This Vote's For You 

Behind the scenes at the third presidential debate.

SAINT LOUIS -- It would have been no surprise for Bill Clinton to have poked out from behind the curtains last night at the final presidential debate. Clearly, American voters have earned a toast. And who better to give one than the man who has shown that he knows an easy conquest when he sees it. I regret to report that the Green Party is winning the race for the nation's next Commander in Chief -- and I'm not talking about Ralph. At least the journalists, the ones who are entrusted to deliver objective observations of what's really behind those velvety blue Oz-like debate curtains, have been bought and sold all for the sake of some freebies. Herded into the debate media tent were thousands of journalists from across the globe talking in their native tongue: garbled mouth fulls of free food and liquor. The open-all-evening bar offering Budweiser products (of course) was only half as popular a way to pass the hours before show time as having a flirty chat with the Bud Girls. Like perky perfume women at the mall, they gave out frosted Election 2000 collector's mugs. Most reporters declined the glasses because they were carrying too much already. In three free tote bags donated with various corporate labels, they lugged around complimentary t-shirts and baseball caps in between games of Budweiser foosball, air hockey, and ping pong. I suppose most wanted to savor their Southwestern Bell advertising packet for quieter times back at their hotels, especially those taking off on the Bush plane Wednesday morning when the candidate continues mangling his verbiage in the Northeast. A ticket to ride with W. costs news agencies $1,000 or more a day. That, of course, makes the cost of filing this story - which I had to do from Washington University's Athletic Complex cum reporter bullpen - mere pocket change at $100 per phone line. Reporters were confined to the pen all night. The auditorium was a coveted place, a mythical up-close-and-personal land that old curmudgeon journalists remember from elections decades ago. So, in an enormous gymnasium, reporters watched Gore and Bush duke it out on television. If Citibank had the foresight similar to their competitors, they could have banked a killing with a commercial -- the ending going something like, "A ticket to one of the presidential debates . . . priceless." Unless you were an American with a heavy checkbook who gave heartily to the Bush or Gore campaign, getting a seat in the auditorium face-to-face with them remained a silly fantasy of true Democracy. Lucky students at Washington University won raffle tickets to the show but were ultimately told to stay back and keep quiet. PBS journalist Jim Lehrer, who hosted all three debates by himself, announced before the debate began that a diverse group of undecided voters would get the opportunity to ask the Bush and Gore a variety of questions. However, he failed to mention that the people were hand-picked by the organization that runs the debates, the Commission for Presidential Debates, a filtering agency that complies with the desires of only the Bush and Gore camps without consulting third-party candidates Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. Given the questions Tuesday afternoon, Lehrer chose which ones the candidates would address -- but not before briefing Gore and Bush's advisors about subjects of the questions first! So much for quick thinking and spontaneity. There has been much grumbling from third party candidates that the commission has excluded them. Nader announced to a paltry audience of no more than 40 supporters that he has filed suit against the University of Michigan, the candidates themselves, and the Commission for Presidential Debates for blocking his entrance into the first debate. "I had a ticket," he explained to the mostly college-age crowd. "Our car was pulled over and a man who called himself a security officer told me that he had been instructed by the commission to order me to leave whether I had a ticket or not." Nader said that his banishment from the University of Michigan campus that night meant he had to cancel a prearranged post-debate commentary with Fox News. Nader said he didn't have a ticket to Tuesday night's debate. When asked if would consider attempting to force his way onto Washington University's heavily-policed campus and onto the debate, he replied, "No, I prefer to be the plaintiff in all matters, never the defendant." As I was writing notes in my complimentary Budweiser note pad, I started to give Nader's strong accusations more credit. But, hanging my head low in disappointment, I, like most other journalists, filed this story and made a bee-line toward the fully Bud-stocked bar. (You can write Ashley Fantz at freeland@memphisflyer.com)

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