We interrupt this month’s Halloween-themed series of horror movie reviews (which I fell way behind on anyway) for something pretty special.
The title of this blog entry comes from a line in the Simon and Garfunkel song “Mrs. Robinson.” It’s a line that’s been going through my head a lot over the last week or so. Namely because I had the unique opportunity to be at Hofstra University as a member of the media on October 16, 2012. Of course, that was the date of the second presidential debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
No, I didn’t make it into the debate hall. That was strictly for VIPs. I stayed mostly in the Media Filing Center, where prominent print, television, radio, and Web journalists from around the world set up shop to cover the event.
I was among some of the best-known names in the news business. Throughout the afternoon and into the night I watched Shepard Smith, Bret Baier, and Sean Hannity host their respective shows on FOX News Channel. I stood near NBC News’s John Harwood as he presented live on-site updates. I was just a couple of feet away from MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell as he conversed on-air (and off) with Obama senior campaign adviser Robert Gibbs. Liberal commentator Alan Colmes was also prominent, spending much of his time at the Sirius Satellite Radio booth.
During a slow, quiet stretch several hours before the debate began, I actually summoned up the nerve to approach Game Change co-author Mark Halperin to tell him how much I enjoyed his book and the recent HBO movie based on it. He thanked me politely, if a bit brusquely—it was clear he wasn’t in a conversational mood. That discouraged me from approaching any other “biggies.”
I was amused watching ancient, frail, doddering male politicians primping and preening moments before going in front of the TV cameras. I mean, these are men who look like they’ve got one foot in the grave, but they want to be sure that not a hair on their head is out of place.
I was somewhat surprised to see Shepard Smith conduct what appeared to be a polite, non-hostile interview with Obama campaign spokesperson Jennifer Psaki. Smith lobbed a question at her and then got out of her way as she responded with not so much an actual answer as it was a very well rehearsed statement extolling the virtues of the President and how well he was going to do in the debate. (This was on FOX, no less!) I stood on the sidelines watching FOX Business Channel’s Neil Cavuto interview a very sedate John Sununu, senior advisor to the Romney campaign—a stark contrast to how Sununu was when he appeared on CNN the next morning, lashing out at a nonplussed Soledad O’Brien.
The FOX team was there in full force. In addition to the folks I mentioned above, there was also Brit Hume, Megyn Kelly, Kirsten Powers, and Juan Williams. (MSNBC had its own huge set-up on another part of the campus. Martin Bashir and Chris Matthews hosted their shows from there.) Megyn Kelly in particular exuded the glamour and presence of an A-list Hollywood star. I couldn’t help but think about how far we’ve come from the days of the bulldoggish Walter Cronkite, who was once THE face of television news.
As the start of the debate neared, I popped into the Budweiser tent across the street from the Media Filing Center and downed a Bud Light. This was a real privilege—not even my wife Ginny, Hofstra’s Director of Public Relations, who’d been working tirelessly for weeks on helping to get the campus ready for the debate, had access to that area! (Poor Ginny was stuck at the Student Center on the other side of campus, working with local news teams.) Then I had to get back—the main event was about to begin.
As the debate aired on large flatscreen television sets suspended above the long tables throughout the room, we all watched mostly in silence, with the exception of a few gasps and “ooohs” here and there, particularly when things got heated between the two candidates.
Once it was over, the Media Filing Center became Spin Alley. Surrogates for Obama and Romney showed up to explain to the members of the media how and why their guy won. As someone who follows politics and knows the names and faces of most of the movers and shakers, this was a real highlight for me.
There I was, standing within arm’s reach of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo; Reince Priebus, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and his Democratic counterpart, U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida; Massachusetts Senator (and 2004 Democratic Presidential nominee) John Kerry; New York Senator Chuck Schumer; former U.S. Representative Rick Lazio of New York, who ran against Hillary Clinton for the U.S. Senate in 2000; Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal; Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick; the Obama campaign’s Senior Strategist, David Axelrod; and its deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter.
Anyone with half a brain could figure out what each of these people was going to say about the debate well before they said it—well before the debate itself, come to think of it! And in that respect, there was really no point in paying attention to their comments. It was all so predictable. But at least with this second debate, the Democrats could praise their candidate’s performance with actual conviction.
I ended up engaging in a very friendly and respectful exchange of opinions with Richard Himelfarb, a pro-Romney political science professor who teaches at Hofstra. On areas where we didn't agree, we at least heard each other out and gave consideration to our respective points of view. It was a pleasure to speak to him, and he seemed to enjoy the conversation too.
So… what did I think of the debate itself? It’s dangerous to answer that question. This isn’t a political blog, and expressing an opinion about a subject as touchy as this one is bound to offend some people. Hell, I made what I felt was a completely neutral, innocuous comment about the vice-presidential debate on Facebook, and it led to a heated exchange and a near-unfriending.
But in a nutshell, I felt that Obama did what he absolutely needed to do. This is how he should have been during the first debate. But he wasn’t, and that helped Romney gain a lot of ground. And Romney deserved to gain it—he was excellent during that first debate.
The topic of Libya remains a big area of vulnerability for Obama. Romney could have really hammered away at him on that, but Mitt got so hung up on the semantics of whether Obama used the term “act of terror” the next day or two weeks later that he lost control of his argument. Obama better get his story straight on the matter of Libya by the time he meets Romney again for the third and final debate, or it’ll remain a king-size Achilles’ heel for him—and I don’t think Romney will make the same mistake twice.
Romney is an effective debater. He’s smooth and convincing. But like most other politicians, he doesn't seem to realize that it’s easy to check his past statements against his present ones. And I’m not talking about statements from 20 years ago, I’m talking a couple of MONTHS ago. The man either keeps changing his mind about where he stands on issues, or he has absolutely no qualms about lying bald-facedly to win votes, no matter how often he contradicts himself. It’s one or the other. (You want to take a swing at me too, Tagg?)
And I’m sorry if this offends anybody, but I felt there was more than one instance where Romney came off as a total prick. He showed a shocking degree of disrespect for the President, particularly when they were disagreeing about the amount of oil obtained from federal lands and the aforementioned “act of terror” remark. No matter what, Barack Obama is the President of the United States and you don’t speak to him like he’s your peer—or your inferior. And believe me, I’d say the same exact thing if it were a Democrat speaking that way to a Republican president—even George W. Bush.
I thought Candy Crowley did a halfway decent job as moderator, but no better than that. She was a bit too intrusive, cutting off the candidates just as they were about to make points I wanted to hear, and I was disappointed with some of the questions she chose.
Speaking of which—shame on the guy who slipped in a plug for the company where he works as he was asking his question about Libya. Tacky, man, just tacky.
But overall, I thought it was one hell of a debate, the polar opposite of the first one. And the whole thing was really a great experience, one that I won’t forget any time soon.
U.S. Representative Peter King (R-NY)
U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio)—played Obama during Romney’s debate practice
Former Governor George Pataki (R-NY)
U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY)
Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA)
Lawrence O’Donnell (left) with Robert Gibbs
U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL)
Former U.S. Representative Rick Lazio (R-NY)
Conservative commentator Bay Buchanan
Governor Deval Patrick (D-MA)
U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA)
Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY)
Kirsten Powers (left) with Juan Williams
Yours truly with the Hofstra University Director of Public Relations, Ginny Ehrlich-Greenberg (my ride home!)
© All text and images copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2012.