By Zachary Roth
Cleveland, Ohio — Hosting the vice presidential debate last Tuesday seemed to be the biggest thing that’s ever happened to Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, Ohio. The campus teemed with volunteers wearing t-shirts advertising “The Race at Case, October 2-5” (which raised the question of what Cheney and Edwards had said to each other during the debate’s first three days before the press showed up). Packs of supporters of both campaigns flaunted Bush-Cheney hats and Kerry-Edwards placards as if they were going not to a debate but to the big game against Cleveland State.
But at the offices of the Observer, Case’s weekly student newspaper, there was none of the frenetic bustle of a newsroom working overtime. In fact, news editor Greg Hanneman was the only staff member around. The paper’s debate coverage had been assigned at a meeting earlier in the week, he explained, and there was rarely much reason for reporters to be around the office anyway. “It’s all done over email now,” he explained, making Campaign Desk feel like Andy Rooney.
An hour or two before kickoff, the assembled reporters and political operatives were eating beef, boiled potatoes and salad in a room above the university gym. John Delano, reporter for Pittsburgh television station KDKA, told Campaign Desk that he’d had trouble getting credentials to attend. “I don’t think the Commission on Presidential Debates knows what it’s doing,” he said.
Delano also lamented that when he had been sent to cover the 1996 national party conventions, he had had a staff of four. In 2000, it was only three. This time around at the conventions, it had been just him and a cameraman. And they were here only because it was three hours away, he said. When Campaign Desk observed that local TV stations everywhere were shrinking their news budgets, he gave a look that said, Don’t get me started.
Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) was circling the crowded room, awkwardly looking for a place to sit and eat. “Saxby, over here,” Senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) shouted, beckoning Chambliss over like a sympathetic high school student in the cafeteria. The junior senator from Georgia looked relieved.
Nearby, DNC chair Terry McAuliffe was drinking coffee to gear up for a heavy night of spinning. “It’s time to get you on TV, Mr. Chairman,” said an aide.
“Who is it?” McAuliffe asked.
“CNN.” And away they went.
By now, reporters were gathering in the airport-hangar-sized half of the gym to which the media had been assigned. It was next to the debate room itself, but sealed off from it, and might as well have been across campus. CNN’s Judy Woodruff appeared, looking frail in a neat green jacket, and trailed by a student volunteer asking for her autograph. “Ya know, I’ve gotta do it on the run, because I’m due on the air,” said Woodruff. She signed without breaking stride.
Print reporters settled themselves in at the endless rows of tables, each with a phone and internet connection. About 20 large TV screens were interspersed throughout the rows. Dick Polman of the Philadelphia Inquirer seemed to be writing as much of his story as possible before the debate began. But after a while, there wasn’t much more to be done. “I’m waiting for Barabak to tell us who won,” he said wryly to a fellow reporter, referring to Mark Barabak of the Los Angeles Times.
Campaign Desk asked Polman what he felt he gained by watching the debate from a TV in a room next door, rather than from home or work, an approach advocated last week by, among others, Adam Nagourney of the New York Times. He said that being there allowed him to “squirrel away ideas for future stories,” and have conversations with political players and other reporters that could ultimately bear fruit. But as for writing tonight’s story, he admitted that he didn’t need to be there: “I’m on deadline, so I’m not gonna have time to run around and listen to spin anyway.”
As if to illustrate Polman’s point, John Harris of the Washington Post spotted Democratic strategist Howard Wolfson, and they quickly fell into shop-talk. Harris asked if Wolfson, who masterminded Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate run, planned to work on her re-election effort in 2006. Wolfson said that if she faced New York governor George Pataki, or former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, both of whom would be tough opponents, then he probably would help out. Finally Harris declared, “I gotta go get in the zone,” and went to sit down next to his Washington Post colleague Dana Milbank.
Time columnist Joe Klein had taken a seat next to Milbank and Harris, and was reading an article in the New York Review of Books about Bush’s and Kerry’s economic policies. Soon he looked up, and called “Kaah-tee, Kaah-tee,” as Kati Marton, the elegant blonde Hungarian ex-Mrs. Peter Jennings, walked by with her current husband, former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who is advising Kerry on foreign policy. Klein embraced Marton, then fell into a Where-are-you-staying?-The-Sheraton-Oh-me-too kind of chat with Holbrooke.
“Brunch, Sunday?” Klein asked Holbrooke, nervously holding up both hands and fluttering his fingers to convey, We can keep it tentative for now.
The invitation seemed to provoke a feeling of slight discomfort in Holbrooke and Marton. “He’s in Boston,” she began. “It’s my one day …” he continued, but gave up. “I’ll explain later,” he said as they left.
By the time the debate began, all of the reporters had settled into their seats at the long row of tables, or in the small booths set up as makeshift TV studios along the sides of the vast room. Mostly, reporters were silent as they watched Cheney and Edwards on screen. But when Cheney claimed early in the debate that he had never implied Saddam had a role in the 9/11 attacks, there was some derisive laughter.
Some reporters were distracted during the second half of the show. As the candidates discussed medical malpractice, Milbank, his shirt-tails hanging out of his pants, got up and wandered off. Two other reporters leaned over to look at each other’s laptop screens and chat. Klein also left his place early. In the aisle on one side of the room, prominent surrogates, flanked by aides holding large vertical signs displaying their boss’ names, were beginning to stake out positions for the post-debate spin-fest.
