This week marked the more or less official beginning of the Al Franken Slightly-Less-Than-Three-Fifths-of-a-Decade (Saturday Night Live fans, at least those of 1979-era vintage, will recognize the reference) and it started in a suitably bizarre way.
At the Senate hearings to consider the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, the junior Senator from Minnesota bided his time, then sprang a surprise question. Judge Sotomayor had earlier said that she was in part inspired to become a prosecutor by watching the Perry Mason TV series.
It might have been a good time for Sen. Franken to ask how it was that seeing William Talman (in his role as District Attorney Hamilton Burger) losing the prosecution’s case week after week, season after season, could inspire her to follow in his footsteps.
Instead, Franken asked Judge Sotomayor to name the one case that Perry Mason lost on the show. She couldn’t do it. Another senator asked the former Stuart Smalley if he knew the name of the episode. Franken said he didn’t know.
This exchange, naturally, sent reporters to consulting the Wikipedia entry for the series and the several sites devoted to the show. There, they learned that Franken’s question was more confusing that it at first appeared.
There are three episodes in which Perry Mason loses a case. (At this point, TNN readers in Orange County can skip a few paragraphs, since I presume nearly all of them have seen these shows at least a thousand times apiece on KDOC during the last 27 years.)
“The Case Of The Witless Witness,” from 1963, which opens with Mason (played, of course, by the late Raymond Burr) losing an appeal (after his client, evidently, is convicted at trial). However, the plot of the episode does not focus on Mason’s defeat; rather, it sets up a situation where the judge who rules against Mason in appellate court is accused of murder and Perry gallantly takes his case and prevails in the courtroom.
During the show’s first season, “The Case Of The Terrified Typist” featured Mason losing a case, and discovering, on further examination, that his client is indeed guilty. However, it turns out that the name the client is using has been stolen from someone else, in a style somewhat anticipating today’s wave of identity thefts; that, and some other circumstances, enable the attorney to obtain a mistrial ruling, and at the show’s conclusion the implication is that the dishonest defendant will be tried again, with some other lawyer handling him.
The third episode, from 1963, seems to be the one that Judge Sotomayor had in mind, from what she said to Franken, but could not name. This is “The Case Of The Deadly Verdict.” In it, Mason’s defendant is convicted and it looks like Burger finally has the chance to find out what the thrill of victory is all about. But Perry, with Della and Paul’s help, looks into the matter further and finds out that his client has been withholding some facts from him. This leads him to discover the identity of the real murderer.
And at this point we come upon a conundrum truly worthy of the late Erle Stanley Gardner: why Al Franken would not be able to remember the title of “Deadly Verdict” when the actor playing the villain in it was his own second cousin, Stephen Franken. (Yes, the same Stephen Franken who attained pop-culture immortality as Chatsworth Osborne, the quintessential rich kid from Dobie Gillis – not to mention his role as Levinson the waiter in the 1968 film The Party, in which he displays prodigies of timing and comic skill that are to Al’s efforts what the arias of Kirsten Flagstad are to those of Florence Foster Jenkins.)
But I’ll leave it to wiser minds to puzzle that out. Right now it’s time to explain the title of this post. The Washington Post’s article about Franken’s exchange with the judge moved one of its readers to send a letter which the paper published today.
The letter’s writer, Beth Kravetz, said the colloquy of lawmaker and lawgiver put her in mind of a time in the early 1980s when she visited the offices of the National Association of Truck Stop Operators to talk to that organization’s president, former Nixon White House press secretary Ron Ziegler, about a job.
“With little in the way of general niceties” (as Ms. Kravetz tells it), Ziegler asked her to name the nine members of the Supreme Court. “I was surprised by the question,” Ms. Kravetz informs us, “and answered that I could more easily name the Seven Dwarfs, which I proceeded to do. The interview ended shortly thereafter.”
Now, it is most likely true that most Americans, at any given time since Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937, could more easily name Dopey, Doc and the rest of the gang than the nine justices. But I wonder if even the enormous investigative and logical capacities of Perry Mason, Della Street, and Paul Drake would be up to explaining why Ms. Kravetz was surprised that Ron Ziegler was asking her to identify the members of the Court when she, a 1974 graduate of Georgetown University’s law school who presumably had studied cases bearing the names of most of the justices, was applying to work as general counsel of his organization.
I have the feeling that we will be seeing even greater wonders as the Franken era continues.