Saturday, December 7, 2002

Producer Cyd Upson, interviewer Oliver North and our test subject prepare for "War Stories."

My dinner with Ollie —
on the wrong side
of the microphone

"War Stories -- Attack of the Japanese Midget Subs!": 3 and 8 p.m. tomorrow on Fox News

By Burl Burlingame

AT ONE point it all just seemed wrong, wrong, wrong. "You don't ask the questions here!" I wanted to say to Ollie North. "I ask the questions here!"

But that was the deal, even if it seemed unnatural for a journalist. I was the subject, not the interviewer. The tables were turned. I had to be polite to the public figure, not curious, nor querulous. I couldn't be myself.

Besides, it might have given Col. North a flashback to his Senate-investigation days.

Getting in front of the mike instead of behind it is a familiar situation for any journalist who's accomplished anything other than filling column inches in a newspaper.

In my case, it was writing a book that dealt with Imperial Navy submarine attacks on Hawaii and the West Coast during World War II. I became kind of an expert on the subject, the go-to guy. In some quarters that made me cool, but for most people it's sort of like being King of the Nerds.

("Advance Force Pearl Harbor" is published by Naval Institute Press. It is currently sold out at local Borders and Barnes & Noble bookstores, but the Arizona Memorial and Bowfin Museum gift shops have it on the shelves.)

This led to a phone call from television producer Cyd Upson of Fox News. They'd stumbled across the book, thanks to recommendations from other historians. Would I be interested in helping out on a show devoted to the subject?

Sure, why not? There have been developments since the book was published, particularly the discovery of a missing submarine off the mouth of Pearl Harbor, the first casualty of the war. One of the frustrations of books -- as opposed to newspapers -- is that you can't easily add new information.

THE SHOW North is hosting tomorrow night is "War Stories," part of a military documentary series that approaches subjects in a TV-newsy fashion. For Fox News, that means colored lights, glitzy graphics and declarations of "fair and balanced!" every few minutes. This isn't your dry and dusty historical film doc, no sir.

The time set was an early evening about a month ago, in the Bowfin Museum at Pearl Harbor. The idea was to use Pearl Harbor as backdrop in the glimmering twilight, after the tourists left. But as it turned out, a veterans group was hosting an event that night on the Bowfin lanai, so taping was moved indoors.

Although North and Upson were already at the Bowfin when I arrived, the film crew (a local crew hired on a day-contract) was stuck in an unusually severe traffic jam. The principals hung out until the crew could arrive and set up.

North bears an amazing resemblance to himself, I thought, which is just the sort of dumb thing that goes through your mind upon meeting celebrities. That toothy gap in an eager smile, the nose smaller than Michael Jackson's (although less likely to slide off), that salt-'n'-pepper buzz cut. Military types in the vicinity were eager to chit-chat and ingratiate themselves with him.

North handled himself well in that situation, in the easy manner of a good field commander among loyal troops. He told stories that had a point, asked questions that made sense, exhibited real curiosity, but how would he be with the camera rolling?

JUSTFINE, as it turned out. He'd actually read parts of the book, which put him ahead of most TV types. Actually, many ex-military officers do fine in the show-and-tell repartee of a filmed interview, and North was a legendary briefings officer in the Pentagon. He's adapted to the technology of TV work as well, positioning himself and his subjects, calling out helpful comments on lighting and sound levels, and achieving the most difficult TV trick of all, holding two thoughts in his head simultaneously.

But he's no pompous journalist. He has nothing to prove. North is more of a cheerleader in an interview, urging the interviewee to spill, putting pressure points on the conversation to guide it forward, just trying to get the predetermined story on tape. He doesn't call attention to his cleverness either -- his questions were along the lines of "What happened next?" or "Really?" or " ... and?"

The usual thing with a filmed interview is the tremendous amount of labor and fuss setting it up -- make-up, lighting, tweaking the colored gels, taping the microphone cable just-so on the back of your shirt, getting chairs just the right height, erasing that bothersome sheen on your forehead (I have a lot of forehead) and North, who'd been in the air direct from England, began to doze off while we were being prepped. "The old man's getting sleepy!" he called out at one point, and it took me a moment to realize he was referring to himself in the third person.

But once the prep is completed, the interview whizzes by. I have no idea what I babbled, or if any of it was usable. My clearest memory of the evening was also the oddest:

The speaker at the veterans' meeting was Sen. Dan Inouye, and he and North chatted for a while behind the scenes. Here they were, two old warriors and consummate Washington insiders, trading pleasantries. Remember your recent history? It was Inouye who had sparred so roughly with North during the Contra hearings back in the 1980s, the only politician to make North break a sweat.

I guess that's a "War Story" for another day.

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