Thursday, December 8, 2011

Just the facts: my interview with Harry Morgan

Upon hearing the news that Harry Morgan, 96, had died, most Americans thought of M*A*S*H and Col. Sherman T. Potter.

Not me.

I thought of Ken Starr, Linda Tripp, girly wiretaps and stained blue dresses.

Yes, I thought of T*R*A*S*H.

It was April 3, 1998.

The nation was embroiled in the great morality play that was the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal.

I look back at it as the time when I became a knee-jerk liberal whose knee jerks most liberally whenever it comes within striking distance of a conservative crotch.

The whole conservative movement to drive Clinton from office was so excessive and so holier-than-thou it infuriated me.

“These aren’t impeachment-worthy offenses,” I remember arguing. “Now, if a president were to lie about weapons of mass destruction to start a costly and bloody Middle East war? Now, that’s impeachable.”

But Republican leaders like Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde, and Bob Livingston said nothing less than the moral soul of the republic was at stake. If our leaders break their most solemn marriage vows, they reasoned, how can they be relied upon to uphold other sacred vows?

That all three men were revealed to be serial cheaters themselves proves there is a God and He stayed up late enough to watch Letterman and Leno in the late 1990s.

And in the center of it all was special prosecutor Starr, a prig so moralizing I was surprised he didn’t list witch burnings as a professional credential.

I remember how Wednesday in Washington became a big news day. That was the day the man who was sifting through trash from Little Rock to the White House took his own trash to the curb.

Remember? Every Wednesday Starr toted a Hefty bag of trash curbside and then held some of the most odd press conferences in television history.

It was fascinating. He was losing the battle of public opinion and wanted to show people he was just a regular guy just doing a regular job.

Starr’s trash removal was broadcast live. I never missed it. It was hilarious.

I never could have imagined how it would later that day lead me to an uproarious hour-long interview with the late Harry Morgan.

Here’s what happened: Reporters were asking if Clinton’s personal failings were really worth Starr’s prosecutorial zeal and the sprawling $70 million investigation and Starr said, “Look, this isn’t personal. I’m just interested in the facts.”

I swear you could almost see a light bulb flash over his head. What he’d said had triggered a memory of something iconic, something he was sure would help him connect with Americans who were ridiculing him as an out-of-control moralizer.

And that icon was none other than Det. Joe Friday.

“Yes!” he said. “I’m just after the facts. Many of you probably don’t remember, but there was a television crime drama about a Los Angeles police detective who was fond of saying, ‘Just the facts, ma’am.’ The show was called ‘Dragnet . . .’”

You don’t say? It was like hearing Mister Rogers tell news reporters about a charming situational comedy based on a story of a lovely lady who was bringing up three very lovely girls, the youngest one in curls . . .

He said how the show starred an actor named Jack Webb. I remember sitting up in my chair when he said, “Now, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Webb. He was a hero of mine. I told him I always aspired to be just like Joe Friday.”

Ninety seconds after he made that statement I had a $1,000 assignment from National Enquirer to find out every detail about the day Ken Starr met the man who played Joe Friday.

I knew somewhere there had to be a picture that would for pure camp value rival Elvis and Richard Nixon: Ken Starr and Det. Joe Friday. It would be an instant cultural icon.

If there was a picture, I couldn’t find it. I imagine it’s atop the mantle above the Starr fireplace.

But I wound up with something of more enduring personal value: a friendly chat with Harry Morgan.

He played Bill Gannon, Friday’s Tonto from 1967-70. In several episodes, the pair act like an old married couple with an apron-adorned Gannon prancing around the kitchen as he fixes dinner for his chum. It’s some of the most unintentionally funny material ever filmed.

Starr, today 65, would have been 23-27 when those episodes aired. Think about it: It was the age of Aquarius, The Beatles and The Stones, and the Summer of Love. Young adults his age where out in the streets protesting the Vietnam War, racial injustice and experimenting with drugs. And through it all Ken Starr was inside absorbing morality lessons from Det. Joe Friday and “Dragnet.”

I asked Morgan what Webb, who died in 1982, would have thought of Starr’s investigation.

“Oh, he’d have hated it. He never would have understood this nonsense of snooping around in people’s personal lives. And I guarantee he and Bill Clinton would have really hit it off.”

Turns out Webb was married three times.

“He enjoyed playing the straight arrow, but Jack was a lot of fun. He wasn’t at all the way Ken Starr imagines. Jack loved to drink and smoke and go to bars and chase women and listen to jazz all night. Him and Clinton would have had a blast together.”

And I had a blast chatting with Harry Morgan. We talked about his role in the 1987 satirical take on “Dragnet,” and the time he’d played a lunatic general in a 1974 episode of M*A*S*H that predated his role as Col. Potter.

I wrote down exactly what he said. I didn’t embellish out of partisan disdain to make Starr look any worse.

I was purely professional.

It was just the facts, man.

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