Monday, September 15, 2003

A Mixed-up, Tumbled-up, Shook-up World

"K Street" Premieres

photo of George Clooney © 2003 Adele M. Stan

It’s hard to imagine what a normal person--someone not caught up in the minutiae of national politics--would have made of last night’s premiere of HBO’s “K Street”. Truth be told, as an abnormal person--one obsessed with the minutiae of national politics--I’m not so sure what to make of it myself.

Oh, I was riveted all right--even when the relentless jerkiness of the hand-held camera (using only available light, of course) made me queasy. And I would have been almost as captivated had I not attended the event that landed at the center of “K Street”, Episode One: last week’s Democratic presidential debate in Baltimore (co-sponsored, in good old odd-bedfellow fashion, by Fox NewsChannel and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute).

Paging Ionesco

Even without a sideshow of the scale wrought by the “K Street” crew, major events in presidential campaigns generally possess a sort of surreal, circus-like quality when you get to see them up close.

This one came packaged with a built-in component extraodinaire simply by the fact of it being the first presidential debate ever to bear the imprimatur of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), hence, the first nationally televised debate at which the candidates--a collection of, with the exception of two, middle-aged white guys--were made to address the one topic we never discuss before mixed-race audiences in America: race. And this they were to do before a television audience whose viewership comprises primarily young, white, conservative men. All this before it got really strange.

The debate itself was quite good on both substance and entertainment value. The Reverend Al Sharpton, who cut his teeth in New York’s political street theater, clearly won the night, especially when he warned the Democratic Party not to forget the most faithful portion of its base: African-American voters.

“I think we need to take the Democratic Party home to our daddies and discuss marriage or a break-up...,” Sharpton declared. “You know, the only thing I never got over in life is, I took a young lady to a dance when I was in high school, and she left with somebody else. And that’s what the Democrats--some--have done to the black community. We helped take you to the dance, and you leave with right-wingers, you leave with people that you say are swing voters, you leave with people that are antithetical to our history and antithetical to our interests.”

Sharpton also scored points in his sudden, unexpected turn as pater familius: when the LaRouchies began their heckling, he chided them for trying to wreck an historic moment for the black community. And as they continued, he stayed on his message, steady, stern and authoritative.

In fact, the LaRouche moments may have been among the debate’s most telling. Each heckled candidate responded differently. Senator Bob Graham (Florida) just stopped mid-sentence and appeared to have been paused in mid-gesture by remote as he stared down a heckler. After Sharpton issued his condemnation and the heckler was removed, Graham just picked up exactly where he left off.

Senator Joseph Lieberman (Conn.) bore the greatest brunt of the LaRouchies’ anti-Semitic rage, but he bore it badly, rolling his eyes, shaking his head, and gesturing in sanctimonious fashion.

When they went after Senator John Kerry (Mass.), the tanned patrician suddenly became the caricaturist’s version of himself, flashing a forced, toothy grin of pearlies that were blindingly white.

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean came through somehow unscathed by Lyndon’s legions (they never interrupted him), and won the prize for best one-liner of the night.

When asked by Ed Gordon of Savoy magazine whether the racial make-up of Vermont (nearly all white) has a negative impact on his ability to understand the concerns of minorities, Dean replied, “Well, if the percent of minorities that’s in your state has anything to do with how you can connect with African-American voters, then Trent Lott would be Martin Luther King.”

Which brings us back to “K Street”.

Dog bites dog

The premise of “K Street”, if I understand this correctly, is to follow the drama that takes place within a fictional lobbying firm at which fictional versions of political consultants and mutual spouses James Carville and Mary Matalin (played by their non-fictional selves) are mutually employed.

In Episode One, Mary and James are instructed by an unseen big boss, a la John Forsythe in “Charlie’s Angels”, to hire a mysterious fellow named Francisco, who is not, to my knowledge, played by an actor named Francisco. He seems to be the hook, the thing that will have you coming back next week. At that, he's pretty effective.

Meanwhile, Mary and James are on the outs because, to the detriment of their bipartisan, equal-opportunity, greasy-palm employer, James has signed on to prepare Howard Dean for the Fox News/CBC debate. This he did without consulting his other half.

We get to see a fictional associate of Mary’s working to smooth over the news of this development with a couple of high-profile, real-life Republican senators: Don Nickles (Okla.) and Rick Santorum (Penn.) of “man on dog” fame. (If this reference is obscure to you, I invite you to do a Google search of the words--together--“Santorum” and “man on dog”.)

But that’s not all in this Alice-in-Wonderland universe. We also get to see Carville and Paul Begala prepping Dean for the debate. The scene opens with Dean mocking, in a loose approximation of a Southern accent, the admonitions of a (fictional?) right-wing preacher about the dangers of Vermont, the land of the civil union.

