Watching Hillary's town hall.

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Feb. 5 2008 12:55 PM

Hillary's Town Hall

The candidate interrupts the soft pablum of the Hallmark Channel.

Voices Across America: A National Town Hall
Voices Across America: A National Town Hall

Last night, six-pack of Shotz and tub of buttered popcorn at hand, I kicked back in the La-Z-Boy and flipped to the Hallmark Channel, hopeful of seizing a rare opportunity to catch A Season for Miracles, the 1999 made-for-TV movie starring Carla Gugino as a woman who generously abducts the children of her drug-addled sister. Readers who count themselves connoisseurs of the Hallmark Hall of Fame franchise can easily imagine the distress I felt upon seeing that Miracles had been pre-empted by an infomercial—Hillary Rodham Clinton's Voices Across America: A National Town Hall. This was a freewheeling and highly spontaneous discussion that saw the candidate going out on a limb on a number of controversial issues.

The event's home base was a New York City studio decorated in two or three tints—muted blue, waiting-room blue, soporific blue—meant to set off the candidate's insistent red jacket. With the exception of a video screen showing a map of the lower 48—the Super Tuesday states pulsed greenly, as if the sites of Ebola outbreaks—the set was as soothing as Ovaltine. The chaperone was Carole Simpson, late of ABC News, who adopted a Mr. Rogers tone as she introduced questions from live crowds gathered at rallies across the republic: "OK, are you ready to go to the Volunteer State?" "We're going pretty far now! We're going far away … to Boise, Idaho!" "Doncha just love hopscotching across America? Guess where we're going next?!"

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The senator never did venture such a guess. Rather, she would just toss her head back and chuckle airily at the fresh sight of Birmingham, Ala., or Little Rock, Ark., on the big screen—a kinder, gentler rendition of her oft-noted cackle. The remote crowds, jubilant, spent half their screen time applauding. In contrast, members of the studio audience seemed mostly tolerant, as if they'd each been promised a modest reward—a cookie, say—in exchange for good behavior. On the occasions that they perked up and clapped, Simpson would stroke them: "You all like that one, don't you?"

The questions were uniformly fat, juicy, and right over the plate, each ready to be swatted out of the park in one powerfully wonky swing. They were about education and VA funding and outsourcing and, climactically, "What is something your mother taught you that would make you a great president?" They were all great questions: "What a great question! I thank you for it." "What a great, great question!" "Well, that's a great way to parse the question." I felt like I'd earned a gold star just by watching—a sensation that helped to quell the disconcerting feeling provoked by watching a candidate for president appear live on television without the word live appearing anywhere on-screen.

In any case, the event didn't feel so much live as expertly taxidermied—which is everything an establishment candidate can hope for on the eve of a national primary. Could anything surprising transpire in such a forum? Great question. The hour's one jolt came when the Hallmark Channel dropped the curtain on the senator the instant her hour was up. She was talking about droughts ("I know this is an important issue. I will do everything I can to put it on our national agenda as your—"), when the network cut her off midsentence and, at long last, cued up A Season for Miracles and its kiddie narrator: "I never believed in angels and fairy tales. …"

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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