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Tuesday, November 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

I came for a debate, they came for a show

So I got a call the other week to appear on the "Larry Elder Show."

Never heard of him? Neither had I. And after making my first national television appearance via his show, I'd like to return to never having heard of him.

That's impossible, so I might as well tell all.

When the CBS producer called and waxed on about the astuteness and perceptiveness of a column I wrote on affirmative action, I was all ears. If I appeared on the show, she said, it would add much-needed lucidity and reason to an often emotional debate.

A seasoned journalist, I asked probing questions. Who is Larry Elder? An African American of inner-city roots who became a lawyer, television and radio talk-show host and author. What is his political viewpoint? Libertarian, Republican-leaning. In the last sweeps period, how did his show rate? Fair to middling.

But really, those questions were a formality. She had me at hello.

The smog wasn't heavy when my plane landed at Los Angeles International Airport, offering a clear, panoramic view of the city. I trudged out into the cavernous airport carrying a weekend bag, followed by my son. It was in the show's favor that when I mentioned my husband was away on business, leaving me as sole caretaker of our 3-½-year-old, the producer responded gaily, "Bring him with you!"

Downstairs by baggage claim, a man held up a sign with my son's name on it. My son squealed happily and the "Larry Elder Show" moved up another notch on my list. Ditto when the man led us to a stretch limo where a glistening array of liquor decanters, glasses and iced bottled water dazzled my son. I tried to distract him with the limo's television set, but to no avail.

Later, ensconced in a cozy Euro-style hotel room, the phone rang. The producer wanted to know if the room was satisfactory. I stammered out yes and hung up with the fresh knowledge that this must be how the other half lives. Only later did a friend point out that the producer just needed to make sure I hadn't chickened out.

Another limo arrived the next morning to take us to CBS' Los Angeles headquarters. There, I was assigned handlers. One showed me to the green room, another breezed in and took one look at me and announced my blazer would never do.

My son got his own handler, an eager employee who spent the morning fetching coloring books, bowls of Cheerios and apple Nutri-Grain bars when the strawberry ones were rejected, and playing multiple rounds of chase.

Another handler took me to makeup, where I tried unsuccessfully to ignore the music and Nordstrom cosmetics-counter ambience and study my debating points.

I am an example of affirmative action done correctly. I am bright and capable. But without employers committed to diversity, I can't say where I might have landed. Ditto for people like Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and that skinny kid with the funny name from Illinois who just won a seat in the U.S. Senate. We didn't stumble into our successes. We worked for them. And affirmative action is one of the policies America employs to welcome people like us whom it once shut out.

I couldn't wait to get on the air. In addition to Elder, a second guest was to be a college student in the news for holding a bake sale and charging white students higher prices. Her point, made in a ridiculously infantile way, was that treating people differently because of their race is wrong.

I planned to ask the student what policy, if not affirmative action, would correct the egregious harm done to a class of people simply because of their race. I envisioned effortless rapport spiked with spirited, polite dialogue.

Onstage, not one but five guests waited along with Elder. The time flew. Several times Elder fired questions at me and I smiled and prepared a thoughtful answer. Each time he turned a rouged cheek and said something to the audience that made them howl in their seats. He cut the fellow to my right down to size when the man complained of being turned down for a job in law enforcement in a largely Latino community because he didn't speak Spanish. "But I speak German," the man wailed. The look Elder gave him was withering.

Two other seatmates descended into a fierce shouting match. The college student looked bored.

A week later, I'm still wondering what happened to the informed debate over one of the most effective and controversial policies in our nation's history. I wonder when such an important issue got relegated to overblown sound bites.

I can't blame Elder; he's all about ratings. And it was obvious the audience didn't come to ponder affirmative action, if they could even define it. Everyone had come for a show. I'm sad to say they got it. And I was part of it.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com. Look for more of her thoughts on the STOP blog, our editorial online journal at www.seattletimes.com/stop

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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