Gerhart On (And Behind) The Scene

Yesterday, Campaign Desk applauded a few reporters’ passing efforts to shed light on the behind-the-scenes machinations that produce compliant, cheering crowds at campaign events. Today, The Washington Post’s Ann Gerhart delivers the mother of all crowd control/choreography stories, headlined, “Roadshow: The America-Can Tour Revs Up as Multitude and Platitude Noisily Collide.”

Gerhart, who has a sharp eye for the absurd and the skill to describe it vividly, sets up her report on President Bush’s bus tour with this razzle-dazzle sketch: “This is a multimillion-dollar Americana extravaganza, the image-making machinery of the White House working at its precision peak, nothing left to chance, building to the great Wow moment… This… is October political theater in May.”

She describes how the crowds at one event were corralled - the “hundreds of hand-picked participants, who received free tickets from Bush-Cheney organizers in Berrien County” - and explains that at another event, “a master of ceremonies drills the crowd in hollering ‘U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!’ and ‘Boooooo!’ at mentions of the opposition…[which] permits Bush to recite lines respectful of the Massachusetts senator, only to be interrupted by his boisterous supporters.” The result of these and other pre-rally preparations? What Gerhart later calls a “warm ego bath” for Bush.

But Gerhart does not stop at colorful, you-are-there descriptions of stage settings and back-stage maneuverings. She also puts you there for some of Bush’s ad hoc comments on said stage. For example, describing an admission-by-ticket-only Q&A at Niles (Mich.) High School, Gerhart writes of one “question that seems to throw the president,” which came from a woman who asked about funding cuts for a volunteer foster grandparent program. Gerhardt reports the president’s answer - in part, “Well, it’s what you get for trying to make sure the deficit gets cut in half” - and then tartly notes that the Bush administration “has no such effort underway, as war has sent the deficit soaring.” (Something of a simplistic explanation, Campaign Desk might add, for what has “sent the deficit soaring.”)

Of another Bush bus tour staple - the president recalling and repeating Kerry’s now-notorious comment that “I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it” - Gerhart tells her readers that Bush “accurately quotes Kerry” but “without adding the context that Kerry supplies to explain to (sic) his position.” (Gerhart doesn’t supply Kerry’s context either).

Gerhart even raises an eyebrow at Bush’s urging that parents “be responsible for loving your child with all your heart” - “as if,” she writes, “Democrats would urge widespread abdication on that social contract.”

Campaign Desk is on a steady diet of the rote, formulaic campaign coverage that too many press outlets supply. After reading Gerhart’s piece, we’re no longer feeling quite so deprived.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.