I was late to get my credentials for tonightâs debate. So I spent the second half of yesterday and the first half of today haggling with Julie at ABC media relations over whether or not I could get a seat at the filing center for the big event. She was nice enough. But she kept me hanging till the end about whether sheâd have a place for me when I got there or whether Iâd be relegated to the spin-room --- the place where everybody goes after the festivities are over to be spun in circles by the several candidatesâ handlers or the occasional candidate who doesnât have anything better to do.
In any case, I didnât want to trek out only to find I wouldnât have a place to set up and write out notes while the event was afoot. But that really wasnât the issue. There was something deeper motivating me. Covering these debates almost always involves me in an odd process of denial. The ugly truth is that I think the best place to cover a debate is probably from your hotel room. A hard to face fact; but, I believe, a reality.
Seeing it in person would certainly add something to oneâs reportage. But you never see it in person. Generally how it works is this: Youâre in a big complex and thereâs one large hall set aside for the actual debate. In that room you have the candidates, a few of their handlers, the moderator/questioners and the audience. Oftentimes youâll have a tiny handful of journalists there too --- but only ones from the highest echelon of the elect. Maybe a Koppel or a Mitchell --- folks like that.
Everyone else is in a big room somewhere nearby with a bunch of long school room tables arranged as they might be for an SAT test in high school. And space after space at those tables is occupied by journalists with laptops open, a phone at each station, perhaps some other paraphernalia nearby or a parka, watching the debate on a series of big TVs.
In other words, theyâre watching the debate on TV just like you are. Only theyâre doing it in a big room with all the other journalists.
Now, this can be kind of fun, because you get to see a lot of other people you know, and a number you havenât seen in a while. And you get a very good sense of how other reporters think everybody did. But that can be a pretty skewed view, an echo chamber in the making in ways you can probably imagine, even if you donât spend much time talking to the really egregious above-it-all conventional wisdom types.
So, like I said, sometimes it seems to me that itâs best just to watch it on TV --- since that is, after all, how the real audience, people at home, see it.
But, as I said, thatâs a hard truth to face. So what to do? I decided Iâd watch it at some public place and watch people's reactions. Since each of the campaigns chooses one restaurant or pub for their supporters to watch at I figured Iâd go to one of those, and I ended up at Kerryâs event at a place called the Black Brimmer (who knows?) on Elm Street in Manchester.
My little experiment didnât turn out to be any better really than watching the whole thing on TV. The Kerry debate watching party turned out to be â¦ well, a party, and sort of a loud one at that, with occasional calls for everyone to pipe down when Kerry got asked a question. They werenât there to see the debate, but to see Kerry, who was scheduled to show up for a victory party of sorts after the debate.
There was one thing that made it worthwhile: Carole King. Sheâs up here supporting Kerry: I think she did some sort of benefit concert for him a couple days ago. In any case, before things got under way, and against my better judgment, I went over and told her what a fan I was, to which she responded graciously. But once that was over, figuring my dignity probably couldnât withstand any more hits like that in one evening, I found a place to sit down and watch the debate.
Now, again, it was a raucous affair. So I couldnât hear perfectly. And there were the periodic turns back over my shoulder at King for the occasional swoons. But, those distractions aside, I thought everyone did more or less fine.
I didnât think anyone stole the show. Nor did I think anyone did badly. (Though wasnât that Sharpton Federal Reserve question a bit awkward?) Dean was fine. Edwards was fine. Clark seemed basically fine --- though he was thrown questions which kept him on the defensive.
Kerry, I thought, did a bit better than fine. He seemed to have down the practice of looking past the other candidates, literally and metaphorically, and throwing down the gauntlet at the president. It wasnât perfect. But he was laying claim to the status of presumptive nominee and no one else on the stage really even tried to knock him off that game.
In part I was surprised that Dean didnât do anything more than he did or try in any way to shake things up. But I think thatâs the difficulty of his position. In the last week Dean has essentially switched places with Kerry in the polls. And he seems still to be falling.
He desperately needs to shake up the dynamic of the race in time to recover some ground before Tuesday. And yet his people have decided he needs to be on his best behavior to arrest his downward slide in the minds of the stateâs voters. So itâs virtually impossible for him to do anything to shake things up. As I said before, I think heâs painted himself into a corner.
More broadly, everybody basically did fine and no one made any bad mistakes. And since Kerry has the momentum and is rallying support, that means the debate was a win for Kerry, perhaps a big one.
A few other observations.
Itâs certainly not a representative sample. But of the people near me watching the debate at the Kerry event, the only candidate they seemed to heckle or make snide remarks about was Clark.
Another point: what was with the line up of moderators? You had one questioner who is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, another who is the head political writer for a fiercely conservative newspaper, another who was a soft-soap local anchor man, and Peter Jennings. That tilt gave the questioning an unmistakable skew. Next time thereâs a Republican primary debate Iâm hoping theyâll take the same approach and have the questioners be, maybe, Tom Oliphant, Molly Ivins, Matt Lauer and Tom Brokaw.
After the debate ended I felt like Iâd had enough and didnât need to stick around for Kerry. So I drove back to my hotel, unloaded my stuff, watched a few minutes of chat shows until I became too disgusted to watch any more and then headed over to the Wayfarer Inn, the hotel bar which some journalistic worthies --- probably Broder or something --- decided decades ago is where reporters covering the primary go to hang out and kibbitz. Or at least it used to be the place to go. I had a late dinner there last night with a couple friends and itâs been remarkably dead this time. So tonight, finding no one I felt like talking to, I sat down at the bar with my notebook, ordered a beer, and started jotting out some notes for future posts.
A short time later Mickey Kaus walked in to the bar and came up to me and asked, âWhere were you? I was sitting next to a seat with your name on it. But you werenât there.â
Apparently Julie had come through for me after all.