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VOL. 123 | NO. 191 | Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Behind the Scenes

What you haven’t heard about Oxford’s presidential debate

By Andy Meek

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POLS CIRCLING: From left, U.S. Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John Kerry, D-Mass., meet the press before Friday night’s debate at Ole Miss. -- PHOTOS BY ANDY MEEK

For television viewers around the world, it began with the host of PBS’ “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” intoning, “Good evening from the Ford Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.”

Friday night’s presidential debate between U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., ended with McCain’s statement, “I know how to heal the wounds of war. I know how to deal with our adversaries. And I know how to deal with our friends.”

The countless news reports, the post-debate spin and hours of analysis that followed over the weekend focused mostly on what happened in between those book-ends, which was seen by tens of millions of viewers around the world.

Here’s some of what the public didn’t get to see:

At about five minutes before 8 p.m., Lehrer came onstage. With a few minutes to go before the live television

broadcast, the venerable newsman looked nothing like the mild-mannered personality seen nightly on public television as he admonished audience members not to disturb the night’s proceedings.

“It’s going to require my absolute concentration, and I don’t want to worry about anyone cheering and hollering behind me,” he snapped. “This is not a competing pep rally. If I hear (anything), I’ll raise my hand. And that means hush.”

In describing the five-minute periods of open discussion between the candidates that would be sprinkled throughout the 90-minute debate, he said: “That’s when it’s going to get hairy for me and for everybody. This has to be a credible debate. It has to be fair, and it has to appear to be fair.”

Raising his voice slightly, he added, “And no cell phones. If you’ve got a cell phone, throw it away or turn it off.”

He then took his seat on stage with his back to the crowd. After a few minutes, he informed the audience of the approach of the live broadcast by bellowing: “Thirty seconds. ... The next words you hear from me will be the real ones.”

Shortly before he gave his instructions to the crowd, each of the dozens of flat-screen television sets in the media filing center was switched to a channel offering a live feed from inside the debate hall. The drone of chatter inside the filing center then disappeared as the historic debate got under way.

News coverage of the debate from media outlets in Memphis to Morocco was thus generated by reporters who, like viewers around the world, observed it from a television screen.

Seeing, being seen

Inside and outside the media center Friday, the buzz of activity had the feel of a long wind-up into a baseball pitch that ultimately stretched over several hours.

A slightly winded Tom Brokaw, barely recognizable behind a pair of sunglasses, strolled unnoticed past a few Memphis journalists early Friday afternoon.

The former anchor of “NBC Nightly News” went on to pass by the media credentialing center on the Ole Miss campus virtually unrecognized and with no visible reaction from the throng of press, onlookers and campus visitors around him. Brokaw chatted briefly with The Daily News on his way toward a knoll where the national news networks had set up their video and broadcast gear.

Without breaking his stride, Brokaw gave his assessment of how the debate might unfold.

He did not expect either McCain or Obama to “hit one out of the park.” And he said both candidates likely would seek to follow the central idea of the Hippocratic oath.

“The most important thing they’ll keep in mind is ‘Do no harm,’” Brokaw said, before adding that McCain would be looking to convey a mastery of economic issues – a previously admitted weakness of the Arizona senator. Brokaw said Obama would have the task of conveying a command of foreign policy, generally recognized to be McCain’s strong point.

TUNED IN: Journalists packed the media filing center on the Ole Miss campus for Friday night’s debate between U.S. Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama.

Inside the media center, a quartet of journalists at one point surrounded McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds, who could be overheard assuring them: “That is not true, we love the media.” A few rows away sat Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. They were rarely seen away from their laptops.

Making a series of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them swings through the media center in the late afternoon were campaign surrogates and allies like Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The Daily News caught up with Kerry as he sat alone on a wooden railing outside the media center.

He said congressional agreement on the much-debated $700 billion bailout proposal for the country’s financial marketplace was likely only days away. And he dismissed the last-minute announcement by McCain to suspend his campaign and return to Washington to take part in the discussions, potentially jeopardizing Friday night’s debate.

“We had an agreement in principle. And all that was done without John McCain,” Kerry said.

Hours before the debate began, Giuliani strolled inside the media center flashing a toothy smile and holding hands with his wife, Judith.

“I think it was a courageous thing to do,” Giuliani told a group of reporters about McCain’s last-minute trip back to Washington.

Before Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., began making the rounds, he told The Daily News: “I think the (bailout plan) discussions are back on track after Sen. McCain’s efforts to insert himself clearly failed.”

About two hours remained before the debate was set to begin.

‘An important night’

The air conditioning unit was working at full blast to keep the reporters cool, but that didn’t stop a few of them from getting hot under the collar as they donned jackets, grumbling about the temperature. Eventually, a pair of Spanish journalists ventured toward what looked like a control panel for the A/C.

“I don’t think it’s coming from there. That’s the uptake, buddy,” one American reporter helpfully offered.

The Spanish journalist apparently thought he was being reprimanded, because he threw up his arms as he walked back to his seat. He told the American, “We cannot work in these conditions. What do you prefer, noise or cold?”

Replied the American: “Well, I’ve got to hear the debate at some point.”

Campus staffers turned down the temperature a few minutes later.

Mark Wignall, a columnist for the Jamaica Observer, was part of a contingent of foreign journalists who were brought to Oxford – after spending a few days in Memphis – by former Memphian Babs Chase, who now works for the U.S. State Department. Among the stops on their trip was an evening reception Wednesday at the Downtown Memphis penthouse of fashion designer and socialite Pat Kerr Tigrett.

“In Jamaica, we have never seen a candidate as attractive, as magnetic, as bright as Barack Obama,” Wignall said. “And that automatically attracts us to him.”

In a column he wrote about his visit to the U.S., Wignall also wrote that he was impressed after meeting Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr., who “so impressed me by his ability to articulate the social, economic and political aspects of his county, the state and the wider USA.”

Meanwhile, columnist Howard Kurtz, who covers the media industry for The Washington Post, told The Daily News that if each candidate turned in a flawless performance, the media would be in the “unusual position” of having to grapple with the substance of the debate.

About 10 minutes before Lehrer announced the end of the debate – and with both candidates still going head to head – former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright ducked behind a curtained-off row of cameras in the media center presumably to sit for a post-debate interview.

Giuliani, with about seven minutes to go before the debate wrapped up, stepped into position in front of a “Spin Alley” news camera and got miked up for a post-debate interview extolling McCain’s performance – which was still unfinished at that point.

“Spin Alley” is the place where party bigwigs and political heavy hitters position themselves after presidential debates for easy access to reporters, who are eager to get some post-debate analysis for the forthcoming news reports.

Like a tidal wave, the sight of politicos like Giuliani and former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., getting into position near the network news booths prompted an exodus of reporters from behind laptops and TV screens.

With minutes to go before Lehrer brought the first debate to a close, reporters swarmed the likes of Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, who told the crowd around him: “Tonight was an important night for us.”

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