Ben Raybin: Sitting On Stage at the Town Hall Debate
Editor’s note: I didn’t write the following story, and I certainly don’t deserve credit for the fine work in this piece. But I did sweat to bring this story to light. In watching the Nashville debate very late that night, I noticed that our former intern was at the event in the audience. I e-mailed him, again late at night, to beg him to write up a summary. What I got was so much more. And given how busy he was, I might not have had the story if I had waited or didn’t recognize that he was there.
I was worried that this story might not survive the demise of its original Web site. So with that explanation, here is that story. Enjoy!!
Originally published on BuzzFlash.com on Thu, 10/09/2008 – 5:28pm
by Ben Raybin
I had the great privilege of participating in the Presidential Town Hall Debate last Tuesday in Nashville, TN. I was the guy with the moustache and bright green tie who was shown pretty much every time Barack Obama spoke. I am also currently a law student at Vanderbilt University and a former staff writer for BuzzFlash.com.
The following is a recap of my incredible day:
8:45-9:45: Check-in, Breakfast
In their great wisdom, the Debate Commission decided that participants should gather nearly 12 hours before the beginning of the actual event (given the length of the debate itself, the whole experience lasted about 14 hours!). We were instructed to come to the Nashville Women’s Club, which is probably a mile or two away from Belmont University. After checking in, we were given a number on a tag we had to wear right up until the time we went on air, evidently to make it as much like jury duty as possible. My number was 73.
They had previously told me we were overbooked in case people failed to show up, so I came in having no idea whether I would actually get to sit on the stage or even what my chances would be. It was about an hour after arriving that I learned the first 80 numbers — randomly assigned — connoted automatic participation, whereas 81-100 were deemed “alternates.” Needless to say, those folks weren’t too pleased, but at least they got a ticket (unlike Nashville’s Congressman!).
9:45-11:45: Introductory Information
Finally someone went to the podium and started the program. We first heard a briefing from Janet Brown, executive director of the Debate Commission. She mentioned that the debate is one of the few events left that is actually broadcast live without a tape delay. Although each of us had received a Secret Service background check, I wondered why they were so sure there would not be an outburst (or wardrobe malfunction!).
Next up was the editor of the Gallup Poll to tell us how we had all been selected. Basically their computers picked phone numbers at random, and their pollsters called to find out (1) if the person was a registered voter, (2) if they planned to vote, (3) who they planned to vote for, and (4) who they were leaning towards if they were undecided. Gallup tried to control for demographic factors and made sure to get an equal number of attendees who reported leaning towards either candidate. They called both cell phones and landlines. Needless to say, as a University of Chicago graduate with a BA in political science, I found it pretty fascinating.
Then Tom Brokaw showed up. He was funny, kind, and a real pleasure to be around. It’s always nice to find out celebrities are genuinely nice people in real life, and Brokaw didn’t disappoint. After an informative talk, he personally came around to each of us to collect the cards we had filled out before arriving with the question we wanted to ask the candidates. He told us — and I have no reason to think otherwise — that only him and a few of his colleagues would look at the questions and decide what would be asked. Since he didn’t know how the flow of the debate would go or how long answers would take, he couldn’t tell us how many would be chosen. In fact, we literally would not know whether we would be asking a question until he announced our names on live TV.
Last but not least was King Davis, an ex-Secret Service member/special forces operative/Marine/police chief/general badass. King was essentially our lead chaperone, and he ruled with an iron fist. It may sound ridiculous, but he was basically our Boot Camp Drill Sergeant. Whenever we would move from one place to another, we’d have to go in a single file line, standing up in our table groups as one unit. If King felt that the group did not stand up with enough uniformity, he would make everyone sit down and do it again; this happened several times. King explained that, as a member of the Secret Service, you didn’t want to be caught in the bathroom with your pants down when the President wanted to move. Somehow this converted to us having to go to the lunch buffet with military precision.
Another buffet. They have already warned us several times that there will be absolutely no bathroom breaks during the debate, so I began to watch my liquid intake.
12:45-2:15: Travel to Belmont
Finally, it was time to head out. A pair of Secret Service agents wanded us and inspected all of our belongings. I was actually surprised it wasn’t a little more thorough, although I was certainly relieved not to receive a full body-cavity search as I had feared based on the early arrival time.
A pair of charter buses took us to a secure entrance at the university. It was sort of like a school field trip — at least until we got inside and could see the illuminated stage across the floor through the thin black curtain in front of us as we walked down the corridor to our holding room.
2:15-3:15: Go to the Stage
In a procedure that was becoming increasingly familiar, we filed down to the stage in single file order per King’s instructions. Ever since the Kennedy-Nixon debate, campaigns always insist that the area be kept at frigid temperatures to ensure their candidate is not seen sweating. Because all of the lights and audience members inevitably heat things up a little bit, they were keeping things extra cold during the preparation. My fellow Nashvillians and I were not particularly fond of this revelation.
Once we were all seated, they had us individually practice counting to five on the microphone. Next some Belmont students acting as the candidates and Tom Brokaw did a run-through with all of us to get everyone used to how the question and answer system would work. They told us to make up fake questions, and the whole thing was pretty amusing as the students tried to emulate the senators and their quirks. Finally Tom Brokaw himself showed up for more rehearsal. The highlight was at the beginning when, after his introductory speech, said the following as his first “question” to the “candidates”: “We all know the world has changed significantly since our last debate . . . for the better! We will therefore be foregoing our debate and instead engage in a cooperative camp sing-along.” As I said earlier, Brokaw was truly great to be around.
