There is a Democratic debate tonight, and on paper, much is up for debatin’! The candidates could discuss how to best fix the country’s still-very-broken health care system. They could detail how they might avoid mimicking the cheesedickery of 2003 by initiating yet another crusade in the Middle East that (goes without saying) would be mere senseless rapacity. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, in particular, could provide concrete details to the left-wing contretemps du jour, firmly settle who said what when, and, I don’t know, broker some truce in order to not feebly fumble away the nomination to Joe Biden, the political equivalent of a prevent defense.
Yes, Tuesday night the candidates could distinguish themselves—or, more likely, betray themselves as callow and corrupt, lying and dumb—and it would in theory be a valuable exercise for all involved. But I hold out little hope. My doubts spring from two sources: first, the reality that even the strongest debate of recent memory can be described, at best, as passable, and second, the unequivocal truth that CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who is moderating this latest iteration, is a bungling idiot who sucks at Jeopardy!
Jeopardy!, the nightly game show in which three contestants are given clues that they then must answer in the form of a question, is timeless, with roots stretching back to 1964 and having run, in the current iteration hosted by Alex Trebek, for 36 seasons. Spanning more than eight thousand episodes—with match-ups featuring nerds, kids, collegians, celebrities, and everyone in between—the show is as universal as it is notorious, measuring both intelligence and wit, brute machine memorization and dextrous cognition. It’s no mistake that the true test for IBM’s supercomputer Watson was for it to enter a Jeopardy! tournament.
All to say that while I’m no believer in intelligence as a strict barometer for merit, and (moreover) I recognize the inherent limitations of trusting any singular quotient as a holistic proxy for intelligence, it’s no stretch to argue that one’s Jeopardy! performance offers some modicum of information. So I don’t aim to impugn Wolf Blitzer by implying that he is somehow unqualified for his job by virtue of being bad at Jeopardy! Far from it. But by showing that Wolf is its worst-ever contestant, across the storied history of the show, I do hope to advance the discussion.
Let’s consider the evidence in two parts. First, there is Wolf’s appearance on the show in September 2009, forever encapsulated here:
Facing Dana Delany and Andy Richter in the first quarterfinal of the Million Dollar Celebrity Invitational, Wolf went out and ended up four restaurant-grade espresso machines in the red. He was so bad, in fact, that Trebek had to float him a grand in order for him to participate in Final Jeopardy!, just so that he could actually earn money for the charity he was playing for.
When measuring Wolf’s effort, it is difficult to separate the abysmal wheat from the mediocre chaff, but here is a brief summary of his performance:
*He answered 11 clues, 5 correctly
*From clues in his namesake category (“Wolf it down!”) alone, he ended up at negative $1600
*In the category “‘E’ times 3”—in which Trebek explicitly stated that all correct responses contained three E’s—his offerings were “Jerusalem,” “defendant,” and “annodated,” the last of which, besides containing only one E, is also not a word
OK, you’re saying, but maybe Wolf was nervous; after all, even though his regular job occurs on-camera, being on a game show can invite unorthodox elements and apply unique pressures he was unsuited for. Sometimes people panic in these circumstances. There’s no shame, when first being thrown into the pool, in forgetting your swimming mechanics.
Except—except—Wolf had been on the show before, in November 1997. This discovery, to me, was monumental. You see, I had scanned the J-archives to find the most pitiful single-game performances in the show’s history, and Wolf’s 46-Benjamin deficit wasn’t the deepest-ever: A 2015 contestant found herself down $6800 at episode’s end. And I soon discovered that a few of these other, um, catastrophic players had competed multiple times. Perhaps over a two-game career they would have been worse than Wolf.
Nope. The other contestants who had laid eggs of such magnitude hadn’t been invited on multiple episodes like Wolf, but rather had appeared through merit: They’d won quarterfinal rounds of tournaments, for example, and fallen apart in the semifinals. These players, at least at some preliminary level, had been winners.
