The Presidential Debate

Most of the journalists covering the presidential debate last night watched it on one of many television monitors set up throughout a massive press room in the basement of the Hartford Civic Center, many blocks away from the Bushnell Theatre, where the debate was actually being held; they traveled to Hartford from god knows where in order to watch the debate on TV.Catering for the media room was courtesy of Philip Morris and its subsidiary, Kraft, which provided pasta (along with large containers of Kraft brand parmesan cheese) and salad (with a selection of Kraft brand salad dressings). At another table, various Philip Morris-related goodies were being doled out (no pun intended), including reporters notebooks with the Philip Morris imprint and disposable cameras festooned with logos for Lite beer, Marlboro cigarettes, Maxwell House coffee, Oscar Meyer wieners, Tang, Jello, and Post cereal -- all Philip Morris brands. They were also handing out toy whistles shaped like the Oscar Meyer weinermobile, and -- my personal favorite -- leftover "limited convention edition" boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese decorated with either an elephant or a donkey, and holding signs for their respective parties. Inside one finds macaroni noodles shaped like elephants or donkeys, and on the back, a "presidential IQ test" which makes clear the connection between American democracy and Macaroni & Cheese. Who was it that said "Speak softly, but carry a big bowl of KRAFT Macaroni & Cheese?" Or, "It is morning again in America. KRAFT Macaroni & Cheese is being served." Commenting on the increasing cheesiness of American politics is almost too cheap a metaphor.I watched the debate from inside the Bushnell, from a seat up in the balcony right next to the temporary media platform that had been set up there, which meant that I was about four feet below a talking head I didn't recognize who spent the half hour before the debate repeating the same phrase into the camera over and over again: "And that's the scene in Hartford, where the next 90 minutes may well define the next 30 days." Off-camera, he continued to talk to someone in New York: "Emily, this is Carl. Elizabeth Dole and Mrs. Clinton shook hands -- do you want me to mention that in the intro? Emily, this is Carl. Can you hear me?"Before the debate began, the city fathers of Hartford took advantage of their captive audience to sing the praises of a city which Nation writer Bruce Shapiro describes as full of "corporate towers that empty at 5:00 and a lot of poor people." The Hartford boosters spoke glowingly of the "spirit of cooperation between business and government leaders." The chairman of Southern New England Telephone (our local phone company here in Connecticut, commonly referred to by its vaguely unpleasant acronym, SNET) informed us that the first commercial telephone call ever had been placed from New Haven. And finally, moderator Jim Lehrer noted that the organizers "didn't go to all this trouble to show how clever I am -- or how partisan and loud you are," and warned that he was sitting in a swivel chair and would turn around and humiliate anyone who got out of hand.I was disappointed when this didn't occur; watching the absurdly even-handed and low-key anchor humiliate someone for the first time in his broadcast career (preferably the chucklehead above me, who continued to talk into his headset throughout the debate) would have infinitely been more interesting than the debate itself turned out to be. (With a few exceptions. I haven't had a chance to look at the transcript yet, but did Bob Dole really speak to a hypothetical viewer on Medicare "holding a crack baby?") (Sometimes the Dole campaign seems to have crossed over from the Bizarro universe out of old Superman comic books. A few days before the debate I watched Jack Kemp give a speech at the University of New Haven during which he took a completely surreal, Farrakhan-esque detour into numerology, noting that the number he wore while playing for the San Diego Chargers, 15, is also the number of Bob Dole's tax break. Standing in front of a banner bearing the less than catchy slogan "15% = Brighter Future", Kemp went on to explain that he and Dole had recently realized that Kemp had been nominated on Aug. 15 in the year '96 -- and nine plus six equals 15! And Kemp's got four kids and eleven grandkids --15 again!. And if you take the number of letters in "Bob Dole" and "Jack Kemp" -- well, there's another 15! Even their wives' combined names, "Joanne" plus "Elizabeth," make up the magical 15. "And guess what?" he asked. "God Bless America" has 15 letters. The crowd tittered appreciatively.)After the debate, I took the press shuttle back to the media center -- and to the small section therein blatantly designated "Spin Alley," ringed on three sides by bare-bones makeshift broadcast platforms and stuffed to capacity with reporters, camera crews and politicos. Everywhere you looked there were clusters of media people surrounding spinners and surrogates, whose names were printed on laminated red signs held high above the crowd by aides. I felt like I was standing in the middle of one of my own damn cartoons come to life. There's pollster and regular Crossfire guest Paul Begala explaining that there was no animosity between the candidates: "These are two pros. It's like after a big heavyweight fight, they hug each other." There's Jesse Jackson, spinning like a good team player despite his certain revulsion for Clinton's welfare reform. MTV's Tabitha Soren is chasing ubiquitous RNC chair Haley Barbour. There's Robert Reich. George Stephanopolous. Wolf Blitzer. I am sucked into a small group around Donna Shalala, who sticks to the apparent Democratic strategy of high-mindedness, mostly -- "the debate was a high class discussion between two equals," she notes, while throwing in a few barbs about Dole's vilification of teachers and the Department of Education. Because I am standing directly in front of her she addresses most of her answers to me, and I have a momentary wave of claustrophobia, like you get when you are trapped in a boring conversation at a crowded party.I turn around and find I am standing next to Robert Novak, Crossfire's notorious ideologue among ideologues -- a man who has hardly been Dole's strongest supporter. "So who won?" I ask, grinning. "I don't know," he says wearily, not even bothering to put a happy face on the campaign. In fact, apart from Novak, Barbour, and a few stray governors, there seem to be far more Democratic spinmeisters than Republicans in Spin Alley. Are Republicans too discouraged to bother, or do they just prefer to avoid the "elite liberal media" and stick to the interviews with local news stations which are being broadcast through their own "GOP-TV" setup in a corner of the room -- where Haley Barbour (again!) sits in front of a camera, talking to someone he can't see, but whose name and station are written on a cue card at his feet so he can be sure to personalize the interview.As the crush of people around me begins to lighten, I see that there are now reporters interviewing reporters. Someone from a local radio station interviews me. I realize I have fallen into the belly of the beast, this strange, self-contained world of political reporters who travel around in packs, are spoon-fed press releases, spend a frenzied hour gathering sound bites like children on an Easter egg hunt, and call it all news. Overwhelmed and depressed, I snag a pastry compliments of Philip Morris and head out into the Hartford night.

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