PAT SCHROEDER SHOULD KNOW better. Returned to the nation's capital as a Jeopardy! celebrity "power player," the former congresswoman struggles with the category "Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington." It's not that she's clueless about politics—although she does flub a few questions, including one involving her old legislative stomping ground. She just can't get her buzzer buzzing. "I grew up at a time when you had to change channels manually," Schroeder, 57, moans. "So this muscle is just not developed."

Excuses, excuses. They were as common as conspiracy theories as Schroeder was joined by the likes of film director Oliver Stone, 51; comedian Al Franken, 46; and Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher, 41, for the hit game show's first U.S. road trip in its 14-year syndicated history. (The matches air beginning Nov. 17, complete with a snazzy new $1 million traveling set.)

It's not as if the contestants hadn't been warned. "My son told me, 'Don't screw up,' " says Meet the Press's Tim Russert, 47. Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan advised his wife, NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell, 51, not to sign on at all. "He was stunned that I'd be willing to make a fool of myself in front of so many people," said Mitchell. Call it humiliation for a good cause. In addition to an orchid plant and a Jeopardy! umbrella, each challenger got to make a donation ($15,000 per winner, $10,000 per loser) to his or her favorite charity.

With the DAR's Constitution Hall filled to its capacity of 3,000, Oliver North, 54, the much-decorated retired Marine lieutenant colonel turned talk show host, selected the category "Stupid Answers," then couldn't recall that a person who digs graves is a...grave-digger. The "Republicans" category proved a winner for Democratic congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., 32, who explained, "I've no choice but to study the opposition." Catherine Crier, 43, a Fox News anchor, got off to a lyrical start. When asked to name a member of Congress after hearing the first few bars of "I Got You Babe," she correctly asked, "Who's Sonny Bono?" But minutes later she and writer Tom Clancy, 50, lost to Russert, who identified the non-ornithological symbol formerly on-the U.S. Postal Service flag ("What is the horse?"). "Jeez, I should have known," said a despairing Clancy. "My dad was a mailman."

NBC legal correspondent Jack Ford's background (he made three appearances on the show when he was in law school) wasn't much help either. Unable to figure out the Final Jeopardy! clue, Ford, 47, coolly came up with, "Who is Ashley and Colin?"—the names of his children. Oliver Stone was not quite as cool. "He was like the stock market, jumping up and down," said conservative activist Arianna Huffington, 47, of her opponent's victory jig when he correctly responded to a clue about 15th-century Italian art.

Still, as loyal Jeopardy! fans well know, one good answer does not a true power player make. "Most celebrity contestants would not make it as a regular contestant," admits host Alex Trebek, 57. David Burnett, 51, a former Jeopardy! player who was at the show, put it more brutally: "I was pretty singularly unimpressed."

JEREMY HELLIGAR
LINDA KRAMER in Washington

  • Contributors:
  • Linda Kramer.