Dispatches from the surreal calamity of last night’s Democratic leadership debate

Dispatches from the surreal calamity of last night’s Democratic leadership debate

Last night, in a massive Philadelphia museum devoted to the American Constitution, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama hammered away at each other—gladiators in the great Democratic political contest. The debate itself, part of the run-up to the Pennsylvania primary on April 22, took place in a smallish TV theatre and was moderated by ABC correspondents Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos. Outside that small room, though, in a massive cathedral of spin, looking out 30-foot-high windows at Independence Hall, a thousand journos banged away at laptops, murmured into microphones and adjusted their ties and blouses before the camera. This horde represented an array of newspapers, Web sites, blogs, and radio and TV stations bearing a Dadaesque constellation of acronyms from throughout the world—ABC, NBC, CBS, WLS, WLAY, WABC, WDKA, WSYR, BBC, CNN, C-SPAN—most of which were repeated out along 6th Street, where satellite trucks stretched into the distance like a futuristic trailer park and news helicopters floated above. It was American madness pure and thick, and I wandered through it, as Leonard Cohen would say, like a lost Canadian.

Throughout the event, America’s journalistic elites sauntered about consuming free food and drink in a kind of free-floating, if slightly tedious, dinner party. The New York Times’ lead political columnist, Maureen Dowd, with her leopard-print skirt and tinted red hair, held court as other journalists drifted by either to pay homage or—if sufficiently big foot themselves—to display studied indifference. Newsweek columnists Howard Fineman and Jonathan Alter swanned by. The Washington Post’s Dan Balz and CNN’s Candy Crowley kept their noses in their laptops doing passable imitations of working stiffs. Outside, on a giant concrete plaza, ABC (who sponsored the event) broadcast its supper-hour national news show live. In a warm-up for the debate, the aforementioned Stephanopoulos and Gibson—coiffed, powdered, loafered—chatted like two guys passing the time, their oversized TV expressions looking alarmingly frantic to the naked eye.

Following the two-hour fracas, the press decamped to the so-called “spin room,” which was marked with signs reading “SPIN ROOM.” Once there, the journos moved like overfed cattle between various spinners, who, in turn, explained to the multitudes how to think about what just happened. Each spinner was accompanied by a handler holding a long placard reading either “Obama” or “Clinton.” I assumed that the attendees—being both American and professional journalists—knew the identity of the individual spinners. So imagine my shock when a chase producer for NBC News turned to me and asked rhetorically, “Do you know what the most oft asked question is at these events?… ‘Who the fuck was that?’”

Despite my delirium, I managed to recognize a few of the spinmasters. I asked former Bill Clinton aide Mandy Grunwald whether this campaign reminded her at all of ’92 and she professed to not understand the question. General Wesley Clark stood next to young congressman Patrick Murphy and David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist. Each of them twisted this way and that to feed the braying mob. Axelrod was far and away the most impressive—a sly Chicago wise guy, funny, charming and forever knowing—pouring streamlined sound bites into the multitude of lenses and microphones (“One good thing about running against Hillary Clinton. Nobody will say that you can’t handle a negative campaign”).

As for the debate, the “presumptive nominee” Obama lost to the “underdog” Clinton—but I won’t bore you with all that. The questions were mostly pointless and fell like drunks at a party, the candidates observing but skilfully avoiding them. At one point, ABC ran a clip of a dowdy rural Pennsylvania housewife asking Obama why he didn’t wear a flag pin on his lapel, which, in political terms, is like being asked “When did you stop beating your wife?”

No, the real story here was the media itself—the surging masses, the professional hierarchies, the “SPIN ROOM” label so readily acknowledging the very thing that the press is meant to reveal, clarify and overcome. At one point, tucked away in a display case in a small alcove, I found an original copy of the Pennsylvania Packet—the first newspaper to publicize the constitution on September 19, 1787, two days after the Constitutional Convention had given it a thumbs-up. And just around the corner, the fruits of that labour: the massive engine of communication and interpretation that now dwarfs the very political process it is meant to report.

Who is going to report that story?

Worst. Debate. Ever. [The Guardian]• Live-Blogging the Democratic Debate [New York Times]• ‘Yes, yes, yes’ Obama can win, Clinton says [The Globe and Mail]• Clinton admits Obama could win White House [CBC]• The Note: Kitchen’s Sink [ABC]