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Getting gamy

"Sock it to me." Anyone who knew that Richard Nixon was the president who made a guest cameo on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" couldn't help but hope that million-dollar winner John Carpenter would have mimicked Tricky Dick as he gave his final answer. Instead, he made a homespun phone call to his pappy. Get out your handkerchiefs.

Sure enough, Carpenter was on the cover of People magazine the next week, a new American hero who defied the odds and the crocodile blandishments of Regis Philbin to bag the big loot. The easy loot.

Indeed, on CNN's "Talkback Live," hostess Bobbie Battista made a point of asking a trio of winners from "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and Fox's "Greed" if they resented the fact that Carpenter had won on a pretty softball question. All of them graciously declined to take the bait. Is this a testament to their faith in the "luck of the draw" or in the good conscience of ABC and its marketing department? How many of them have seen Quiz Show (1995)?

A million dollars is hardly a fortune these days. And despite all the prosperity and promises of more to come, the American public is a beast wary of false prophets, particularly in an election year. While yuppies try to get rich quick daytrading, the hoi polloi are, by and large, left with lotteries, Vegas and Regis. These game shows are their gold rush — a long shot they actually have a shot at.

Alex Trebek, natty host of "Jeopardy," commented wistfully on "Larry King Live" that he had been pestering his producers for years to mount a big-money edition of the program, but they balked. For all of Trebek's congeniality, "Jeopardy" is an elitist contest. Only a college graduate or serious autodidact can compete. And a competition it is.

So let us suppose you win your million and, through more good fortune, you roll it over into a few more million? What then? To whom do you look for guidance?

A few weeks ago, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd trundled down to the Palm Beach lair of Donald Trump to get his thoughts on greed, girls and going all the way to the White House. The Donald did not disappoint. "Greed is not good," he pronounced. "We've already been there and it didn't work."

Then it was time to hold forth on being single and studly in the city that never sleeps. "I know plenty of rich men who can't buy a date," offered the tycoon, clearly implying that his situation is quite the opposite. He went on to caution that a woman doesn't care if you're a billionaire. If you don't have that special magic, you don't get play. "She can't make love to a Gulfstream G-5."

But Trump, now in a white heat of eloquence, saved the best for last. "A lot of this Internet stuff is nonsense," he groused and then proceeded to deride the quixotic efforts of a friend to sell lobsters on the Web. "I like to touch what I own — bricks, mortar." According to the Donald, sooner or later the market's going to implode and "we'll all be brought back to reality."

Whether you consider him a vulgarian, a kook, a shameless egotist or all three, there's something undeniably likable about Trump. Whenever I'm checking out the Sunday chat shows on the telly and I come across the telltale blow-dried comb-over and smug smile, I'll stop and give a listen.

Donald Trump is not some pimple-faced dweeb in Silicon Valley, home alone on a Saturday night fondling his Superman lunch box collection and wondering how many millions more or less he'll be worth when the NASDAQ opens on Monday. Trump doesn't sleep with a teddy bear embroidered with the initials IPO. You could spend two weeks tooling around New York, in the back of a stretch limo with a supermodel or two, visiting all of his properties and holdings before heading down to Atlantic City and doing the same there.

It's no wonder that would-be "playas" in the hip-hop cosmos have chosen Trump as one of their idols. When was the last time you heard Jay-Z or Master P touting Bill Gates or the charms of sipping Cristal while they get jiggy with E-Trade? Trump is a self-made man of untold wealth. And he knows how to enjoy spending it in full view of the cameras, the more the merrier. Let us not forget that he's already gone bust once living large and yet came back stronger, more vulgar, more entertaining than ever.

What ultimately makes this current game show fever unappetizing is how dreadfully white and safe and middle class it all seems. You get the feeling that if and when other John Carpenters of America win a million, they'll go to the Caribbean for a week, pay off the mortgage and credit cards, buy a new Explorer, dole out a few doubloons to placate salivating kin and invest the rest in low-risk mutual funds. Where's the fun in that?

Francis Ford Coppola, no slouch in the excess department, once remarked that "it takes no imagination whatsoever to live within your means." Alas, for a lot of people glued to their TVs, the means they have offer very little room for imagination. Cue Regis.

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