Visiting the Gnomes of the Loyal Opposition

If the number one wish of the propagandists laboring away in the Democratic National Committee’s temporary New York “war room” is to get their two cents into every news story coming out of the Republican Convention this week, then the Associated Press’s Will Lester has to be their Fairy Godfather.

Every day since August 29, Lester has filed a story in which the DNC’s Manhattan war room — located six blocks from Madison Square Garden — and/or its selected daily message figures prominently. (today’s story, yesterday’s, Monday’s, and Sunday’s). Lester kicked off his streak on Saturday with a piece dedicated entirely to the war room — a popular angle done today by the Boston Globe and Agence France Presse, yesterday by the New York Times and the (London) Times, and Monday by USA Today and the Dallas Morning News, among others.

Along with the steady stream of press coverage, assorted bits of art work also keep spirits up among the worker bees, yesterday numbering eleven — all young, all but three male — toiling inside the war room proper. (There are 80 people total populating the DNC’s 15,000 square foot convention-week rapid response operation, of which the war room is but one closed-door sub-group. There is also a radio room, a TV room, a press conference room, a green room, a “surrogates” room, a speech writers’ room, at least two researchers’ rooms, and a room occupied yesterday by a pinstripe-suited, phone-talking Donna Brazille.)

In the war room, hand-written signs are taped to the east and south walls, such as (in bold) “Lost 1.8 million” (not in bold) “private sector jobs.” Unflattering cartoons of Republican honchos — like last week’s New Yorker cover showing an undershirt-clad Dick Cheney having his blood pressure checked, and a drawing in this week’s New York magazine showing Bush and Cheney as snarling vikings rowing toward Manhattan — grace the west wall, while photographs of said honchos (including Rudy Giuliani in drag, Cheney in mid-sneeze, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan the Barbarian, and President Bush at the Korean DMZ looking through binoculars with the caps still on the lenses) paper the north wall.

In other words, there is no single symbolic image rallying the troops here, no equivalent of the goofy photo of John Kerry in a space suit that dominated the RNC’s rapid response operation in Boston. “Well, [the Republicans] have been so prolific,” explained Tony Welch, the DNC’s press secretary, as he gave a journoscold the grand tour of the war room yesterday.

The eleven worker bees appeared hard at work during the tour, and few looked up from their lap top screens as Welch noted the seven television monitors and explained how the war roomers are divided into a monitoring group (those who watch the convention speeches for slip-ups or “openings”) and a press group (those who take the slip-ups, draft press releases about them, and get them into reporters’ hands). By way of example, Welch pointed out a guy named “Faiz” whom he credited with spotting an “opening” during Rudy Giuliani’s speech Monday night. Faiz had an advance copy of the speech and noticed, Welch explained excitedly, that the former mayor departed from his prepared remarks, changing the sentence, “So long as George Bush is President, is there any doubt they will continue to hear from us until we defeat global terrorism…” to the shorter, “So long as George Bush is President, is there any doubt they will continue to hear from us.” Based on Faiz’s catch, the war room immediately cranked out a press release bearing the headline,”Nice Edit, Rudy,” and framing Giuliani’s “primetime edit” as follows: “The prepared remarks were harder to deliver, apparently, after George W. Bush stated that we could not win the war on terror.” (Bush’s statement — “I don’t think you can win it,” when NBC’s Matt Lauer asked him, in an interview aired Monday, about the war on terrorism — was pushed heavily by the DNC war room earlier this week and, relatedly or not, received fairly heavy press play. It was, Welch said, “the president’s gift” to them.)

As the war room tour wound down, a male voice could be heard talking about New York Times reporters. (“Stolberg?” the voice wondered aloud, in apparent reference to Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg, before settling on “Adam Nag,” an apparent reference to the Times’s Adam Nagourney.) On the topic of individual reporters, Welch would not cop to having a “go-to” guy or “sure-thing” news organization guaranteed to run his message du jour every time and thereby start it pumping through the press’ bloodstream. But he did acknowledge, when asked, that the “wires are vital, to be sure.”

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.