As an undecided centrist voter, I’ve watched nearly every minute of every presidential primary debate so far this year. I won’t bore you by telling you who my favorites are, but I will say that of my top five choices three are from one party, two from the other and only one is in the top tier of either party. That being said, I want to mention one candidate by name because he is the one I have gotten to know the best over the last couple months.
I began emailing former Alaskan Senator Mike Gravel over a year ago when he became the first American to announce for the presidency in 2008. What sparked my interest was the fact that a Democratic candidate for president was running with the supposed Republican FairTax as a key issue. As I did more research I concluded that whether or not he is perfect for the White House, Senator Gravel is certainly worthy of more than the occasional footnote.
Monday afternoon, I met him and his beautiful wife Whitney for the first time face to face. The meeting confirmed for me what I had already come to believe in phone conversations. Mike Gravel the man is nothing like how he has appeared in the primary debates. He is a kind, gentle, caring, and genuine human being that anyone would want as a Grandfather. It turns out that the FairTax that so many think of as being some silly right-wing idea is very close to the proposal Mike laid out in his book Citizen Power in 1972. The Largo public library seems to be the only library in Florida with a copy (I asked them to ship it in), but if you wait till Labor Day, it is supposed to be published anew in an updated paperback version.
When I told the Senator I would be at a rally outside the Charleston debate he told me that he still had three of his twenty guest tickets available and I could go inside to watch the debate if I wanted. I jumped at the chance to see history being made with the CNN/YouTube combination. As I said above, I’ve watched every minute of every debate, but watching on TV and being there in the room are completely different experiences.
Parking for the event was a mile away from the Citadel. We had to check in no later than 5:30, get a blue wristband (will they be red in September?) and ride a bus to the debate site. I was in line next to a state senator from SC who was carrying what appeared to be an important book of some type. I found it LOL amusing when an acquaintance of his asked and the senator pulled open his coat to show the book jacket of the latest Harry Potter novel in the inside breast pocket.
We got inside the arena (that looked nothing like a basketball court on TV) and our next chore was to find our seating. I could tell by the markers I saw for Obama, Clinton, and Kucinich that the candidates’ guests had the first four rows of stadium seating behind the floor seats and since my program had “Sec 2” written on it, I knew I had to travel almost all the way across the room. I got to section 2 and asked the very pleasant usher if she knew where Senator Gravel’s guests were to be seated. She looked at my program cover and told me that I was in section 2 and there were still some empty seats in the nosebleed area. I looked at the empty rows behind her and saw Dodd on the little placard, and asked her again if there wasn’t an area set aside for the guests of Senator Gravel. She smiled politely and admitted she had no idea who this person named “Gravel” is. I opened my program and showed her that he was a presidential candidate and she sent me over to ask the head of the Democratic Party in South Carolina where I was supposed to sit. After I got back from that little trek with the knowledge that I was in section 2, the polite usher told me she didn’t think Dodd’s section was going to fill up and I was welcome to sit there. As we got halfway down the aisle we finally saw the Gravel placard designating where we were to sit.
Just as we were preparing to sit down, a guy in the first row of VIP seats behind the candidate guest seating joked, “Down in Front!!” to us. I looked up and realized the person who was teasing us was Richard Schiff who played Toby in Aaron Sorkin’s TV drama The West Wing. I recognized him immediately from one of my favorite TV shows of all time, but all of a sudden couldn’t remember his name, . . . or the name of the show, . . . or the writer, . . . or my own name or why I was standing in front of him. After staring at him so long he thought I had taken offense to the “down in front” comment, I finally remembered my name and told him I loved “the show” but couldn’t remember his name. I started to relax when he thrust out his hand and said, “Richard” and we had a pleasant conversation; I was bummed to learn that Aaron Sorkin’s new Studio 60 has been canceled. Then finally, we were in our seats.
