Spin Alley at the first
presidential debate

Editor’s note: For two days this week, Thomas Lang joined Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s traveling press corps at the first presidential debate and as the candiate made post-debate appearances in Florida and Washington, D.C.

By Thomas Lang

Miami — If the quadrennial nominating conventions have become the equivalent of a pre-game pep rally, the presidential debates seem the equivalent of a fast-break basketball game. And, sure enough, at the University of Miami’s Wellness Center last Friday, an enormous workout and weightlifting room had morphed into a media filing center containing row after row of fold-up tables, each spot marked by a number, a phone and an Ethernet cord. The “premier tables” lined up horizontally, with TV’s stacked overhead every other row. The seats were cheap but the amenities were not. If you were so needy as to want a phone line to make local phone calls, that would cost you or your organization $250. (You did get to keep the plastic phone, retail value $9.99). Perhaps you needed Internet to file; that’d cost you $350. Wanted them both? The combination bundle cut $50 off the total — a reasonable $550.

In line, inquiring about prices, I asked the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Dick Polman about the work ahead of him for the upcoming night. The veteran told me that he would have to “start writing halfway through the debate,” as his first deadline was 11:10 p.m., just forty minutes from the scheduled end of the debate.

Over lunch at the Anheuser-Busch hospitality tent, the Miami Herald’s Lesley Clark and the St. Petersburg’s Times’ Adam Smith also seemed anxious about their deadlines. Clark told me that she writes part of her story beforehand so when 10:00 p.m. rolls around she’s not caught staring at a blank computer monitor. Smith’s first deadline for the early edition going out to Jacksonville and other parts of Florida was 10 p.m., an hour in to the debate. “No time for A material, mostly B material,” he said, meaning that the majority of the story would be context and preview mixed with a few of the shining moments from early in the debate.

“It’s scary to scrap what you’ve done and start over” after the debate, said Clark. Smith said he wasn’t reluctant to start from scratch, but admitted that it’s difficult to work outside of a frame-of-mind set by an early edition version.

The reporters were aware that, in the days leading up to the debate, there had been nearly as many stories, and as much speculation, about their own role in the minuet as there had been about the candidates and the pending debate. As Campaign Desk documented, many had opined that the press corps’ expectations and interpretations are as crucial to molding public opinion as the debate itself. Some of the reporters I talked to didn’t put much stock in that idea. “You’re paralyzed if you think like that,” USA Today’s Jill Lawrence said dismissively, little more than an hour before the debate was set to begin. But campaigns believe it, said colleague Judy Keen, “That’s why [the campaigns] work so hard to influence us.”

Indeed, in order to influence the stories of those with an early bedtime, campaign surrogates were in hot pursuit of the campaign dailies. Joe Lockhart was in one corner, Ralph Reed in another. The debate was still ninety minutes away, but a silly fact like that wasn’t stopping Kerry and Bush surrogates from declaring victory.

The departure of the pre-debate spinners and the countdown clock on CNN indicated it was time to find an unclaimed spot at the table. Sensing the presence of a debate virgin, The New Republic’s Ryan Lizza asked me, “You ever been to one of these?” (Nope.) With the debate hall crowd applauding the entering candidates on the TV screen, Lizza said, “It’s a lot like watching from your living room — just less comfortable with more distractions.”

Lizza was right. Five minutes into the debate, what sounded like (and may have been) a 50-pound weight came crashing to the floor somewhere. At times, some of the candidates’ gaffes would bring a chorus of laughter — most notably when an exasperated Bush declared to both John Kerry and Jim Lehrer that he knew that it was Osama bin Laden, not Saddam Hussein, who had attacked the United States on 9/11. But by far the biggest distraction was the army of campaign minions charged with scurrying about the press center, waving insta-press releases directly in reporters’ line of sight. (The flimsy folding chair was no bargain either. After 90 minutes of sharp shooting pains in my back, I hobbled into Spin Alley with a gait akin to Kirk Gibson’s trot in the 1988 World Series.)

Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.