Senator John Kerry looks positively giddy as he poses for the cameras, his long arms draped around three smiling Bud Girls. All told, seven Bud Girls are floating around the press filing area here at the University of Massachusetts's Clark Athletic Center, serving as perky, shapely goodwill ambassadors for Anheuser-Busch, proud sponsor of the evening's "2000 Presidential Debate Canteen." The ladies' primary job is to distribute commemorative plastic beer steins to the hordes of bored, hungry journalists who wander into the canteen to gorge on roast beef, play foosball, and watch espn.
Coincidentally, Kerry is a sort of ambassador as well--although he lacks the steins and the snug red sweater. That's because he, along with pretty much every other ambulatory member of the Democratic Party, has agreed to serve as an official post-debate surrogate for Al Gore, explaining to the media why, in his heartfelt and considered opinion, the vice president was the indisputable winner.
In fact, the debate itself is little more than a prelude. The real action-- the reason we have traveled here, the reason Kerry is here, and the reason twentysomethings in both camps haven't slept for weeks--comes immediately after. It's been dubbed Spin Alley, the stretch of real estate directly in front of where the myriad TV crews have set up shop for the night. And, even before Gore and George W. wave goodbye to the crowd, each campaign will unleash a flood of surrogates to educate journalists about why tonight was so great for its man. The process will take a couple of hours and involve dozens of elected and appointed officials, campaign staffers, family members, and high-profile supporters. It is a frenzied, deeply self-important, occasionally stressful affair. And it is almost entirely pointless.
Pointless from the standpoint of campaign strategy, that is. Nothing offered by either army of surrogates is likely to have the slightest impact on media coverage of the debate. After all, if Bush or Gore were to come unglued on stage, no amount of spin would keep the gruesome incident from dominating the next day's headlines ("bush confuses austria with australia"; " gore claims to have jammed with beatles"). And if there is no "gotcha" moment, the straight-news outlets will stick to their typical "objective" format-- Gore claim, Bush claim, Gore rebuttal, Bush rebuttal, comment by Gore supporter, comment by Bush supporter, wash, rinse, repeat--while members of the opinion media will cherry-pick moments from the debate that support their own ideological biases.
But even if reporters could be swayed by creative and sophisticated analysis, they're unlikely to find any in Spin Alley, where surrogates stray from the campaign's numbing talking points only upon pain of death. As for the professional talking heads, they hit the air at almost the same second the spin begins and so don't have time to seek out the insightful nuggets provided by the likes of Alphonso Jackson (a Bush chum) before going live themselves. Even more important, the new technology of flash polling means they don't need partisan spinners to tell them who won--the public will. Who cares that Bill Daley's declaring a Gore victory when you can find out that 58 percent of non-college-educated, married, suburban, Midwestern swing voters thought Bush should have worn a periwinkle tie?
This isn't to say that tonight's post-debate spin circus won't serve a variety of nonstrategic aims. For starters, it's a necessary evil to keep the networks happy. After even the most minor political event, someone "in the know" must be served up for the cameras. But the networks' need for faces to put on the air is only half the equation; the other half is the surrogates' need for air to put their faces on. After all, how often does Ohio Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones (a Gore surrogate) find herself surrounded by literally hundreds of national reporters on deadline? The opportunity for momentary media stardom has led to an absurdly bloated cadre of designated spinners. Team Gore alone boasts 35 official surrogates-- everyone from Ted Kennedy to Al Franken--all mouthing the same half-dozen hypercautious talking points green-lighted by the campaigns. And then there are the 700 strung-out campaign aides distributing those talking points-- often packaged in sleek binders with pithy titles like "The Bush-Cheney Debate Survival Kit."
Within minutes of the debate's close, a strict hierarchy of spinners becomes clear: If you are an undisputed star--say, Karl Rove or Jesse Jackson- -a mob of cameras and pencils hovers about you, documenting your every utterance. If, on the other hand, you are Bob Menendez or Marc Racicot, you have to be a bit more entrepreneurial. To facilitate the spinner/media mating dance, each surrogate is trailed by a harried-looking escort carrying a large sign bearing the surrogate's name. This not only helps reporters locate a particular individual in the crush, it helps them avoid mistaking lesser- known spinners for members of the university's maintenance crew. Of course, ambitious escorts know better than to leave things to chance. (God forbid your surrogate goes unnoticed.) Thus it is that I find myself manhandled into a tete-a-tete with DNC Chairman Ed Rendell. "You! How about you?" Rendell's escort yelps at me as I foolishly drift onto the fringes of the fray. Before I can flee, he puts a hand to my back and propels me over to Rendell, who stands languishing in the company of one lowly print reporter.
Less-confrontational escorts stand on chairs to draw attention to their charges. Other surrogates, meanwhile, jockey for prime placement next to brighter lights. During a slow period, J.C. Watts hovers at the edge of the perpetual scrum that surrounds Rove, while the escort for the aarp spinner sends his charge down toward Donna Shalala in hopes of snagging a few runoff questions.
And the debate itself? It went pretty much as expected. Bush got flustered and at times seemed unclear on the details of even his own programs. Gore, wearing a disturbing amount of rouge, came across as overbearing and pedantic. But nobody fainted, cried, whipped out an affidavit, or threw a punch, and, even before the closing statements were over, surrogates began storming the media center, where reporters had spent the last 90 minutes staring glassy- eyed at the proceedings on closed-circuit television. Which, ultimately, may be the best explanation of all for the spin brigades: Without them, news organizations would have little excuse to send journalists to the debate site and would be forced to admit that our crack reporting bears a shocking resemblance to what millions of Americans do in the comfort of their own homes: watch the damn thing on TV.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic.