Spin City: St. Louis


by Norm Winick

While the two presidential candidates faced an audience of about 100 "undecided" voters for the Anheuser-Busch town-hall-style "debate" in St. Louis Friday, the media, thousands strong, was herded into a gymnasium to watch the event on television while sitting at folding tables with the laptop computers and Internet access. I was one of them.

While the national audience didn’t know the debate had a commercial sponsor, you couldn’t miss it on location. The beer and the non-alcoholic beer (an oxymoron if there ever was one) flowed freely alongside the hors d’oeuvres in the hospitality tent. Anheuser-Busch signs were all over; they provided souvenirs to everyone and were gracious hosts. In return for getting to coddle the media, they got to make sizable tax-deductible contributions to the Commission on Presidential Debates and to Washington University to cover the school’s sizable expenses as a debate host.

There were but few memorable sound bites from the debate itself. Here are my favorites:

Kerry: "The President has turned this campaign into a weapon of mass deception."

Bush: "He does change positions a lot. That sends a confusing signal to people. You gotta be firm and consistent."

Kerry: "The military’s job is to win the war. The President’s job is to win the peace."

Bush: "I have made some decisions to cause some people to not understand the great values of our country."

Bush: "There are rumors on the Internets [sic] that we are going to reinstitute the draft. That’s not true. The all-volunteer army works."

Kerry: "If just the people from Missouri who are in Iraq were a separate country, it would be the third largest nation in the coalition – after the United States and Great Britain."

Bush: "When he talks about being a fiscal conservative. He’s not credible. He’s gonna raise taxes. He’s got a record. He’s been there for 20 years. You can run but you can’t hide."

That’s pretty much everything that was newsworthy from the two big guys.

Each candidate had volunteers passing out propaganda during the event letting every media representative know that the other candidate had just mispoken. The Bush folks called theirs "Breaking Debate Fact Sheets" and the Kerry ones were "Bush vs. Reality."

As the debate wound downs, dozens of spinmeisters were paraded in front of the media to explain why their guy had tromped all over that other misguided loser. Campaign volunteers or staffers held large signs aloft identifying the spokesmen waiting for your attention.

I tried to talk to a variety of the spokespeople and surrogates and get them to talk about substantive issues.

It wasn’t easy.

Some, like Karl Rove and Sen. Hillary Clinton would only talk to network TV folks. Others stayed blindly on message and didn’t really respond to actual questions.

Besides representatives brought in by the campaigns, other organizations had spokespeople there, too.

Here are my conversations with some of the personalities who made themselves accessible.

Marie Smith, president of the American Association of Retired People (unaffiliated):

Z: How many members did the AARP lose as a result of their support of the Medicare bill?

Smith: "At last count we lost about 16,000 members nationwide. We don’t like losing anyone and we’re working hard to get them back. We have seriously rethought our decision but have concluded it was the right thing to do at the time. It got us in the door for some sort of prescription drug benefit."

John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO (Kerry):

Z: What can be done to bring back or replace manufacturing jobs like we’ve lost in Galesburg? [Sweeney mentioned Galesburg in an op-ed piece he had written in USA Today.]

Sweeney: "We have lost so much of our manufacturing industry. Those are good jobs. Those jobs aren’t coming back. We need an administration with a job development program that will serve to bring jobs here. We have to stop rewarding sending jobs overseas. Health care costs have to be addressed. Our trade laws, NAFTA, are just wrong. They are failing us. NAFTA was supposed to benefit workers. Now, we’re seeing that it’s even leading to the loss of jobs in Mexico. We’re not looking to impose our wages or standards on other countries; we are looking for our businesses to compete fairly and for basic labor rights; that means no forced labor, no child labor, some environmental protections. It can’t be a matter of the jobs always going to the cheapest labor."

Karen Hughes, former White House Communications Director, now Bush-Cheney ’04 Communications Director (Bush):

Z: What question do you wish they would have asked?

Hughes: "They asked terrific questions. I think it was a fantastic debate. I think President Bush dominated the debate. He’s very flexible. He learns from his experience. He likes people. This format brings out his personality."

Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State (Kerry):

Z: What, if any, diplomatic options were still available to the United States at the time the President invaded Iraq?

Albright: "We should have let the inspectors do their job. As they were pursuing evidence, we would have had time to build a true international coalition as the President’s father did. President Bush won a great diplomatic victory when he got the inspectors in and then he squandered it and has destroyed our credibility in diplomatic circles around the world. If the inspectors continued to not find anything, we would have had time to question our intelligence and rethink any military action."

Her answer was followed by a question from a reporter for France2 Television– in French. (It was back to spinning. He asked "Why do you think Sen. Kerry did the best?) Albright answered it in flawless French. I asked the reporter how her French was. "It was perfect. Teresa Heinz Kerry also has perfect French. John Kerry’s is excellent, too, but you don’t want to write that; Americans don’t see it as a good thing."

The diminutive Greta VanSusteran was there for FOX news and chatted with Mr. briefly about tort reform issues. She clearly had a wealth of knowledge on that legal issue but stopped talking when I started taking notes. "You can’t use anything I say. I’m not allowed to give interviews without getting permission from FOX first."


Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry-Edwards Campaign Manager (Kerry):

Z: Can you sum up what you just saw?

Cahill: "President Bush didn’t deal with the reality of job numbers. It was another bad month. Most people think elections are about them. They’re not. They are about the people. The President wanted to keep the dialog on John Kerry’s old votes. That doesn’t matter. It’s what you do or will do as President that matters."