Within moments of the closing statements, it had begun. The DNC’s McAuliffe was holding court at the center of a scrum of news media. “Mr. McAuliffe, was John Edwards mauled by Dick Cheney tonight on Iraq?” asked a British reporter. “I think Dick Cheney was mauled by John Edwards,” replied McAuliffe, to no one’s surprise.
Liz Marlantes of the Christian Science Monitor was talking to Wolfson. Roger Simon of U.S. News & World Report was asking former White House press secretary — and top Kerry aide — Joe Lockhart whether he thought Cheney had done better than Bush had done last week. Lockhart allowed that he had, but also wise-cracked that that wasn’t setting the bar very high.
NBC’s David Gregory was talking to Holbrooke, amidst a group of onlookers. Suddenly, Holbrooke broke off the conversation, turned to a reporter who had his camera on, and asked sternly, “Who are you with?”
“Have you been filming the whole time?” asked Holbrooke. There was tension in the air.
“No, I just started.”
Holbrooke relaxed a bit, and tried to explain to the crowd that he didn’t like being filmed without his knowledge. Gregory apologized, unnecessarily, for his role in the incident. Holbrooke waved him away, then tried to lighten the mood: “He’s the star, anyway,” he said to the crowd, pointing to Gregory.
A Bush-Cheney aide approached Matthew Dowd, the campaign’s pollster. “Have you talked to Joe Klein?” asked the aide. “I don’t really want to,” replied Dowd — a half-joke at the expense of Klein, who does little to hide his liberal leanings, and everyone in the assembled entourage laughed. But Dowd did end up talking to Klein, at the same time as Chad Clanton of the Kerry campaign, which gave Klein his own little post-debate head-to-head.
Meanwhile, Judy Woodruff was looking like a real reporter, talking to General Merrill McPeak, a Kerry supporter, and assiduously scrawling notes on a legal pad. CNN political analyst Jeff Greenfield was chatting with Senator Coleman. Greenfield referred to “the Howard Dean line” — when Cheney had asked Edwards how he and Kerry planned to stand up to al Qaeda if they couldn’t even stand up to Howard Dean — “which I suspect was not spontaneous, but it was a very good line.”
The Greenfield-Coleman conversation turned to the opening game of the New York Yankees-Minnesota Twins playoff series, which had ended minutes earlier. (The Twins won. Coleman, despite representing Minnesota in the Senate, is a native New Yorker.) “I have tickets for Game 5 so I have a vested interest in this going down to two games each,” said Greenfield.
As they passed each other in the sea of people, Holbrooke high-fived former New York City Police commissioner and Bush supporter Bernard Kerik.
Despite the British reporter’s question to McAuliffe, the press seemed to be having a hard time coming up with the storyline for the night. The word “tie” was heard frequently. One reporter, explaining that he was trying to get a sense of how things had gone, asked this reporter who he thought had won.
Some of the more obscure surrogates stood around forlornly with their sign-holders at the edge of the melee, like wallflowers at the dance. Kristen Breitweiser, the most prominent of the “Jersey Girls” — the group of 9/11 widows who, angered by what they view as the Bush administration’s stone-walling of the 9/11 Commission, recently endorsed Kerry — exuded a kind of quiet dignity amidst the glad-handing chaos. When her sign-holder suggested attempting another advance through the scrum, she demurred. “We can’t go through there again. It’s too painful.” She seemed the realest thing in the room.
Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes of Fox News Channel were sitting on a large stage at one end of the room, interviewing first Lynne Cheney, then Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) — “Hello Senator, how are you, my friend?” Hannity greeted Durbin cheerily as he sat down between the hosts.
Greta Van Susteren of Fox was standing nearby, waiting for her turn on stage. Someone asked her what she thought of the debate. “It was interesting,” she replied, and left it at that. Near the stage, former Democratic strategist and current Fox News pundit Susan Estrich, wearing a short skirt and more foundation than the Rockefeller Family Fund (full disclosure: The Rockefeller Family Fund is a funder of Campaign Desk), was explaining to some students that the goal of covering the debate was to collect as many of the campaigns’ colored press releases as possible.
“Where’s Greta?” boomed Terry McAuliffe, referring to Van Susteren as he hustled over to the Fox stage. He answered himself: “Oh there she is, with wacko Sean!” Wacko Sean (Hannity) looked pleased. “Terry, you wanna sit up here?” he asked, grinning and clasping McAuliffe’s hand.
Eventually, McAuliffe and Van Susteren took their turn on stage, and Hannity and Colmes stood by. The deliberate physical contrast between the two hosts, which Fox relies on to create the central effect of the show, is even more pronounced in person. Hannity is a large, self-confident, well-dressed man. He seems almost to glow. Colmes is squirrelly and narrow-shouldered, with a craggy, pockmarked face.
Hannity was giving his thoughts on the debate to a group of idol-worshipping male students. “Cheney was like a seasoned professor debating a ‘C’ student,” he said, tailoring his metaphor for the audience.
Jesse Jackson was still making the rounds, stressing the fact that Cheney had avoided answering a question about urban poverty. Eventually, he looked up grinning, and shouted, to no one in particular, “Is Kucinich in the house?”
Greenfield of CNN was standing with some of the network’s technical crew, preparing to head out into the night. Someone remarked that it was cold outside. That reminded Greenfield of a line he liked: “It was so cold that the flashers were describing themselves,” he said to a young CNN staffer named Holly, who laughed too hard in response.Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.