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I'm not sure what reminded me of David Susskind, I've been thinking about him all morning. In high school I turned the sound down low and stayed up late to watch Open End, a program that ran completely contrary to normal programming. There were two cameras, no set, not even a backdrop that I remember, just a large round table with director's chairs, ashtrays, newspapers, books, coffee cups. People lounged around the table, Susskind presiding, and talked.

I had a late lunch at Mo's in San Luis Obispo last week. Their new location — they lost the grimier older one to retrofitting — now has televisions on every wall playing perpetual sports. The walls used to have road signs and classic photographs of mostly southern BBQs. All the sets were tuned to the same pre-game discussion. A group of experts held sway on the Rose Bowl field, unless they were pasted in. I'm resisting the use of quotation marks. One of the experts finished up his off-the-cuff remarks with something like Whada you think, Bill? Without a split second's hesitation he replied, Well, Jack, you know, 74.3% of the Big Ten Nose Guards in 4 out of 5 games this season… Out came a whole series of things he couldn't possibly store away. I was going to say understand. I know I didn't. This wasn't a discussion, it was a scripted discussion — they were reading from teleprompters. Somewhere, someone or a group of someones in a studio trailer were having a sort of discussion, perhaps days or weeks in advance, that was now being electronically relayed to people more authoritative, more recognizable, to present as their own thoughts and words.

People raised on sitcoms and sports television may not know the sound of people thinking and talking at the same time. Open End was civilized, never angry that I remember, sometimes pointed, always intelligent. I remember one guest who had been rather quiet answering reluctantly, "Well, David, the kindest thing I can say about that is that it's entirely untrue." That got the blood pressure up. There were frequently two or three people talking at the same time. The image of Susskind smiling with his hands up was a frequent one. I remember a guest turning his chair so he wouldn't have to look directly at another guest who was being particularly stupid or contrary. And these weren't basketball players unless the subject for the night had something to do with basketball. They were the intellectuals, the knowers rather than the known, in the vicinity of Susskind's studio.

William Blatty, the eventual author of The Exorcist, parodied Susskind in his novel John Goldfarb, Please Come Home. In a Sunday afternoon interview he maintained with a perfectly straight face that David Susskind and Dichotomous Susskind, his character, had identical last names purely by accident. The word dichotomy entered the American vocabulary by force of Susskind's perpetual use of it. Late night viewers of Open End saw dichotomies everywhere, even if what they sometimes saw was only pairs of related things. In the novel, Susskind was followed closely by an assistant whose job was to whisper polysyllabic words into his ear that he would then work into his next sentence. It's hard to tell if Blatty loved or hated him. He was an intellectual's intellectual in the usually nonintellectual field of film and television with an ample vocabulary, one that had the power to lead discussions this way or that, but not to control them. Unlike William F. Buckley's vocabulary that served often merely to obfuscate.

Now I remember. It was yesterday when I sat down to write something for the blog and an email arrived reminding me about the eclipse. I had no idea what to write until that moment. Late one night, through a cloud of cigarette smoke, someone asked Susskind what he planned to do when he ran out of things to talk about. He was greatly amused. As long as there was a front page to the New York Times, he said, he would always have at least three things to talk about. To demonstrate this, he reached down to the floor and came up with that day's New York Times. "Here," he said, and without hesitating he rattled off three or four discussion points each for three separate headlines. Enough for several programs.

Ezra Pound said somewhere that a poet should know a lot about something. It doen't matter what that something is. The process of knowing a lot about anything teaches us to distinguish between the known and the not known, to distinguish between slogans, for example, and actual ideas. What I learned from David Susskind, besides the enduring value of intelligent discussion, was that the great challenge in life is not finding something to talk about, but having something to say.
 
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