Everyone Was There … Except for the Public

Yesterday, Sen. John Kerry wrapped up a blitz of the Pacific Northwest, and President George Bush popped into Nashville briefly for an official event. That prompted the Portland (Ore.) Tribune’s Don Hamilton to make an observation that most of his journalism colleagues largely have overlooked: While candidates willingly waded into crowds during the hotly-contested Democratic primaries, now that it’s down to a two-man race, every event is staged to an nth degree — and cutting the public in on the production is not part of the choreography.

“Presidential candidates don’t seem much interested in meeting the general public anymore,” Hamilton writes. He concludes, “Campaign appearances mostly involve raising money and staging tightly controlled events centered on emphasizing the day’s message.”

In Nashville, Bush perched on a stool, fielded a few questions on medical technology from a hand-picked audience, and then attended a fundraiser that netted the Republican National Committee $1.7 million.

The night before making a major speech in Seattle on national security and foreign policy to an audience primarily of veterans, John Kerry raised $2.2 million at a private gala, where 1,250 guests paid a minimum of $1,000 each to attend.

While these highly structured and controlled events (part fund-raisers, part campaign stops) are easier for the candidates, the folks left outside the tent are the ones who really matter — the voters. Hamilton quotes Melody Rose, an associate professor of political science at Portland State University: “The fact that for the last 30 years we’ve had a rather cynical public indicates there is a disconnect between officials in high-ranking positions and voters in the middle.” Russell Dondero, another political scientist, concurs: “There’s nothing spontaneous about any of this anymore.”

Ironically, the less successful the candidate, the more public access he grants, writes Hamilton, which explains why Dennis Kucinich seemed to be everywhere before Oregon’s May 18 primary.

Bush and Kerry campaign organizers defend the limited-access policy, Hamilton reports. “The best vehicle to convey a message is in a setting relevant to that message,” said Laura Capps, a Kerry spokeswoman. “You can’t have 15,000 people at a bus depot. And if 15,000 people showed up, they wouldn’t want to hear a policy speech. They’d want more hoopla.”

That’s true. But it’s also true that the process leaves both the candidates and the reporters who cover them sealed more than ever in a closed bubble, at a safe distance from the clamoring electorate — the very folks who will, in the end, decide who’s going to be our next president. That’s one reason we get echo chamber reporting — our suppliers are reporters who rub elbows mainly with each other.

We have to believe that’s not good for the candidates — or for the bubble boys and girls charged with covering them.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.