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Traveling Quiz Show Puts Washington Politicos in 'Jeopardy!'

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 17, 1997



CULVER CITY, CALIF.

All it Washington suits meet trivial pursuits.

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America's brainiest quiz show has come to the capital. For one week, the Beltway's power players have quit playing politics and taken up "Jeopardy!"

One episode pits former congresswoman Pat Schroeder against satirist Al Franken as they try to describe the meaning of e pluribus unum and the obscure purpose of the General Accounting Office. On another show, Iran-Contra figure Col. Oliver North confronts a category he was once an expert in: "Taking the Fifth."

In the first-ever venture out of Hollywood by "Jeopardy!," West Coast glitz melds with capital-city spin in the name of laughs, charity, and TV ratings. And Washington's gliteratti take a break from posturing and politicking to reveal a surprising knowledge of sports, TV, history, and cultural minutiae.

Indeed, amid klieg lights and faux columns in Constitution Hall, images are tweaked, egos are bruised, and show-offs are born.

Other buzzer-wielding participants on the top-rated quiz show include high-tech novelist Tom Clancy and former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers.

CNN senior correspondent Wolf Blitzer wows radio host Arianna Huffington with his knowledge of sports teams. And NBC White House correspondent Andrea Mitchell proves she actually has time to watch "NYPD Blue."

"Jeopardy!" producers built a $1 million set and spent another $1 million getting the show to the nation's capital. Custom-made quiz categories include "Shred This," "Politically Incorrect," and "First Ladies."

High-stakes high jinks

And although contestants aren't competing for money - all winnings go to charity - the stakes are still high.

"My son kept saying to me, 'Dad, this is not 'Meet the Press.' Don't embarrass me," says Tim Russert, NBC Washington bureau chief and host of the top-rated Sunday talk show. "[On my own show] I can go one-on-one with the president of the United States, and [my son] doesn't care," he says, "But this, this his friends watch, so it's the big one."

Despite the pressure, Alex Trebek, the host of "Jeopardy!" says capital contestants are looser than the average celeb.

"You would think that some of these folks would be afraid to put their careers in question just by showing up here," says Mr. Trebek. "Most celebrities are used to being in front of a camera playing someone other than themselves," he says "These people had more to risk but seemed to have an even better time."

In today's first episode, two second-generation members of America's top political families - Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., (D) of Illinois - square off against Ms. Myers, who is now an editor at Vanity Fair magazine. Categories include "Born in the USA," "Lakes and Rivers," and "Republicans."

Sneak preview answers:

* "In 1996, this Mississippian succeeded Bob Dole as Senate Majority leader." (Response: "Who is Trent Lott?");

* "In the film, "Born Yesterday" this future US Senator played a US Senator." (Response: Who is Fred Thompson?")

"We wanted to tailor our questions and categories to specialized Washington participants and audiences," says head "Jeopardy!" writer Gary Johnson. "Politically Incorrect," a Friday category mimics the name of contestant Bill Maher's show on ABC.

Of pairing Colonel North - who invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination during 1987 congressional hearings - with the "Taking the Fifth" category, producer Harry Friedman says: "We were afraid Oliver North might 'take the Fifth' and refuse to answer any of the questions at all,"

But the gap-toothed, former g-man exhibits an itchy buzzer finger, misidentifying a young Jacqueline Kennedy in a bathing suit as Nancy Reagan. "Oh yes, I remember her," quips North.

Later he saves face with a correct response under the category, "Politically Incorrect." (Clue: "In July of 1997, the National Federation for the Blind asked for a halt to this live-action cartoon." Response: "What is 'Mr. Magoo'?")

Going easy on celebs

Because participants are playing for charity, the strict rules of "Jeopardy" are relaxed, producers say. In one segment, Ms. Huffington, author and host of radio program, "Left, Right, & Center," buzzes in to declare that Henry VIII had eight wives.

Host Trebek gives her two more chances until she settles on the correct answer: six.

Producers say that although categories were tailored to Washington topics, audiences were still impressed with both the breadth and specificity of participants' knowledge outside their own expertise.

CNN's Blitzer, for instance, dominates the category "Washington Sports Teams," naming correctly sports franchises from the hockey-playing "Capitals" to basketball "Wizards" to soccer "Warthogs" to baseball "Senators."

Besides taking home $150,000 for various charities, participants say they left knowing it takes more than just factoid knowledge to compete in the modern world. "Knowing how to buzz in at the right time is the trick," says Huffington. "It takes a real knack."