4:15-6:30: Break and Dinner
After returning to the holding room, we basically sat around for the next three hours. The dinner buffet was pretty nice, but we mainly occupied ourselves by standing out on the balcony overlooking the main entrance as VIPs began to enter and supporters began to congregate near the police line and TV crews. They also had some TVs inside our room, on mute, often showing live footage of the empty stage just in front of us and the growing crowd just behind us.
I felt alright about the slowly pending excitement, but several folks seemed to be getting pretty nervous. King lightened the mood by telling us some truly interesting stories from his days with the presidents while in the Secret Service (I would share a few, but understand he is writing a book and don’t want to spoil his material).
6:30-7:30: Go to the Stage and Wait
Our last time marching in order, and this time we were doing it for real. Soon we were back in our seats and facing a full house and an onslaught of cameras. Although the official program had not started, we were warned that anything on stage was fair game and that we should refrain from nose picking and other such activities. I noticed Al Gore and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson in the crowd, which made me a little more nervous until I remembered they were pretty insignificant compared to the tens of millions who would be watching us live from around the world.
During the half-hour before the debate, the organizers did a brief program for C-SPAN that basically involved various officials talking about how great the debates and Belmont are. When Al and Tipper Gore were greeted, Fred Thompson was the only person I saw in the whole place who decided not to give him a standing ovation. Go figure.
8:00-9:30: The Debate!
Tom Brokaw read his introduction, and, after nearly 12 hours, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, nominees for President of the United States, walked out right in front of me. “Oh man!” I thought, perhaps out loud. It was pretty surreal to see possibly the two most important people in the world within spitting distance. At the same time, with all the lights and elaborate set design, it almost didn’t seem that different from seeing them in the first debate, except this time with an uber-super-duper-high-definition television set. Still, it was pretty cool.
Despite the hyped Town Hall format, I don’t remember hearing anything substantive from either candidate that we haven’t heard over and over again during the course of the campaign. They just walked around a little more than usual (especially McCain!).
I was, of course, always aware that any of the cameras could potentially be broadcasting me to the world at any given moment. A red light appears on the active camera, but you can’t really tell what it is focused on or when it will change to another one. Given the amount that Sen. Obama walked in front of me and the number of times the camera across facing me lit up, I could tell I was probably on TV a fair amount. At one point, I gave my moustache a quick stroke as a shout-out to friends and family.
There is one observation I’d like to share that may not have been obvious to those of you who watched on TV: Obama went way over his time limit on nearly every question, whereas McCain generally stuck to the limits. They had a red/yellow/green stoplight timer system, and no one was more attuned to how long they were taking than those of us hoping to get a chance to ask a question. Brokaw was noticeably agitated and tried to control the pace, but there were several times that he gestured for Obama to stop and Obama turned his back, as if trying to not notice. Now, many people I talked to felt that Obama needed more time to respond to a constant onslaught of baseless assertions from McCain, but from a selfish perspective I kind of wish that Obama had been a little more concise. The observation that McCain seemed to wander around the stage during Obama’s answers seemed a little less strange from my seat, as it appeared McCain just wanted his turn to speak and hoped his pacing might accomplish something.
Despite the carefully detailed schedule given to us throughout the day, it was clear that there was no real plan for what would happen after the debate. King told us that the Secret Service was very uncomfortable with the candidates mingling with the participants on stage, but that it was ultimately up to the candidates themselves whether they would stick around or not.
John McCain shook a few hands and bolted after about six minutes.
Barack Obama shook every single one of our hands and chatted, coming up to each riser individually (there was a great shot of me on TV shaking hands with him just after the debate ended). After he had gone around, we slowly started to amass around him as he agreed to sign autographs, take pictures with us, and answer a few more questions. He genuinely, honestly seemed happy to be there and meet with us. And we were happy to be there with him, including participants who were leaning towards McCain. The biggest testament to Obama’s generosity was his insistence on waiting for the alternates to be brought up on stage so that they could get some consolation for not getting a luckier number. After a while, his Secret Service detail began literally trying to pull him away to head to the next event, but he continued to stay with us. Finally, he apologized, took a group picture for those who hadn’t gotten an individual shot, and turned to leave. Having been at the very back and probably out of that picture, I pulled out my ace-in-the-hole: “One more for a University of Chicago grad?” His response: “You know just how to get me, huh?” He took one last picture with me, and left after having spent nearly half an hour with us.
It was another 30 minutes or so before we got back in our holding room, boarded the bus, and went back to our cars to leave and complete the 14-hour ordeal. Talking to other participants, most of whom were still very undecided, I gathered that the overall consensus was that nobody was particularly impressed with the debate, but that many folks thought very highly of Obama for staying and very poorly of McCain for leaving so soon. With the cameras rolling and a group of undecided voters in front of you — many of whom will clearly be talking to the media about their reaction — how could anyone even think about not spending a little extra time shaking hands, especially if your opponent does so? I personally felt the move showed a lack in political aptitude on McCain’s part as well as a general disconnect with us Joe Six Packs. Talk about being out of touch!
Even though I didn’t get to actually ask a question, the debate was an absolutely amazing experience. Plus, I got some incredible TV exposure. I have gotten more than 100 e-mails and phone calls since Tuesday from family and friends, including some of whom I had not heard from in several years. Apparently my seat was prime real estate, and my mustache and green tie didn’t hurt either! My friends sent me links to several blogs on the Internet, including one from a Washington Post writer, which talked about me; one even got hold of my name! I continue to see myself on replays, and I also gave interviews to The Tennessean and one of the local Nashville TV stations. I suppose I ended up getting a speaking role after all.
Ben Raybin is currently a law student at Vanderbilt University and a former staff writer for BuzzFlash.com.