Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 8 1996 3:30 AM


       The big question in covering a presidential debate is whether to actually go to the debate. Most of the reporters in Hartford remained contentedly in the media filing center, which is sort of like a political version of a sports bar, with big-screen TV, free beer, pizza, and constant access to the collective wisdom. I opted instead for being there. Watching the debate in the same room where it is actually occurring is a poor substitute for the real thing--watching it on television. It meant not being able to see the facial expressions of the candidates, missing some of what they said due to poor acoustics in the balcony, and having to pass around a lot of tripods and lenses of photographers poised for early getaways. It also meant that halfway through, when I felt like changing channels, there was no clicker.
       From this impaired vantage point, nobody looked like an obvious winner. Jim Lehrer clearly lost the debate, being very dull in a PBS sort of way. Most of his questions were of the "President Clinton, what about that?" variety. As for the candidates, I can't imagine that either of them changed anyone's mind. Clinton got in some pretty good cheap shots about Dole's opposition to the Brady bill, the assault-weapons ban, and Medicare. Dole's artillery was weaker. He mentioned twice that Clinton failed to show sufficient respect for George Bush in the 1992 debate by failing to call him "President Bush," which seemed pointless, and he blew a lot of smoke about the "L" word, which set Clinton up for an obviously canned retort: "That dog won't hunt." Dole's knocks on the Democrats for being beholden to the teachers' union and trial lawyers were more solid, but Clinton came back with the obvious answers about Republican polluters and tobacco.
       What he lost on points, Dole made up by being funnier and more spontaneous. The biggest laugh in the hall was when he ran out of time giving an answer about health care, ending on the line that "in America, no one will go without health care, no one will go without food." After cutting him off, Lehrer offered to let him finish his sentence. "Food," Dole repeated, with perfect timing.
       The annoying innovation this year was faux niceness. Clinton started out talking about how much he respects Dole. Dole offered a little soliloquy about how much he has in common with Clinton--they both, for instance, had mothers. Clinton responded that he really liked Dole, too, and admired him as well. It seemed more like a self-esteem-building session than a debate. In fact, there is no reason to think that Dole and Clinton do like or respect each other. Sitting in the front row at Dole's invitation was Billy Dale, the fired head of the White House Travel Office, who was supposed to symbolize Clinton's lack of integrity. Of course, it's hard to symbolize someone else's lack of integrity after leaving $69,000 of the government's money in your own checking account, even if you did manage to get acquitted.
       After the closing remarks, those of us on location were zoomed back to the media center, where the quadrennial ritual of debate spin was already under way. In keeping with the trend of everything becoming a "meta" version of itself (HoJo's, FedEx, etc.), the presidential-debate commission had erected a big sign that said, "Spin Alley." In other words, there is no longer any pretense that officially designated surrogates offer anything more than self-serving blather. The Clinton team had the logistics of this scene better worked out. Each designated spokesman was accompanied by a subaltern holding a little red sign saying who he was. This was helpful--although somewhat poignant in the case of neglected spinmeisters like Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont and Rep. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who couldn't pretend to be just shmoes standing around. I prodded in vain for subversive comments. The best I did was getting Gov. John Engler of Michigan to acknowledge that he hadn't actually heard Dole's closing statement.
       One popular spinner was the ever-glib White House Spokesman Mike McCurry, who had press company the whole time. He was discoursing about Dole's discomfort on stage when someone from the U.S. Information Agency trailing several Asian gentlemen interrupted and asked him "to say 'hello' to some parliamentarians from Mongolia." McCurry graciously obliged. The reporters wandered off, and I went back to my hotel to dream of the Commission on Presidential Debates in Ulan Bator, the NewsHour With Genghis Khan, and officially designated spin-yurts.

Jacob Weisberg is SLATE's chief political correspondent. His column, "Strange Bedfellow," appears weekly.