Next we see him at a podium before an empty meeting room in the St. Regis, responding to questions put to him by Carville and Begala.

He’s grappling with the question about the racial make-up of Vermont. Then Carville pipes up with something like: “If the Vermont question comes up, how ‘bout you say, ‘If the number of minorities in your state has anything to do with how well you connect with African-American voters, then Trent Lott would be Martin Luther King.’”

Chicken or egg

The scene shifts to debate night, with one camera following Mary and company watching in her living room, while James and his fictional sidekick, Tommy Flanagan (played by John Slattery), watch the real debate--as it’s actually taking place in real life--from the media overflow room at the Carl Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

I happened to be in the overflow room that night, when Carville and Slattery made their entrance. While the debate took place in the main auditorium, and deadline-pressed printies and Webbies toiled at laptops parked on rows of tables in a windowless room, those of us on more leisurely timelines got to watch the thing on television in the lecture hall that would serve as the spin room immediately following the debate.

First George Clooney, who co-produces “K Street” with Steven Soderbergh, entered with his hand-held video camera, stationing himself at the row in which Carville and Slattery would sit. He shot them as they entered, then zeroed in on them as they reacted to the debate.

So, as you watch “K Street”, you see them laugh with delight as Dean delivers his “Trent Lott” line. Now I don’t know whether Carville fed Dean the line, or Joe Trippi (Dean’s winning campaign manager), or if the good doctor thought it up himself. I do suspect, however, that the St. Regis scene was shot after the debate.

(In the scenes “K Street” used from the debate, we never see Sharpton, whose night it truly was. And Fox’s Brit Hume, who did quite a good job in his thankless role as moderator, doesn’t really show up, either. In fairness, however, we don’t see much of the other candidates, either, except for Lieberman.)

Will the real James Carville please stand up?

At an event such as this, the spin room is really where the fun begins. The sport of pack reporting--the physical aggression, the competition for the candidates’ attention to your question, the proximity to figures far more luminous than yourself--it’s all pretty sexy, to be honest. (Shhh!)

I was there to do my usual schtick--ask a few off-the-beaten-track sort of
questions whose answers would be filed away for later, most likely for use in a long-form piece somewhere down the road. Questions that other reporters find annoying, because their answers eat up valuable spin time, and are pretty worthless to their stories.

The spin line was positioned on the back wall of the stage in the lecture hall. While the reporters awaited the candidates, the stage filled up with milling journalists and consultants and hangers-on.

Clooney was walking around with his video camera glued to his eye. I took a picture of him.

I wanted to get a word with him, but before I could, Howard Kurtz of the
Washington Post had nailed him.

I kept moving, trying to adjust my jacket in the most decorous way possible as I walked. Having just moved to a new apartment, I had no idea where most of my clothes were, so consequently wound up at this event with my jacket thrown over a tank top. Every now and then, I'd look down to find my decollatage saying, "Hello, world!"

While walking, adjusting and staring into my cleavage, I nearly walked into Carville, who had just secured himself a beer from the party that had begun in the lobby. He was dressed all natty in his television clothes--a beautifully tailored forest-green suit with a dark-blue shirt.

Blissfully unaware that I was talking to the fictional James Carville, I asked him to explain how, with all of the issues that George Bush has given these Democrats--the war, the economy, job losses, so-called homeland security, the Bill of Rights (and they’re talking about all of them)--do you boil the mess down into a coherent message?

“That’s a good question,” he said. “I would say that this whole administration’s domestic policy has been about the’s not all of the people, stupid. And when you
talk about foreign policy, I’d say there’s virtue in being a good neighbor. And we
all know that we’ve not been a good neighbor and, y’know, now that our house is
on fire, people are not runnin’ to help us.

“And, I mean," he continued, "I would just speak more metaphorically and more to people in
ways that they can understand, you know? You’re right, we have a lot of fire
going out there--a lot of it justified and good--but I think we’ve gotta learn, and I
think we will as we get closer, further down the process, how to narrow that fire
and hit it hard.”

3.2 seconds of fame

So, last night, I'm watching "K Street", thinking, how good is it for Howard Dean to be looking this good at doing something fake? Lots of exposure, yes. Acknowledgement of his status, yes.
But authenticity--isn't that the watchword of the day? At one point in the debate prep segment, Carville and Begala are even telling him how and when to employ his anger--his heretofore everyman asset.

The scene shifts from the debate prep to the spin room. The fictional Carville and his fictional sidekick have just finished laughing at the line they're playing like they wrote for Dean. (Trippi--are you really okay with this?)

Then Clooney's camera takes us to the spin room floor. It's wandering toward the Dean spot on the back wall. Wait--that's me! Hey, Ma!

The camera swings back for another quick look before settling on Dean. (Could it be the cleavage?)

Guess it's a pretty good show, after all.

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