Uncommon actor

John McCaslin
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Posted: Nov 11, 2004 12:00 AM

Most recognize him as Cliff Clavin, the mailman on "Cheers," but Hollywood actor and director John Ratzenberger is keeping busy these days actually plugging America.

Every Tuesday night at 9 o'clock on the Travel Channel, "John Ratzenberger's Made in America" takes viewers into America's shops and factories, introducing otherwise unrecognized men and women who strive through hard work, skill and devotion to make this a better country.

Over the past two years, Ratzenberger has touted Americans who produce products like Craftsman tools, Steinway pianos, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Barbasol Shaving Cream, John Deere, Brooks Brothers, Stetson hats, Swanson TV dinners, Spam, Gatorade, Ivory soap, Gibson guitars, Goodyear tires, Airstream trailers, Crayola crayons, the Louisville Slugger baseball bat, even the Wiffle Ball.

Ratzenberger, whom this columnist met with last week in Los Angeles, says "Made in America" is "closer to my heart than anything I have done professionally in 30 years." And for good reason.

"(T)he America I grew up in hardly exists anymore," says the native of Bridgeport, Conn. "The America I remember from the 1950s and '60s was an America of ma-and-pa stores and a blue-collar middle class. There was a sense of community, and, above all else, there were community standards.

"But from what I can see all around me today, that America is fading fast, if it's not already gone," he says. "Like America, Bridgeport was all immigrants - Italians, Poles, Irish, Africans, Puerto Ricans, Portuguese. Yet there was no racial or ethnic tension, at least among the kids. We were bonded by the fact that our parents worked hard jobs.

"In school we said the Pledge of Allegiance and in summer marched in parades on streets decorated with American flags," says the actor, who, appearing before one recent audience, criticized this country's "silly educational emphasis on multiculturalism" that "only causes people to be hyperaware of color instead of being colorblind."

"From what I can see, too many kids don't learn pride in their country anymore. You may not share my concern - but you should," he says. "The fact is that in another generation, at least half of all native-born Americans won't have learned about patriotism even by osmosis."

The actor warns that "structures and organizations, even countries, don't survive forever on momentum."

"They need to be re-supplied with energy, and that energy comes from asking not what your country can do for you, but from what you can do for your country."

As for Hollywood and its impact, he says: "I'm concerned about the insidious influence of the media's bad messages that undermine the lessons parents try to instill in their sons and daughters."

He speaks of a recent conversation he had with a high-ranking network executive, the son of a studio executive born and raised in Los Angeles, who turned down a series proposed by Ratzenberger that would center around life in a truck stop.

"I kid you not, this guy had never heard of truck stops," says the actor, whose father was a truck driver. "I should have educated him by pointing out that if New York and Los Angeles were to suddenly disappear one day, all the other American cities would quickly learn to adjust. . . .

"I have a lot more in common with my gardener that I do with guys like him," he concludes. "It appalls me that the people who decide what Americans will be watching on the tube have never been to the United States. Not the real United States.

"To them, the real United States is just flyover country. The pollution they produce, market, sell, and show to billions around the world is at its core contemptuous of the country that gave them better lives than nearly 100 percent of everybody who's ever lived. And they pass that contempt along for everyone to see."

PARIS IN THE FALL

"Enjoyed your article," James B. Davis writes about our item on disgruntled Americans who are contemplating moving to Canada or beyond because they can't stomach four more years of President Bush.

Davis, fittingly enough, is founder of HelpThemLeave.com, a 501(c)3 organization that offers relocation assistance for "disenfranchised" citizens at absolutely no cost.

"In return for your irrevocable renunciation of your United States citizenship, and a sworn statement that you will never return, we will provide free one-way transportation to one of our politically matched, recommended countries on one of the jets we have chartered to provide this service," the organization states.

It goes so far as to carefully match relocation countries to political leanings:

- Leftists: France, Germany, Italy or Spain

- Socialists: Canada, Denmark, England, Finland, Norway or Sweden

- Communists: Cuba or North Korea

THE LARGER LOSER

"'Dude, here's our country!' That is what real Americans told Michael Moore, the hygienically challenged human hamburger whose Pravda-style propaganda has earned him more fans in Cannes than in all 50 states of the Union."

- Gerald Warner, columnist for "Scotland on Sunday," his European opinion piece titled, "God Bless America for Dropping the Dead Donkey."

TAXING SERMONS

A Republican congressman became "enraged" less than one week before the presidential election when the Internal Revenue Service warned that churches would risk their tax-exempt status if they prayed for the election of either President Bush or Sen. John Kerry.

According to the IRS, prayer in favor of either the Republican or Democratic candidate - or any other national politicians, for that matter - would be viewed as a violation of the tax code and place in jeopardy the church's tax-exempt status.

"This is a complete infringement on the right to free exercise of religion," said North Carolina Republican Rep. Walter B. Jones, a Catholic and longtime advocate of free speech for religious leaders. "The government should never be in the business of telling religious institutions how to pray."

Kristen Quigley, the congressman's spokeswoman, told The Beltway Beat on Wednesday that Jones will soon reintroduce H.R. 235, legislation that would change the tax code so clergy of all faiths could address the moral and political issues of the day without fear of being attacked by the tax collector.

SPECTER OF BETRAYAL

Follow through now, triumphant elector:
You prevailed as the unborn's protector,
But the victory you've won
May be cruelly undone
By the sinister Senator Specter!

- F.R. Duplantier

WHY READ?

Don't fear. Brian Lamb, one of the more popular and trusted faces in Washington television, isn't leaving C-SPAN. He's just resting his eyes.

"When you add it all up, I've committed about 1.8 years of my life to reading books for the series," says the founder and CEO of C-SPAN, who, after almost 16 years of conducting one-on-one interviews with nonfiction authors - 800 in all, requiring 20 hours of book reading per week - will bring his long-running "Booknotes" series to a conclusion Dec. 5.

"The last interview is with Mark Edmundson, a professor at the University of Virginia," Lamb tells The Beltway Beat. "And he's a perfect author to end with, as his book is titled, 'Why Read?'"

(Mr. Lamb will expand on that very question during his final program, recalling some of his more memorable interviews over the years.)

As for his first "Booknotes" interview, it aired April 2, 1989, and featured President Carter's national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski on his book "Grand Failure." After Brzezinski came former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, former President George Bush, former President Richard Nixon, former President Bill Clinton, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - and yes, Carter.

Just last month, this columnist was honored to be among Lamb's last "Booknotes" interviews, mine like others conducted in an all-black studio consisting of two armchairs and a famous "bargain-store coffee table."

The serious-minded host, the cable network notes, enjoyed quizzing authors about their writing habits, and Lamb couldn't help but chuckle when renowned historian Forrest McDonald revealed that he wrote in the nude in his Alabama country house.

And while "Booknotes" is retiring, Lamb isn't. On Dec. 12, the cable network will debut in the same time slot a new Lamb interview program, tentatively titled "Q & A." Featured subjects will come from many fields - politics and science, history and medicine.

"We'll look for different, but topical issues and people that aren't being seen and heard elsewhere on TV," Lamb says.

And book lovers take note: C-SPAN2 will soon begin airing on Sunday evenings a program similar to Booknotes, except a guest interviewer each week will greet the new authors.

"So we're not giving this idea up," Lamb stresses. "More than anything else, I'm just looking to get some of my own time back."