The arena was packed with people, camera, and odd lighted cube-shaped decorations in what appeared from my perspective to be randomly placed that seemed to bring the set into the audience. Of course Anderson Cooper and the CNN crew knew exactly why they were positioned where they were. I was very surprised when the stage manager told the crowd he wanted us to appear excited and that we were to feel free to react as we felt appropriate to anything we see or hear. But as we were warned ahead of time, we should use the facilities now, because from 6:30 to 9:00 we wouldn’t be allowed to leave our seats.
The chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party whom I had just met, Carol Fowler introduced herself and the pre-debate show began with an invocation and the presentation of the colors by four dashing cadets from the Citadel. On hand to welcome us to the Citadel were alumni Clay Middleton recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq where he received The Bronze Star Medal and Lt. General John Rosa, now president of the college. Charleston mayor Joseph Riley, also a Citadel alum welcomed us to his city. Congressman James Clyburn, majority whip for the US House of Representatives welcomed us to South Carolina, and in case anyone was dozing off, Howard Dean came out to loudly inform us that any of the candidates tonight would be better than our current president.
One of my favorite lines of the evening was Anderson Cooper introducing the evening by claiming to be terrified because tonight’s program is an experiment and we are all only hoping that the videos show up when and where they are supposed to.
I’ve heard lots of opinions about the debate itself—some good some bad. I did read that more people watched it than any of the previous debates. I thought the format was groundbreaking and brilliant. Anderson did a fine job of keeping the candidates on track, but was a little quicker to do so with the candidates at the edges of the group than those in the middle. The questions were mostly honest and heartfelt and just the sort of thing I might ask if the candidates were in my living room. A few were comical and serious at the same time. Jackie Browles and his sidekick Dunlap asked if the candidates had hurt feelings that so many in the media keep speculating that Al Gore may enter the race. CNN compiled several health care questions into one. The toughest question of the night made my eyes tear up when 36-year-old Kim from NY took her wig off her bald head and said she hopes to be a “future breast cancer survivor” as she asked what the candidates would do to make preventative health care more available.
Regarding the candidates: Mike Gravel was angry, but I’d be angry too if I had spent the same amount of prep time as the other candidates and got less than 6 minutes on camera in each of the previous debates. Chris Dodd had a couple breakout answers and his “white hare” video got a great reaction from the audience. An African American pastor asked John Edwards from the video screen why it is still OK to use religion to answer a question about gays but no longer about civil rights for minorities or interracial marriage, the candidate really seemed to stumble. After Anderson allowed the questioner (who was in the audience) to ask a follow-up, Edwards gave an answer that I, as a centrist, appreciated, but that I don’t think was received very well by his base. Hillary Clinton was refined and on track and actually came off as a unifier more interested in electing a Democrat than in competing with her fellow candidates. When we came back from the second break, Hillary wasn’t on stage for about a minute. Richard Schiff tapped me on the shoulder and made a comment about the potty prohibition apparently applying only to the audience. Obama impressed me with his answers more than he had in previous debates. I’ve never really connected with him on TV, but in person his charisma is undeniable. The candidate on the stage with arguably the best resume, former congressman, ambassador, cabinet secretary, and governor, Bill Richardson looked the least presidential. Around Charleston, I saw more signs for Joe Biden than any other candidate, but as I write this I can’t remember a single remarkable thing about his performance in the debate itself. Dennis Kucinich can be summed up perfectly by his answer to the last question. The viewer asked all candidates to look at the person to their left and say something they like and dislike about him or her. Kucinich looked to his left and engaged in a very funny exchange with Anderson about the impossibility of finding any candidate further left than himself.
The mainstream media seem obsessed after each debate with naming winners and losers. I don’t think it is too corny to say that I believe the winner of Monday’s YouTube debate was the American people. I don’t expect that we will often have a televised debate again that won’t include questions from average Americans. Congratulations to Chad Hurley’s YouTube for making it possible, and to James Kotecki (his screen name is Emergency Cheese) for realizing the Internet’s potential to allow true political dialog between candidates and voters.
My fine city (St. Petersburg) has been chosen as the site for the next YouTube Debate. I hope that it will have as many excellent questions and as many or more viewers because at this early stage in the race, all nineteen candidates deserve to be heard and a format change has been sorely needed for some time.