On The Trail

Behind the Scenes in Baltimore

What you missed if you watched the Democratic debate on TV.

BALTIMORE—Can Fox News broadcast every Democratic presidential debate? Until the awful “Viewers’ Choice” round (which didn’t contain any questions from viewers), the panelists’ questions at tonight’s face-off, which was hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus as well as Fox, were interesting, unusual, and managed to get the candidates off their talking points for at least a portion of their answers. Suffice it to say that Jim Lehrer wasn’t missed.

Some examples: Is it right to appropriate Iraqi oil to pay for a war that America started? (Why didn’t war supporter Dick Gephardt challenge the premise of the question?) When would you support covert operations like the one the United States carried out in the 1970s against Chile? (Al Sharpton’s answer wasn’t clear.) Do you support a constitutional amendment to allow naturalized citizens to run for president? (Bob Graham does.) More typical questions were posed in a challenging, even confrontational manner, such as when Juan Williams asked John Edwards why his proposed regulations for the drug industry wouldn’t hinder pharmaceutical research. (Edwards didn’t have an answer—other than to recite his mantra, “I’ve been doing this my entire life”—it was his worst moment of an otherwise good night.)

Some things you missed if you watched the debate on TV:

1) The elephant in the room—other than Brit Hume, of course—was the question of how the largely African-American audience at Morgan State University would react to Joe Lieberman, who hasn’t always had the best relationship with black leaders. Before the debate began, two African-American Democrats were less than enthusiastic about the Connecticut senator. Maryland congressman Elijah Cummings, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said that Lieberman’s participation in 1960s civil rights marches—one of Lieberman’s favorite topics during events like tonight’s—wasn’t all that relevant 30-odd years after the fact. Young African-Americans like Cummings’ daughter, Cummings said, want to know what candidates are going to do for them now. And Donna Brazile said Lieberman’s positions on the war in Iraq “will not resonate with the African-American community, who have an open distrust of this president.”

2) After the debate’s testy exchange between Lieberman and Howard Dean over Israel policy, in the “spin room” Howard Dean unveils a peace proposal that I hadn’t heard from him before: The president needs to “swallow his pride” and send “the two men who have done more for Israel” over the past 50 years than any other Americans—Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter—to the Middle East to negotiate a peace settlement.

(On the subject of the Dean-Lieberman dynamic, I enjoyed Dean’s appropriation of Lieberman’s patented “deeply saddened” routine: “I’m disappointed in Joe” for attacking me on Israel policy, he said during the debate. “It doesn’t help, Joe, to demagogue this issue.”)

3) George Clooney and some of the cast and crew from HBO’s K Street are on hand. I walk up to a camera-wielding Clooney and ask him if he’s playing press for the day. “I’ve been doing this for a couple days, and it’s a lot of fun,” he tells me. You’re the cameraman for the show? I ask. “Well, I’m one of them, and I’m by far the worst.” So, does that mean you’re going to jump for joy if something you shoot gets in? “Well, I’m the executive producer, so something I shoot has to get in.” (Yes, I included that just to show that I talked to George Clooney. And so I can point out that he’s shorter than me.)

Clooney tells the press it’s great to be living in an America where everyone’s talking about politics again—but even the political press turns out to be far more interested in George Clooney than they are in politics, at least before the debate starts. Clooney draws a press crowd that’s much, much larger than anyone else’s—it rivals the crowds the candidates draw in the spin room after the debate. The quotable Brazile draws a decent crowd of print journalists, but Clooney draws the cameras. James Carville is basically ignored by everyone.

4) In the press filing center during the debate, I sit next to Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, who, surprisingly, competes with Al Sharpton for the funniest lines of the night. When Gephardt trots out his Bush is a “miserable failure” line, Fineman observes, “He’s really set himself up if he loses the Iowa caucuses. The headline?” And when Sharpton wonders why Bush can’t find Osama Bin Laden, when even “Newsweek magazine can find him,” Fineman pretends to be talking on his cell phone and announces to the assorted press in the filing center, “Wanna talk to him? I’ve got him right here.” (Maybe you had to be there.)

In the end, though, it’s Dean who gets the biggest laugh after he uncorks the night’s best line, in response to a question about how he can understand black voters when he hails from the nearly all-white state of Vermont: “If the percentage of minorities in your state has anything to do with how you connect with black voters, then Trent Lott would be Martin Luther King.”