Saturday, March 17, 2007

Open End, October 9, 1960

David Susskind was the forerunner to Donahue, Geraldo, Bill O'Reilly, and Dick Cavett, but in truth, Susskind came across as a psuedo-intellectual New Yorker more closely related to current day Bill Maher. His confrontational approach created a show in which anything could happen. Over the years, beginning in 1958, Susskind, a former actor, covered hot-button topics ranging from the Vietnam War, mixed marriages, homosexuality, and civil rights mixed with general doses of celebrity interviews.

In late September, 1960, the United Nations had gathered in New York City, uniting leaders from around the world. News cameras continuously captured international dignitaries on film for broadcast. In early October, one such film was made of Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro, embracing on the streets of New York. The footage put America, steep in the Cold War, on alert. For several years, the United States had cut ties with Fidel Castro, including refusing to import Cuba's sugar or allow American-owned oil refineries based in Cuba to refine oil for Cuba. The financial strain on Cuba was significant, and, as a final resort to the U.S. embargo, Castro declared the Cuban government communist to become an ally with Russia. Russia needed Cuba's exports. This backdrop was the setting for the Khrushchev-Castro embrace captured on film.

David Susskind's show, Open End, was so titled because the show's episode ran as long as needed to cover the topic. In mid October, 1960, Susskind invited Nikita Khrushchev to appear for an interview. Khrushchev was prepared to expose any hypocrisy and propaganda, and the usually unbeatable Susskind had met his match. For 2 hours, Khrushchev pummeled Susskind's anti-Russian and anti-Castro's rants, embarrassing Susskind and the nation. It was even more unfortunate when a anti-communism commercial ran mid-way through the live event. Khrushchev, realizing what had just happened, commented about the "trickery."

Susskind delivered long patriotic orations and attempted to appear statesman-like, but Khrushchev exposed Susskind's flip behavior. When Susskind remarked to Khrushchev, "You are baying at the moon", Khrushchev, according to Time Magazine, "gave him a naughty-boy dressing down, beginning by asking Susskind's age (39) and suggesting he had much to learn." Throughout the interview, Khrushchev was amiable, calm, and on-target.

The fallout created nationally about the appearance was staggering, especially considering only people in the Northeast saw the late night program. "Damn it," said David Susskind after the show, "I don't think I'm a wild egomaniac destroying Western civilization. I did my best with Khrushchev." The Washington Post reported two days after the Sunday broadcast that Susskind's sponsors walked off the show; but, the negative publicity, rather than back-firing on David Susskind, pushed his northeast program into national syndication.

It remained on the air until his death in 1987. His confrontational style impacted the direction of talk shows, and ultimately, to a more sensational approach to journalism.

Sources: Time Magazine, The Washington Post, Encyclopedia of Television, New York Times

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