In his 1997 effort, Wolf was no winner. It’s perhaps surprising that his worst Jeopardy! moment didn’t occur in the game in which he earned an income tax credit amount of cash, became screenshotted for eternity, and damn near inspired a Washington Post oral history of how bad he messed up. But in Wolf’s case, it’s true.
To set the stage*: In his maiden run, Wolf doesn’t need Trebek’s charity to participate in Final Jeopardy! In fact, with one clue left, he’s in the catbird seat. Arianna Huffington is in third with $1800, but Wolf has her more than doubled up. His only real competition is Oliver Stone, nipping at his heels with $4000. That still leaves Wolf has a $500 cushion and a clear path to victory: Bet big, answer this last question right, and he’ll go home a champion. (On the J-Archive’s wagering suggestion feature, the strategy is unequivocal: Bet at least $3501, and regardless of how Arianna and Oliver answer, a correct response from Wolf wins the game.)
*This is based on the J!Archive text summary, which I trust with my life, and confirmed by this 2014 blog. But if someone has video, or just a similar ending screenshot, I would commit a crime (against Wolf Blitzer) to see it.
Wolf doesn’t do this. The clue’s category, “Art,” falls outside his wheelhouse of being befuddled by touchscreens, and so he wagers a mere $400, although viewers don’t know this yet. It’s a passive play, giving Oliver a chance at the win, but it will be the smartest thing Wolf does in what will ensue…which is the game show equivalent of a one-car accident in an empty parking lot.
Trebek reads the answer: “The Italian name of this 15th century masterpiece is ‘L’Ultima Cena’”
Now, is this an easy clue? I think so, but I also say that on the ballast of four semesters studying Italian and numerous failed logins to Duolingo. Under the Hollywood bright lights, and facing the pressure-cooker environment of a live studio audience, no clues are easy.
But a note about the format of Final Jeopardy!: This is the sole time in the game when contestants have ample chance to breathe. With thirty seconds to write down their answer, players can formulate their thoughts; even if they don’t know immediately, they can start scribbling in proper Jeopardy! format in hopes that some inspiration will strike them just before the timer rings.
Indeed, this is sort of what third-place Arianna does, who begins writing the perfunctory “what is” (she gets to “What i…”) before running out of time. Trebek moves over to Oliver in second place, who answers correctly—“What is The Last Supper”—and, with his $1500 wager, leapfrogs Wolf.
And now, all eyes turn to Wolf. Best-case, he has a remedial sense of Renaissance murals and cobbles together the right answer. Maybe he puts in a respectable guess based on contextual clues, something along the lines of “what is the ultimate scene.” At minimum, his response should have the two correct words to start, the same dynamic duo that Arianna had in mind: “what” and its partner in crime “is.”
Instead he writes, in sum: “Who David.”
Who (and I cannot stress this enough) David.
I will reiterate my call for politics aficionados and Jeopardy! fans alike to please please please send me an image of this. Wolf Blitzer behind a podium screen that displays, in two lines of neat lettering, “Who David” and then, the morose trombonal discharge of “$400.” Wolf ruefully tilting his head to the side, as if only he had a little more time. Wolf silently praying for the chance to show up and redeem himself in the future, and (offscreen) that single finger of the monkey’s paw slamming shut. I will make this image my wallpaper, screensaver; I will craft an entire online persona from it.
There is a pseudo-clever line to be written about how Jeopardy! answers are themselves in the form of questions, and if Wolf can’t even ask those questions accurately, then how could we expect him to successfully interrogate candidates using basic syntax. However, that is a complex mutation of a simple fact, the kind of strained attempt at humor that holds no water at Paste. Let me be clear: Wolf Blitzer is bad at knowing things. He is bad at pattern recognition. He is bad at wagering and, dare I say, sentence structure. All this mental incompetence reached an epic crescendo in Wolf Blitzer’s Jeopardy! fail.
I don’t know if this man is good at whatever his job purports to be, but the body of evidence is not reassuring. I humbly suggest that he no longer be allowed to host debates. It is time that he cease demanding answers of others, that he step away from the spotlight he cannot handle. He must stop running, look in the mirror, and ask, once and for all: