Behind the Scenes: What the Public Didn't Get to See About the Debate 

  • Minutes before airtime Friday night, the two co-founders of the Commission on Presidential Debates, former Democratic chairman Paul Kirk and former Republican chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, made their move.
  • The two men appeared without warning on center stage of the Gertrude Ford Center, and, as Kirk began to speak - declaiming such phrases as "The stakes could not be higher" and "the complexities that lie before us" and "serious choices that face the nation" and "it is in our power to decide," he might have been taken (and was, by this observer) to be someone out there to check the mikes for sound.

    Only as Kirk's string of boilerplate continued did it become obvious that the embedded clichés were his speech, not something done to facilitate a sound-check. Fahrenkopf's follow-up was not much more enlightening, though his prediction that "this will be the most widely watched debate ever" was a fairly heady announcement. [Update: The debate would draw 52.4 million viewers, far fewer than the record audience of 80.6 million for President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan in 1980.)

    • On Thursday, when two Ole Miss students had stood at the same lecterns as McCain and Obama would an evening later, running through a simulated debate for such purposes as a sound-check and lighting-check, their improvised lines seemed both crisper and more original.

      When the two students arrived on stage, incidentally, their exchange of handshakes and pleasantries ("Have a nice trip down? Good") would make a pointed contrast to that which took place a day later between the two presidential candidates. Obama mouthed similar amenities, but McCain barely nodded as the two contenders touched gloves.

    • Then there was Jim Lehrer, the veteran PBS hand, who came on as every inch the ex-Marine when he lectured the audience beforehand about demonstrations. Noting that one side of the auditorium consisted of Obama supporters and the other of McCain's people, Lehrer virtually tongue-lashed them in advance, cautioning that the debate wasn't "a pep rally" and warning against any "cheering or hollering."

      He said he wouldn't stand for any unprompted audience sound of any kind and would stop the debate in mid-stream if need be to call out any offenders. Plus, he would take time away from the candidate whose side of the auditorium had offended.

      That last would come to seem an empty threat, given the free-form debate that followed, with no apparent equal-time provisions for responses and frequent improvisations and interruptions from Lehrer as well as from the two candidates.
    • One of the facts of life which have irked supporters of the Obama-Biden ticket in Memphis - the lack of such logistical niceties as yard signs and bumper stickers, both of which commodities are freely available to McCain-Palin backers - was reflected in the media tent Friday night during the debate.

    Even as the journalists studied their screens or scribbled or wrote notes about the proceedings, young charges kept bringing them freshly prepared response sheets from the Republican point of view to whatever tack the debate happened to be taking. There was no equivalent on the Democratic side.

    • Various on-campus hosts were at pains to treat the horde of visiting media right. Along with the swag bags made available by Ole Miss and the Commission on Presidential Debates were additional goodie bags furnished by Wal-Mart.

      Though media credentials were strictly monitored for site-access purposes by campus cops and the Secret Service, there was a lot of looking-the-other-way governing the swag bags, which were loaded with sundries, candies, earphones, flash drives, notebooks, commemorative T-shirts, etc., etc. The greatest prize of all seemed to be Ole Miss caps.

      There were numerous booths, vans, exhibits for the curious, and donors like Anheuser-Busch, which maintained a food-and-drink tent nearby the media facilities, offered exotic enough fare -- Portobello mushrooms, Italian sausage cheeseburgers, German beer and French wine -- to attract politicians like Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and his Michigan colleague Carl Levin.

      Not least among the bounties in this provender-laden tent were Rendezvous ribs, personally supervised and served by restaurateur John Vergos himself.
    • Former Memphian Babs Chase, now head of foreign press for the State Department, shepherded around Oxford a large corps of journalists from various countries around the globe. Sitting at a picnic table Thursday night on the lawn of the University's journalism facilities and dining on Southern-fried specialties were Sulaiman Alamin, from the Sudan; Ole Nyeng of Denmark; and Jean-Marc Veszely of Belgium.

      All were frank to say they hoped for an Obama victory -- a reminder of the McCain strategy of trying to stigmatize the Democratic candidate's support as reflecting a foreign consensus rather than a Middle American one. But all three journalists made it clear they were motivated less by any "celebrity" of Obama's than by fear and loathing concerning what they see as the disasters of the eight-year Bush administration.

      But, asked who they thought would win, the three split, with only Nyend, the Dane, opining in favor of Obama. Veszely was not prepared to pronounce, and Alamin refused to believe that Americans would actually vote for someone with African ancestry. He saw McCain as the victor, primarily on racial grounds.

    "Things here have not changed that much," said the Sudanese free-lancer, though his point would have been disputed by Chancellor Robert Khayat and other University of Mississippi officials, who did their best all week to convince the media, foreign and domestic, that things had indeed changed, not only in America at large but even at Ole Miss itself, once a very citadel of segregation but now struggling to redefine itself, in the words of a letter from Khayat that appeared in every media press packet, as "a nurturing and diverse community where people of all races, religions, nationalities, economic groups, and political alliances live, study, and work comfortably together."

    Now that's something that no major Mississippi official, governmental or academic, would have said backaways.

    See also "Win, Lose, or Draw? How McCain-Obama #1 Went." and "Oxford turns the Presidential Debate into a Political, er, Party."

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