Blast from the Past

CharlesvanThe last time that Charles Van Doren met the media, he was emerging from a congressional hearing in the corridors of the Capitol, surrounded by cameras and reporters, where he delivered a mea culpa for his part in the quiz show scandals.

That was 49 years ago.

In the new New Yorker, Van Doren returns after generations of self-imposed exile to explain his side of the story — a where-are-they-now? delivered by the man himself. He writes of a quaint life working for Encyclopedia Britannica and penning books, and only occasionally seriously considering offers to return to the limelight. One was to do an interview for a 1992 PBS documentary on the quiz show scandals, with a vague parallel proposal to even host a series on the history of philosophy; the other was to be paid $100,000 to serve as consultant for Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show” in 1994. After some temptation, he turned both down.

What he doesn’t do, however, is make any sort of judgment on reality shows, checkbook journalism, or advertorials masquerading as news — the list could go on and on. In fact, the whole idea that the government would step in and launch a federal inquiry into the content of a whole class of entertainment shows seems quaint today, even when you consider the current futile attempts of the FCC to cut down on indecency in an era of so many options.

Van Doren’s transgression was that he rose to fame by deceptive means — even though once achieved stardom he actually was a likable personality, on “Today” and other shows, capturing in a classier era the kind of celebrity that eludes most contestants of today’s reality shows.

VandorenThe context of then vs. now is striking. Van Doren and other exposed contestants were “indicted, arrested and arraigned,” he writes. “…We were marched through the streets of downtown New York, (accompanied by photographers), forced to hand over our valuables, take off our belts and shoelaces, and get fingerprinted.” Reading through Van Doren’s article, you can’t help but feel that many people would ask, what’s the big deal? It’s not even news these days when some kind of fudging or coaching on today’s reality shows are exposed. It’s just what is to be expected.

Van Doren, however, makes no attempt to excuse himself in light of present mores. What is surprising is that he made it this long before speaking out, in a media environment where so many other fleeting celebrities, including those on most reality shows, can’t seem to just walk away from the exposure. Even those who have also gotten into trouble, like Richard Hatch, now serving time for tax evasion of his winnings, are likely to make a play for some kind of new media moment.

By writing the New Yorker piece, Van Doren, at 82, above right, ultimately couldn’t resist at least one last piece of exposure and explanation, even if it is on his own terms and years after he ceased being a household name. For those who have studied the era, or those who lived through it, his mini-memoir is a pretty compelling and candid look at the trappings of fleeting fame and how it never really goes away.

“One of the best things about writing is that it’s private,” Van Doren writes. “I can sit with my thoughts without having to respond to people who say, ‘Aren’t you Charles Van Doren?’ Well, that’s my name, I say to myself, but I’m not who you think I am — or, at least, I don’t want to be. It’s been hard to get away, partly because the man who cheated on ‘Twenty One’ is still part of me.”

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