Spin Room

A dizzying evening in the spin room

I covered the debate for NHPR and later filed this freelance story for NPR’s On the Media.

HOST BROOKE GLADSTONE: After Thursday’s debate wrapped up, the weary candidates exited stage right and went, not home to bed, but on to the Spin Room. There, the reporters ask the questions that didn’t get asked in the debate, and the candidates reiterated their messages.

New Hampshire Public Radio’s Raquel Maria Dillon sent us this postcard from backstage after a debate last month in Durham, New Hampshire.

Listen to MP3: Spin Room (full transcript after jump)

[CROWD AMBIENCE UP & UNDER]

RAQUEL MARIA DILLON: It’s stuffy and close – so crowded you can’t even move sometimes. There are pushy cameramen, swinging boom mikes and wayward cables to trip over.

RAQUEL: ‘Scuse me. ‘Scuse me.

MAN: Sorry.

RAQUEL: Oh– I’m caught on you. I’m caught on you — Sorry. Thank you. ‘Scuse me.

RAQUEL MARIA DILLON: The candidates stroll in, still wearing their TV makeup. Some of them look like they’ve just got up from their tanning beds. John Kerry pops in for a couple quick television interviews and takes off. Kerry’s New Hampshire deputy campaign director Judy Reardon says her candidate doesn’t usually work the spin room. It’s his strategy to let his debate performance speak for itself. But she wouldn’t miss the chance to spin.

JUDY REARDON: It’s fun. I don’t know if it does any good, but it’s fun. It’s a chance for everybody to see each other after a debate. There’s a lot of tension building up before a debate, and you’re tense while you’re watching it, and then you come to this room — all the campaigns are here, and all the press are here, and so it’s sort of a little fun circus atmosphere.

WOMAN: Hi, Judy!

RAQUEL MARIA DILLON: Across the room, reporters mob Howard Dean as soon as he sets foot in the spin room.

‘Scuse me. ‘Scuse me.

But I can’t even get near him. I can’t get past this wall of backs. I consider crawling on my hands and knees through the forest of legs, but first I ask for some advice from Scott McKay, veteran political reporter for the Providence Journal.

SCOTT McKAY: Probably would help if you were a linebacker maybe in college and you were a big guy – you know, you notice the network tech guys have sharp elbows — that really helps. Some time in the weight room. What it takes is a good shoving technique.

RAQUEL MARIA DILLON: We reporters are pushing – literally – for insightful comments or new information that shed light on the debate, but McKay says that’s not likely.

SCOTT McKAY: Obviously there’s so many people here that you don’t get anything original, and it’s pretty scripted. It’s untidy. It’s like the rest of the democratic process. It’s American democracy – it’s a sprawling, kind of crazy thing, and this is the way we do it. I’m not sure it’s the right way, but it’s the way we do it.

[CROWD AMBIENCE]

DAVID SWANSON: My name’s David Swanson. I’m the campaign press secretary for Dennis Kucinich for President.

RAQUEL MARIA DILLON: Swanson has one of the toughest jobs in the room — getting the national political reporters to pay attention to his underdog candidate.

DAVID SWANSON: The Congressman did such a tremendous job in the debate and, and really led the discussion and drew the strongest contrast and did the best job of focusing the debate on important issues.

RAQUEL MARIA DILLON: Everyone says that about their candidate, according to New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Kathy Sullivan.

KATHY SULLIVAN: Basically everybody in here is trying to tell you what they think happened at the debate or what they wish happened at the debate, or sort of like the Platonic vision of the debate as seen through the, you know, shadows on the cave, [LAUGHTER] so– it really – this doesn’t have a lot of bearing on reality.

RAQUEL: I guess that’s why they call it the spin room. It’s pretty hot in here, isn’t it?

KATHY SULLIVAN: Oh, it’s really hot. Oh, man, it’s hot. [LAUGHS]

RAQUEL MARIA DILLON: By this time, we’re all melting in our winter sweaters. Meanwhile, John Edwards’ New Hampshire press secretary, Colin Van Ostern, is trying to lure reporters out into the cold to a nearby bar where his candidate is giving an impromptu stump speech.

COLIN VAN OSTERN: You know rather than have him in here in a room talking to a lot of people that might as well be in Washington right now, he’s out there talking to real New Hampshire voters. Hey guys — Guys? You got a minute? John Edwards is holding a town hall meeting at the bar across the street right now if you want to hear real questions from real voters – 30 feet away.

TUCKER CARLSON: Free beer?

COLIN VAN OSTERN: I will buy you a beer, Tucker.

TUCKER CARLSON: Yes.

COLIN VAN OSTERN: Right now.

TUCKER CARLSON: Where, where, where?

COLIN VAN OSTERN: Sam’s.

RAQUEL MARIA DILLON: But I’m staying here in the spin room, schmoozing with a fellow public radio reporter, Sean Carbury from WBUR. He understands my pain.

SEAN CARBURY: It’s– It is tough. I mean– we’re lower down the food chain. I mean the TV cameras get the first attention, especially ones with network logos and all that. Just hang out, cause eventually the big fish drop away, and you’re standing there with the candidate and have your chance to grab him. It’s a war of attrition, ultimately. But it’s, it’s organized chaos. I mean it is herding cats, ultimately. It’s a dog fight. It’s also fun.

RAQUEL MARIA DILLON: Except that now I have to find my coat, warm up my car — cause it’s 14 degrees plus wind chill outside — drive an hour back to the station, and write my story. This is the glamor of political reporting.

For On the Media, I’m Raquel Maria Dillon in Concord, New Hampshire.