’m just opposed to it in practice.

I’m not opposed to it in theory because I think there are some people who truly deserve to die: mass murderers-in fact, anyone who’s killed more than one victim (if you don’t execute them for the first one, you’re basically saying every murder thereafter is free of charge)-and those who have killed with malicious cruelty, have raped or tortured their victims before murdering them. Furthermore, I don’t think all such crimes can be explained away or mitigated by poor childhoods and low self-esteem, psychological dysfunctions and disorders.

Although I think certain murderers deserve to die in theory, I think anyone who’s actually studied the way the system works in capital punishment states can see it’s so unbalanced, so skewed toward those who can afford good lawyers at their initial trial-which means skewed against the poor-that the people who end up actually being executed are killed not because their crimes are more serious, but because their poverty and often their race (and, in particular, the race of their victim) have deprived them of the advantages the system gives the wealthy and the white. Yes, that imbalance prevails in trial and punishment for non-capital crimes, but when the issue is the utter extinction of life and hope-and the impossibility of correcting judicial error after death-the way the system chooses who is to suffer the ultimate punishment is inherently and incurably unjust.

O.K., now you know where I stand, let’s get to my fascination with Geraldo, his glasses and his take on Karla Faye. Although I didn’t want her to die, nonetheless, I found it absolutely disgusting the way religious figures like Pat Robertson were taken in by her transparently phony con-artist act and how they made her-out of all the hundreds of poorly represented souls and con artists on the death rows of America-the subject of special pleading. One thing you learn if you spend any time with cons inside or outside prison is that many of them can be, in every sense of the phrase, “con artists.” They have a lot of time to practice. But I don’t even think Karla Faye was that good-tell me she wasn’t laughing with that whole tai chi praying hands thing she was doing and the pious heavenward glances she was giving in that widely replayed video.

But even if you believe her, the position of her supporters is a repulsive affront: because she mouths the pieties of our religion, our born-again Christian faith, spare her as opposed to some poor dude who doesn’t have the skills or the lack of self-respect to work up as convincing a facade of fraudulent piety. To spare her and not some less spiritually demonstrative death-row prisoner would in effect violate the First Amendment-it would represent an unconstitutional establishment of religion: a virtual get-out-of-jail, or get-out-of-death-row-free pass for those who fake a specific kind of loudmouthed Christian faith. But you knew that.

What puzzles me is why Geraldo took up the Karla Faye case so fervently and emotionally. Yes, he’s a showman first and foremost, and a great one, but he’s a smart guy, surely smart enough to have seen through Karla Faye’s phony snake-oil professions of faith as the work of a master con artist. You can’t bullshit a bullshitter, they say, and yet there was Geraldo the other day, getting all worked up, a catch in his throat even, I swear, taking off his glasses the better to see through the blur of tears when he pleaded to the world for Karla Faye’s life.

The answer is there, I think, in the notion of redemption. On some level, I think Geraldo identifies with Karla Faye, with her upward progress from-as he put it-“drug-crazed teenage hooker” to morally serious emblem of human self-improvement, a redeemed soul who has much to teach us in her rise from the depths. So, too, Geraldo-who made himself a household name from a show that featured, basically, variations on “drug-crazed teenage hookers”-to the morally serious anchor on a show about serious issues, a show whose seriousness, whose host’s assumption into the ranks of respectability, is embodied in his horn-rimmed spectacles.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve come to like the born-again bespectacled Geraldo. It’s at the very least a better act than the born-again Karla Faye. I admit I was a little late coming to an appreciation of the new version, having stuck with the increasingly geriatric Larry King through the O.J. period when Geraldo was gaining an audience for his nighttime CNBC panel-of-lawyers show (as opposed to his syndicated daytime panel of legal-degree-less geeks). I think I only began to watch Rivera Live with some regularity during the “Death of a Princess” era, oh, so long ago it seems. I actually found myself looking forward to Geraldo’s Hollywood Squares -like array of multiple lawyers in love-in love with the sound of their own voices, but still with something to say, their interesting, conflicting points of view skillfully orchestrated by the G-man in glasses.

It’s true that there did come a point of diminishing returns, as there does with every crisis, perhaps with the fourth discussion of the implications of drunk driver Henri Paul’s third toxicology test. But then Geraldo got back heavily into Jon Benet Ramsey questions, and I was hooked again. I’ve always believed that beneath the surface of sensational tabloid stories there are frequently profound and thought-provoking questions about human nature, about the relationship between passion and reason and the limits of both, that such stories deserved to be studied for more than their deceptive prurience. I wouldn’t claim that Geraldo’s extended seminars on Jon Benet are the philosophical equivalent of Martin Heidegger’s Heraclitus seminars, but in their own ways, they were each searching for similarly elusive truths about human beings and human Being.

I once wrote an essay for Harper’s Magazine in which I defended the tabloid concerns of the New York Post on Hamiltonian grounds-Alexander Hamilton being not only the founder of the original Post in 1801, but, in his essays in The Federalist Papers, an astute and thoughtful analyst of the way any constitutional polity must take into account the power of human passions, the relationship between passion and reason, the necessity of establishing structures of government, and checks and balances that take into account the force of irrational passion in the affairs of men. Both tabloid stories and The Federalist Papers (for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see beneath the surface) are meditations on the nature of passion, on questions that any serious political theorist must consider before declaiming upon the proper forms of government.

I’m not going so far as to call Geraldo (with glasses) our Alexander Hamilton, but clearly the Rivera Live format has touched a nerve, filled a need, spawned an entire network in fact. What is MSNBC but a 24-hour, all-crisis chitchat, Geraldo-and-lawyers network? One long, ruminative, self-reflexive, self-correcting crisis-long Death Watch. It’s also spawned a new star, the new Geraldo, a Geraldo without the syndicated-show past (but with the same horn-rims of respectability): John Gibson.

John Gibson was my bridge figure from Geraldo on CNBC to the shameless full monty of all-Monica nonstop crisis chitchat on MSNBC. I first saw Mr. Gibson as a Friday fill-in for Geraldo on his CNBC show, then caught him doing his regular thing on MSNBC, on News Chat . I think Mr. Gibson’s good, actually. He’s smart and sardonic and has an instinct for the key question; he thinks fast on his feet, and-most important-he seems to have the proper subtextual sense of the absurd. His shows are often more thoughtful and arguably less sensational than the charge-countercharge format the half-hour network news shows are confined to. And they’re more entertaining than most prime time dramas. Geraldo in horn-rims, John Gibson and nonstop MSNBC: The future of television is all there in their spectacles.

Geraldo’s Glasses-And Our Spectacles