Carmella Lewis, Media Darling

On Unity Day, the voice of anti-Unity was everywhere

Remember Greg Packer? The highway maintenance worker who rose to media (in)famy a few years ago as the (much-too)-oft-quoted “everyman” on the street? The middle-aged Long Island denizen mastered the sport of sound-bite-giving—and the Woody Allen-esque art of showing up—so well that he was quoted as a font of “everyday guy” wisdom some sixteen times by the AP, fourteen times by Newsday, thirteen times by the New York Daily News, and twelve times by the New York Post between 1994 and 2004. The Wall Street Journal profiled Packer and his media exploits (read: media exploitation) when they were discovered five years ago, as did The New York Times, Editor & Publisher, and Slate. So great was Packer’s impact, in fact, that the AP sent the following memo to staffers in June 2003:

The world is full of all kinds of interesting people. One of them is Greg Packer of Huntington, N.Y., who apparently lives to get his name on the AP wire and in other media. It works: A Nexis search turned up 100 mentions in various publications….Mr. Packer is clearly eager to be quoted. Let’s be eager, too—to find other people to quote.

I mention Packer because it looks like the infamous Perspective Purveyor might just have a protégé in the making. Her name is Carmella Lewis.

If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because, during the course of the makeshift media event that was the joint Obama-Clinton rally in Unity, N.H., on Friday, Lewis gamely—and successfully—Packer-ized herself. A stalwart Hillary supporter (she’s a pledged Clinton delegate), Lewis is one of the 24 percent of Clinton primary voters who say they might vote for John McCain in November. And she’s incredibly vocal in announcing that. Lewis made the trek from her home in Denver to Unity last week, showing up on that now-famous field of Granite State wildflowers defiantly garbed in a “Hillary 2008” t-shirt, proclaiming to all who would listen that hell, no, she won’t go O.

But the best of the Packer Pack don’t merely talk. They get their names and their voices in papers by luring reporters to them through their overall appearances, whether through quirky clothing or telling gestures, or a combination of the two. They show those reporters how they Represent Key Demographics not merely though their words, but through the aura of averageness they project. Talk to me!, they declare. Let me be your Person on the Street! I’m quirky, yet still typical! I’ll give you a great line for your piece! Quote me! Pick me!

Well. Carmella Lewis, true to the Packer Paradigm, channeled the whole actions-speak-louder-than-words brand of media-charming on Friday, expressing her anti-O sentiments, while Obama was speaking about his admiration for Hillary Clinton, by…commenting on how she wished she had earplugs. And then by stuffing tissue in her ears. And then, to add extra defiance to the mix, using her hands to cover her tissue-stuffed ears.

My, what idiosyncratic-yet-also-symbolic drama!

So it is, perhaps, little surprise that, like Packer for the P.U.M.A. Party, Lewis and her tissue-stuffed ears were prominently featured in Unity Day wrap-up stories in both The New York Times and The Washington Post. Her Obama-phobic antics were described and discussed on WABC, a New York City-based talk radio station. ABC’s Jake Tapper further analyzed those antics on his Political Punch blog. And, in perhaps the most Packeresque coup of all, Lewis was made the star of Maureen Dowd’s NYT op-ed column this weekend, the piece both leading with and revolving around the quirky No-bama crusader.

Witness the star-making entrances Lewis made in the Unity Day coverage below, her antics serving as convenient foils to the event’s generally saccharine staging:

New York Times:

Not everyone received the unity memo, however. Carmella Lewis of Denver chanted “Hillary” while Mr. Obama spoke, smirked throughout his remarks and then stuffed her ears with scrunched-up tissue.

“I can’t listen to him,” Ms. Lewis said. “No way are we voting for Obama. We’re all voting for McCain.”

Washington Post:

One Clinton voter who was not impressed was Carmella Lewis, a Clinton delegate from Denver. Lewis traveled to Unity to see her candidate one last time, and jeered throughout the event, while waving an autographed Clinton campaign sign. At one point while Obama was speaking, she plugged her ears with tissue paper. “I can’t stand him,” she said. “I’m either not voting, or I’m voting for John McCain.”

ABC News’s Jake Tapper:

While working on spot for World News with Charles Gibson, Nightline, and Good Morning America, ABC News producer Andy Fies stumbled upon something of a rumble between Clinton supporter Carmella Lewis, who says she’s a Democratic delegate from Denver, and Obama backer Elspeth Farmer.

Both women were at the unity rally today.

“She will be the next president,” Lewis told Fies. “I feel it. I feel it strongly.”

And, finally, here’s Lewis going from character actor to star, making her stage-left entrance in MoDowd’s Sunday column:

Unity was spared the banality of unanimity.

Carmella Lewis, with her Hillary T-shirt and Hillary placard, came all the way from Denver to make sure there would be plenty of ambiguity, duality and ferocity in Unity.

Just as Hillary was testing out the unfamiliar familiarity “Barack and me” Friday and talking about “his grace and his grit,” Carmella began loudly booing and waving her sign.

“We want Hillary!” screamed the 57-year-old retired ad saleswoman and Clinton delegate.

And then:

When it was Obama’s turn to speak, Carmella announced loudly, “I wish I had ear plugs.” Then, as Obama tried to ingratiate himself with the Hillary partisans in the crowd by saying that because of the New York senator, his daughters “can take for granted that women can do anything that the boys can do and do it better and do it in heels,” Carmella put her fingers in her ears.

As Obama tried to curry favor with Hillary, looking over at her sensible, sturdy shoes and marveling, “I still don’t know how she does it in heels,” Carmella tore up a tissue and stuffed it in her ears.

When Obama pandered with a line about how he wouldn’t “perpetuate a system in which women are paid less for the same work as men,” she put her hands over her tissue-stuffed ears.

The Lewis anecdote is quirky and memorable, and certainly telling of the frustration that many disaffected Clinton voters are feeling right now. And we appreciate the attempts, above, to bring nuance to the narrative of the epic “Kumbaya” chorus that was Unity Day. But there are other sources to be found and quoted in the service of nuance. The Denver convention will soon be upon us—and, that being Lewis’s hometown and Lewis being a delegate, Carmella will almost certainly be in attendance, probably garbed in her “Hillary 2008” shirt, possibly armed with her defiant box of Kleenex. If she is, reporters might do well to resist her quirky charms and channel instead the AP’s Packer memo: Ms. Lewis is clearly eager to be quoted. Let’s be eager, too—to find other people to quote.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.