Charles Van Doren was at the heart of the 1950’s television quiz show game scandal. Contestants were winning big bucks as America watched in awe of their knowledge of history, literature, and art. As it turned out, the contestants were given questions and answers in advance. However, they behaved with appropriate stewing, fretting, and elation when they gave the answers on the shows. Van Doren replaced Herb Stempel, a long-time champ of “Twenty-One,” who was forced out because the producers found him insufficiently telegenic. Van Doren was and would win $129,000 on the show as well as a gig on NBC. Stempel put his sour grapes to good use and sang like a canary to congressional investigators and New York prosecutors. Van Doren was hauled before congress and, although he had denied it before a grand jury, he admitted that he had been part of the “deception.”
Van Doren lost his position at Columbia, and his role on NBC’s morning shows. He continued with his writing and labored in quiet for the remainder of his years. He refused to participate when Robert Redford made the film, “Quiz Show” (1994), Van Doren was not part of it. The film has a dramatic ethics scene in which the producers, according to Redford, convinced Van Doren to help with the Stempel ouster using the advance preparation method. One line is a classic, “I wonder what Kant would think.”
Van Doren left this life marked by a mistake that branded him even in death. His quiet life after that mistake speaks to his atonement for his very public misstep. Today, in a society that might find his gaming, literally and figuratively, clever, he probably would have been welcomed as a commentator. Instead, he went back to doing what ke knew — no coaching or cheating necessary. In the Barometer’s view, Van Doren did the right thing after his mistake. Oh, that we are not judged harshly for one mistake in our lives and that we are given the chance to reform and the gift of redemption. In our unforgiving world, we forget the critical need for righteous judgment, preferring to surrender to the temptations of easy scorn and eternal condemnation. RIP.