You're it! Choice No. 2 can still be first-rate

January 27, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

It's one of those good news/bad news situations: You've been offered the best job in your field. But everyone knows you're the second choice for it.

That's William J. Perry's position, having been nominated as Secretary of Defense only after President Clinton's first choice, Bobby Ray Inman, bailed out. (And, reportedly, after Sam Nunn and Colin Powell also said no.)

It's happened, no doubt, to most of us -- not for a high government position, perhaps, but for something like prom (her first pick said no; she then asked you) or college (Harvard scoffed; you went to State U).

"Second" has an undeniably negative connotation: second-rate, second-string, second-best, etc.

"In our win-lose culture, people want to be No. 1. People see being No. 2 as a slap in the face," says Harry Olson, an Owings Mills-based psychologist and corporate consultant. "But the important thing is, you got the job."

"Five weeks later, nobody remembers you were second choice," assures Eugene Rackley, managing partner in the Washington, office of the headhunting firm, Heidrick & Struggles.

And besides, the world is full of second -- or third or fourth or fifth -- choices who ultimately made us forget the first choices:

* When ABC started the 11:30 p.m. show that ultimately became "Nightline," Frank Reynolds was the anchor until the night when a little-known diplomatic correspondent filled in for him. Yes, it was Ted Koppel, who took over "The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage" and never let go.

* Jackie Gleason thought Audrey Meadows was too glamorous to play Alice to his Ralph Kramden on "The Honeymooners." Actress Pert Kelton did the first episodes until falling ill, and Ms. Meadows got a photographer to shoot her right after waking up to prove she could do frumpy. Now it's hard to imagine Ralph telling anyone else, "Baby, you're the greatest!"

* When Jimmy Page was putting together Led Zeppelin, his first choice for lead singer was Terry Reid. He declined, but suggested someone named Robert Plant.

* Myth has it that "Casablanca" was meant to be a Ronald Reagan-Ann Sheridan vehicle. The filmmakers also considered George Raft and several actresses before settling on Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. And she actually only accepted because she lost out on the role she really wanted -- Maria in "For Whom the Bell Tolls." She was Ernest Hemingway's first pick for the part. (Ultimately she got it -- and an Oscar nomination -- after the initial actress, Vera Zorina didn't work out.)

* "Casablanca's" rival for near misses has to be "The Wizard of Oz." Shirley Temple was to play Dorothy instead of Judy Garland and W. C. Fields (!) initially was supposed to be the Wizard.

* Michael Jordan must have been picked first his entire life, from playground teams on up, right? Nope. In the 1984 NBA draft, he was picked third after Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie.

* First baseman Wally Pipp of the New York Yankees had a headache one day, so his back-up got sent in: His name was Lou Gehrig. Who of course didn't sit out for another 2,130 games.

So is it really so bad to be second? Maybe you can get it right this time -- that's what second chances are; that's why love supposedly is lovelier the second time around.

"It's a compliment when someone chooses you the second time around. They've already been through it once, and they learned how the passion of early romance won't necessarily endure, but they still choose to try again with you," says Susan White-Bowden, author and former Channel 2 anchorwoman. She and her husband, Jack, became each other's second spouse in 1979, and "it becomes better every day," she says.

Others are not so lucky with second marriages, which, as they say, represent the triumph of hope over experience. And, indeed, statistics show that while first marriages have a 50 percent chance of ending in divorce, by the time you get to your second marriage, it goes up to 60 percent.

And, then, of course, there are the second choices who never quite match up, who make you wonder what might have been with the one that got away:

* Could Conan O'Brien have been anyone's first choice to replace David Letterman? NBC reportedly wanted Garry Shandling.

* You know how beauty pageants make being first runner-up seem so important because, should anything happen to the real winner, she'll carry out the rest of the reign?

Does anyone remember Suzette Charles, who took over when Miss America 1984, Vanessa Williams was forced to resign because she was caught in the buff? Ms. Williams, by contrast, has gone on to a successful singing career.

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