How I became the story at the Great Debate of '96

Where the media elite meet on the post-debate beat


Tom Tomorrow
October 7, 1996 11:24PM (UTC)

HARTFORD,CONN.--
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. This army of reporters
marched to Hartford from a thousand far-flung cities in order to watch the debate on
TV. Catering for the media room was courtesy of nicotine pusher 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 reporter's notebooks with
the Philip Morris imprint and disposable cameras festooned with logos for
Lite beer, Marlboro cigarettes, Maxwell House coffee, Oscar Meyer weiners,
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?"

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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, moderater 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 aound 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 been infinitely 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 11 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" right-wing firebreather -- 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 Dole
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 discourged 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 starts interviewing 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.


Tom Tomorrow

Tom Tomorrow's cartoon This Modern World appears regularly in Salon.
This Modern World archive.

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Tom Tomorrow's new book for children: "The Very Silly Mayor!"

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