Softballs for the Prez, Cookies for the Press

Last week, the National Journal’s William Powers wondered why the political press doesn’t cover campaign events like the highly staged spectacles that they are (something Campaign Desk has been encouraging for months).

Today, The Los Angeles Times’ Edwin Chen takes a stab at this sort of reportage (as he has done before) in a piece headlined, “A Chance to ‘Ask the President.’”

The “Ask the President” event held in a warehouse in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin yesterday, Chen writes, is a format Bush used while campaigning in 2000 and that “his campaign resuscitated it in May,” and Chen’s subhead says it all: “Bush uses folksy format to field friendly crowds’ questions that are easier to answer than many.”

These events are “nothing like the high-pressure, sometime contentious news conferences that Bush occasionally conducts at the White House,” Chen reports. “By contrast, Bush’s aides try to ensure he will stand before a friendly audience at campaign events.” Hence, tickets to the event, Chen notes, were doled out by the Bush campaign and the local Republican Party, part of a set-up that “gives Bush an opportunity to respond to questions usually framed in a positive manner.”

“Framed in a positive manner” is an understatement, based on the sampler of softballs that Chen shares with readers. One man asked Bush to explain the importance of the Patriot Act and what he could do to get the Act renewed. Someone else asked what citizens might do to support the troops. And a woman fired this stumper Bush’s way: “What can all of us here do to help you and Dick Cheney be sure to be reelected?”

Tough crowd.

Careful readers of the expansive coverage of Bush’s visit in the Fond du Lac Reporter (seven stories today, five yesterday) also get a sense of the stage management behind the event. Reporter reporter Patty Brandl notes that the crowd — which consisted of “party faithful who received tickets from the Fond du Lac County Republican Party”— “broke into applause 63 times.” The Reporter’s Laurie Ritger noted an exchange Bush had with one woman during the “Ask the President” session: “Bush joked with [the woman] that they ‘didn’t rehearse’ their discussion too well.’”

And the Reporter’s Sarah Riley yesterday revealed that it’s more than just the choreographed “public” sessions that confound the campaign press: “The president’s advance team told the [caterers] that most of the press corps members were on the Atkins diet.” Apparently in Fond du Lac, that translates to this (Atkins unfriendly) boxed lunch: “choice of a Southwest or Caesar chicken wrap, plus chips and cookies and things.”

Foiled yet again, press corps.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.