And for those of you who have never seen Peter Sellers' superb performance as Chance Gardiner in "Being There" -- take this opportunity to rent of buy a copy. It's one of my all time favorites, and I'm betting it'll become one of yours.
The People's Pundit
By John Tierney
The New York Times
Let us now praise Guy Goma.
Goma had his 15 minutes of fame this week, mostly in the form of video replays of his terror-stricken face during a British news show. But there is so much more to learn from him.
Goma was at the BBC, waiting to be interviewed for a computer job, when a producer mistook him for another Guy and led him into a studio. Suddenly he was on live television being introduced as Guy Kewney, an expert brought in to comment on the verdict in the trademark dispute between Apple Computer and the Apple Corps record label.
It was that classic nightmare: finding yourself naked at a test you haven't studied for, with the extra twist of taking it in a foreign language. Goma, who had emigrated from the French-speaking Congo, started learning English only four years ago.
Hearing his introduction, Goma gaped at the host. His eyes widened, then flicked sideways, looking for help off-screen. But then he took a deep breath and faced the first question: "Were you surprised by this verdict today?"
"I am very surprised to see this verdict," he said truthfully, and proceeded to offer an unassailable explanation for his reaction: "because I was not expecting that."
"A big surprise," the host said.
"Exactly," Goma replied authoritatively.
Up until this point, you could argue that Goma was merely imitating that great pioneer of knowledge-free punditry, Chance, the illiterate gardener in "Being There." Chance (a k a Chauncey) perfected the echo technique. When a TV host said it was surprising that a man so unknown could be an adviser to the president, Chance sounded wise by simply observing: "Yes. That is surprising."
Chance also specialized in unassailable morsels of wisdom like, "Some trees lose their leaves before they grow new leaves," and, "There will be growth in the spring."
But while Chance stubbornly stuck to his gardening, Goma showed an admirable ability to improvise his way out of a discussion of trademark law. When asked whether the Apple verdict would allow more people to download music, he saw his opportunity and ran with it.
"Actually," he said, "you are going to see a lot of people downloading to the Internet and the Web site and everything they want." Smiling with assurance, he shifted to international affairs, explaining that the Internet would be "much better for development" because it was "faster."
The host admiringly agreed that the music industry did indeed seem to be evolving toward more downloading.
"Exactly," Goma said, and waxed on more confidently than ever, revealing that the Internet is "an easy way for everyone to get something."
"Thanks very much indeed," the host said enthusiastically.
His performance made it clear that television networks have been wasting money on professional commentators. Why not give everyone their 15 minutes of punditry? The only preparation the masses need is a video of Goma's debut (available on the BBC Web site).
It's a master class demonstrating the first principle of talking heads: Don't let the facts get in the way of an opinion. The less you know, the more forceful you can be. You're not distracted. You take in the big picture.
As Goma realized, no matter what business is being discussed, you can slither out of pesky questions by announcing that the industry has been transformed by the Internet. Or, if you prefer, you can pooh-pooh all the talk about the Internet revolution and say it's still the same old business of giving the customers a good product at a fair price. Either opinion is fine — you just have to pick one and stick with it.
If the topic is politics, you explain that a candidate risks alienating the base by courting moderates, or vice versa. You solemnly announce that what the voters are really looking for this year is leadership. If pressed on who's ahead in the race, you divulge that the only poll that counts is the one on Election Day.
Foreign policy can be tricky, but you can always rely on the gambit revealed a half-century ago by Stephen Potter, the author of "One-upmanship" and "Lifemanship." No matter what generalization a fellow talking head makes about any other country, you can dismiss it with a curt, "Yes, but not in the South."
If anyone asks for specifics, you go wide. You, like Guy Goma, deal not in trivia but in larger truths. The bottom line for you, when all is said and done at the end of the day, is that the future lies ahead.
Photo credit: John Tierney (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)
- Watch the Guy Goma video,
- The interview went pretty well. So, have I got the job? by Jack Malvern. The London Times, May 16, 2006.
- "Being There" (imdb.com)
- Lifemanship: Some Notes on Lifemanship with a Summary of Recent Research in Gamesmanship by Stephen Potter. Moyer Bell, 84 pp., June 2003.