Pass That Tuna Casserole, Please

(Unearthed from my archives – this essay was published in the Chicago Tribune on 11/29/94.)

Every now and then a journalist comes up with an idea for a newspaper column that makes other journalists straighten up, push back their rusty, squeaky chairs from their blank computers and say, “Now why didn’t I come up with that?”

That’s not the way I felt when I read about a new syndicated column to be penned by news personality Cokie Roberts and her husband Steve, a senior staff writer for U. S. News and World Report.

Their idea is to write a column together that will give readers an idea what it would be like to eavesdrop on a typical conversation at the Roberts’ dinner table. Topics might include the balanced budget amendment, health care, behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealings of Congress and presumably other timely national and world events. You know, stuff you talk about at dinner all the time.

I had the idea for a similar column years ago, but after recording several conversations at our dinner table, I decided the world would be a better place if those conversations remained private.
However, if other columnists are going to hawk their dinner conversations and earn big money doing so, then I submit to you the following:

Kid No. 1: “Yuck. Are we having meat loaf again? How gross. Why can’t we ever get Domino’s?”
Me: “Because 1 ½ pounds of ground chuck is substantially cheaper than a pizza delivered to the door. We try to be on some sort of a budget around her, you know.” (Note: discussion of balanced budget.)
Kid No. 2: “Just think, we’re eating dead cow right now. Mmmmooo, mmmooo.
Kid No. 1: “I could hurl bits and chunks when she says stuff like that.” (Scientific discussion of bodily functions.)
Me: “What does everyone think about the cease-fire agreement in Northern Ireland?” (Smooth segue into world politics.) “And stop making a volcano with your meat loaf.”
Kid No. 2: “What are pimples made of?” (More scientific stuff.)
Husband: “Can somebody get me another beer?”

I envy Cokie. I really do. To think that her conversations with her husband are so fascinating that they would actually be of interest to millions of other people.
Cokie: “Oh, Steve, it was another intellectually stimulating day. Did you hear my ‘Morning Edition’ piece on Clinton’s health care plan? It went well, I think. And ABC wants me for ‘This Week,’ and Ted called and needs me for ‘Nightline’.”
Steve: “I know exactly what you mean. I have a chance at an exclusive interview with
O. J. Simpson’s pool man’s mother. Are you going to finish that last bit of spaghetti sauce made with fresh tomatoes from my garden?”
Cokie: “I hate it when you eat things off my plate. This is my spaghetti. And by the way, you left a wet towel on the bed.”
Steve: “Isn’t it wonderful how we can have our little differences, write about it in a column, and laugh about it all the way to the bank?”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think the average person is going to identify with the Roberts, and their innermost feelings. Something tells me that their deeply personal topics will not be my deeply personal topics. Will they discuss why men don’t refill the toilet paper roll when the old roll runs out? Will they talk about the problem of whether you should tell a good friend that they need to clip their nose hair? Will they promise to write a column poking fun at Jane Fonda and Ted Turner?

Can anyone named Cokie, born to famous parents, schooled at Wellesley reveal things to us that we can identify with?

Maybe they’re too much of a celebrity couple to get down and dirty as columnists need to. True, columnists can and do become celebrities, but usually they are regular people first. They are regular people who just happen to write about what all the rest of the regular people are thinking about, but haven’t said out loud.

So, pass the meat loaf. “And it’s the last time I’m going to tell you two. No burping contests at the dinner table.”

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