In the first part of the twentieth century, a number of resort hotels were opened in the Catskill Mountains north of New York City, catering to Jewish families who wanted to get away from the city for a week, or even a weekend. Known as the Borscht Circuit, these resorts were the launching pads for a great many show biz careers, including such notables as Danny Kaye. By common agreement, the jewel of the Borscht Circuit was Grossinger's, in the town of Liberty, New York. Liberty has a special place in my heart because my grandfather, long a stalwart of the socialist Workman's Circle, ended his career as the Director of a Workman's Circle TB Sanitarium that was virtually across the street from Grossinger's.
Even a short stay at one of the hotels was a considerable financial stretch for many of the Borscht Circuit guests, who would come with their marriageable daughters seeking nice Jewish medical students or law students [see Dirty Dancing with Patrick Swayze], or on special singles' weekends hoping for romance. Every minute on vacation was precious, and not to be wasted. Well aware of the needs of their patrons, the managers of the hotels would schedule non-stop Events, guaranteed to fill the time. Lest there should be a single empty moment, they would hire professional stirrers-up, referred to in Yiddish as tummlers, whose job it was to wander around the hotel and stir things up when they threatened to slow down. If a tummler came on three old ladies sitting in rocking chairs nodding off, he would shout, "Ladies, let's dance," and right there would whirl them around, one after the other, lavishing them with absurd compliments and exhortations to have fun.
When I watch Chris Matthews on MSNBC, shouting at his guests, interrupting them, goading one to attack the other, what I see is not political commentary, but a world class tummler at work. The one thing that is absolutely forbidden on commercial television is a moment in which nothing is happening. Obscenity, profanity, perversity, stupidity -- all these are grist for the mill. But there must not be a quiet moment in which someone can be seen to be thinking.
There are, of course, quite comprehensible economic reasons for this frenzy of tumult. With five hundred cable stations available at the click of a remote, even fifteen seconds of calm is liable to see a disastrous leeching away of viewers. At least, at Grossinger's, the guests were paid up through Sunday evening, so a slow moment Saturday morning could be redeemed by a boffo floor show the next evening.
At no time has this penchant for new age tummling been more evident than during the months-long, complex, frustrating process of crafting a health care reform bill and bringing it to a vote. Even now, as we approach the penultimate moment [with reconciliation and final passage still before us], Matthews and his many colleagues and competitors cannot wait patiently for events to unfold. There might, after all, be a slow moment, when their viewers would slide away to re-runs of NCIS or one of the countless basketball games that seem to played at all hours of the day and night. So there is Matthews, shouting at the two most fervently opposed members of Congress he can dragoon, asking whether Obama is "dithering," answering his own questions, doing everything but dragging Keith Olberman on camera, as he waits to begin his own show, and dancing the Hora with him.
Is it any wonder that I sometimes turn to C-Span in hopes of a Senate quorum call graced by some lovely Mozart?