Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Campaign events are so thoroughly staged, and the press plays along

Is Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary R. Clinton really some sort of lush who’s pounding down shots of whiskey and beer in an attempt to bond with the “little guy” during her campaign?

It’s probably no more legitimate than the claims that opponent Barack Obama is some sort of “elitist” who does not like small-town America and would probably order a wine cooler if he ever deigned to enter a working-class tavern.

YET THAT IS the level to which the accusations in the Democratic presidential primary have sunk to – I wish I were making all of this up.

The political half-wits who think they’re giving us intelligent analysis want to reduce this campaign to that between an Ivy Leaguer elitist (who probably drinks white wine) against the tough ol’ broad who’s pounding down the shot and a beer during her appearance at a tavern in Crown Point, Ind.

The tavern in question serves pizza, and Clinton during her appearance had a slice (pepperoni, with crushed peppers and jalapeños), washing it down with a shot of Crown Royal whiskey and a mug filled with Old Style-brand beer.

This is the image that Hillary wants us to take from her tavern campaign appearance in Crown Point, Ind. A truthful image would have been that of a campaign aide shoo-ing away unsightly people who got too close to Clinton. Photograph provided by Hillary Clinton for President.

Now I wasn’t present at Bronko’s tavern on Saturday when Clinton stopped off following a campaign appearance in nearby Valparaiso. But from having worked as a reporter and covered similar stunts, I can picture what the scene was like.

A SECURITY TEAM had already checked out the tavern to ensure that no would-be terrorist was hiding in the men’s room on the off chance that a presidential dreamer would stop by.

Once being assured they could keep Clinton safe inside the tavern, then a select group of people was chosen. They got to play the roles of tavern goers whom Clinton would engage with for a few minutes of discussion.

They would get to be in her presence and would probably be acknowledged by her while she took a bite of pizza or got liquored up on her shot and a beer.

Does it read like I’m implying there’s a touch of phoniness to all of this? Well, I am, because there is.

KEEP IN MIND there’s one other element involved in staging such a campaign event – the press pool. A select group of reporter-types and their cameras (both video and still) were allowed into the event, and were penned into a cramped area off to the side. One might get the impression that their presence was not desired.

Actually, their presence was the only purpose for bothering to put together such a trivial event. Camp Clinton wanted the cameras there to record her candid moment when she deigned herself capable of mixing with the little people herself, and actually sharing a personal moment with them.

I have often heard people who attend campaign events complain about “the damn media” blocking their view with the television cameras. But that is how the campaigns want it – they need those pictures being published and broadcast, and they count on the television camera blockage to keep unsightly people out of the picture.

Trust me when I say the crowd of people who got to be in the pictures with Hillary were carefully chosen. One of them was the mayor of Crown Point, the Indiana town where the tavern was located.

DAVID URAN (THE mayor) picked out the others, and he made sure that all of the people were either Clinton supporters or people who would have trouble being Barack backers.

So we got a staged event where Hillary got to act as though she were mingling with the public, only the public played along and idolized her. It’s all so phony that I just can’t take any of it seriously, particularly not a charge that she’s getting liquored up.

That sounds like a phony charge from an Obama backer who wants to divert attention from all the “e” word accusations he’s been getting in recent days. What we ought to be focusing on is the fact that the event meant to show Hillary as a “common folk” type is what is phony.

Nonetheless, I have to admit that the people who participated in the staged event will probably treasure the memory for the rest of their lives. I know of a restaurant in downtown Homewood, Ill., where back in 1989, then-President George Bush (the elder) stopped off and ate lunch following an appearance at the local high school.

HE HAPPENED TO have then-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger with him, so the two of them sat at the counter and played the part of “eating lunch” before catching a flight that took them back to Washington.

To this day, that restaurant (Three Brothers, on Dixie Highway) has plaques on both of the stools where Bush and Schwarzenegger sat, and the restaurant’s owner will gladly show you the photographs she took that day – even if you don’t particularly want to see them.

I guess Bronko’s will similarly treasure their brush with a national political campaign. Owner Nick Tarailo told the Munster, Ind.-based Times of Northwest Indiana newspaper that Clinton’s brief visit did more for his business than the roughly two-week long visit of actor Johnny Depp to Crown Point, where he was playing the part of John Dillinger, breaking out of the old Lake County Jail for a film that will be released later this year.

I sometimes think the late newspaper columnist Mike Royko had the right attitude about such staged campaign stunts. He once wrote a column about turning down a chance to be one of the “common folk” that Bush the elder would have talked to during a similar staged stunt at the Billy Goat Tavern in downtown Chicago – on the grounds that the televised trial of Kennedy cousin William Smith he was watching was more interesting than anything Bush would have said to him.

I DOUBT ANY “real” news was made in what Clinton had to say, or in what was asked of her by the pre-chosen “common folk.” Perhaps reporter types are being negligent in their duties by even covering such events. After all, we talk of not wanting to stage the news – but then we play along and pretend that this staged event was real.

Then some of us reporter-types further play along and pretend there was anything significant about Hillary downing a shot and a beer with pizza. That’s ridiculous.

In reality, there’s only one “real” issue that should arise from her campaign appearance. I am “shocked and appalled” to learn that a potential president would actually have so little sense as to drink an Old Style beer. Only Cubs fans drink that stuff.

We all ought to vote for Barack (a White Sox fan, for what it’s worth) just because she didn’t know any better and let herself get served that swill.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Here is a more thorough account of Clinton’s campaign appearance ( at an Indiana tavern. Considering that she also appeared in nearby Valparaiso that same day, and Obama campaigned at an inner city high school in Gary just the day before, the candidates devoted more attention to the Indiana portion of the Chicago area in that two-day span than they did to all of Chicago during the Illinois primary.

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