The spin room - oily engine of the political meat grinder
DURHAM, N.H. — The crush of reporters and cameramen presses in like a rabid rush-hour crowd at the Times Square subway station. There is no mercy.
"Can you get a shot?" asks a TV reporter toward the back of the pack.
"This is totally impossible," a voice replies.
Somewhere under a dozen or more boom mikes, hand-held minicams, and tape recorders, Howard Dean, Democratic candidate for president and red meat for the evening news, has begun to answer questions. The spin room of Tuesday night's presidential post-debate was in full, salivating session.
The spin room. It's a concept so integral to modern presidential politics that a friendly debate organizer outside the press room directs traffic. "Spin? That building," she instructs, pointing toward a sign marked - yes - "Spin Center Media Entrance."
I had no idea. But then, I'm the guy who nearly 30 years ago took a wrong turn on what I thought would be a career in political journalism and never found my way back. And so it is with the quickened stepof a political junkie and reporting novice that I enter the high-ceilinged University of New Hampshire spin room to watch the candidates and press mix it up.
A few minutes later, however, my sense of marvel has morphed into musings about one of journalism's more memorable "leads," or first paragraphs, about a different American institution.
"I've often wondered what goes into a hot dog," wrote author William Zinsser. "Now I know and I wish I didn't."
His words resonate. Close up, what some refer to as the "pageantry of American politics" seems sweatier and slicker, a cross between a rugby scrum and a barnstorming sales pitch, with each candidate and handler trying to stay "on message," and each reporter manipulating that message, pushing to get the right sound bite on the evening news or to flesh out that story "angle" for tomorrow's paper.
There's the Rev. Al Sharpton, a camera inches from his nose, expounding on his debate theme comparing Al Gore's stunning endorsement of Mr. Dean to the return of party "bossism."
There's Sen. John Kerry under the bright lights, tall and ever lugubrious, talking earnestly about how he would take on the president.
There's Joe Trippi, guru of Dean's Internet campaign, telling a reporter that the former Vermont governor's website has set a one-day record for visitor "hits."
And there's Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the antiwar congressman, saying to anyone who will listen that he's the only candidate with a plan for bringing our troops home.
Wait a minute. What is it that allows me, or other reporters, to poke fun? Wasn't it ABC moderator Ted Koppel who started the debate by instructing all nine Democrats "to raise your hand if you believe that Governor Dean can beat George W. Bush." Is that coverage or spin?
Given that Dean's hand was the only one to shoot up, I'll lay odds that the scene will be replayed in a Republican ad campaign if he wins the Democratic nomination.
Should a debate moderator ask lower-tier candidates five to six weeks before the first vote is cast, as Mr. Koppel did, when they are planning to drop out?
And how about the take of Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi whose day-after column ran under the headline, "Dean mumbles and rambles." Is that the same candidate praised by one of my students at the debate for seeming fresh and forceful after a long day in three states?
Truth be told we - the press - not only like to keep the score in politics but aren't above influencing it.
We choose which candidates to quote and which to ignore. We help to anoint front-runners and then make sure to bash them to keep the race both interesting and competitive. It's not a cynical act, or even always a conscious one. But then, perhaps every step the candidates take isn't as tightly choreographed as the news media insist either.
Inside the spin room my mood begins to improve a bit. Unlike Zinsser and his hot dog, I discover there's at least one palatable ingredient here. It's not sober reflection or unscripted honesty. In this high-stakes game, I've found a hint of humor.
"Governor," I ask Dean after catching up to him out front. "How can you stand to have all of those cameras and mikes stuck in your face?"
"It's something you just have to get used to," he says, smiling that toothy, we're-in-this-together smile. "I guess it's an occupational hazard."
And is that the hint of a twinkle I see later in General Wesley Clark's eye?
He had just finished his standard spiel - a campaign of the people, not the powerful, but a campaign, by the way, with more former Gore staff than any other candidate's. The TV-commentator-turned-TV- newsmaker starts to leave, so I blurt out. "General, Jerry Lansen. You're relatively new to this political game. Who do you think is spinning whom here?"
Clark pauses, handlers at his side. "I don't know. I'm just telling you what I believe," he says. "You may be spinning me but you haven't told me anything but your name. Is that your real name?"
Actually, general, it's not. I never did like the name Gerald.
• Jerry Lanson is chair of the Department of Journalism at Emerson College in Boston.