Opening Moves

The morning after Al Gore and Bill Bradley’s first joint appearance in the presidential campaign, at a “town meeting” at Dartmouth College, the New England edition of The New York Times ran a picture on the front page of Gore responding to a questioner, his arms extended in a gesture of empathy and entreaty, while in the background a slightly out-of-focus Bradley looks on warily. The front page of the Rutland [Vermont] Herald had Gore in a Kennedyesque pose—forefinger jabbing, chin jutting—while behind him a slightly out-of-focus Bradley looks on a little incredulously. On the front page of the Hanover paper, the Valley News, Gore is standing and speaking animatedly while Bradley sits, glaring at Gore, arms folded, cheeks puffed out in an expression of exasperation.

The “town meeting” was, of course, really a television program. Audience members, chosen by lottery, were required to submit questions to the event’s sponsors—CNN and WMUR-TV, a New Hampshire station—who selected the questioners and the order in which they would address the candidates. Reporters and people not screened by CNN were not permitted in the hall. There was not a lot of contingency built into the format.

The result was a simulacrum of a call-in television show, in which “ordinary citizens” raised issues the producers considered suitable, and which were then presented in a carefully balanced pattern. There were two questions—one for each candidate—about campaign finance reform, two questions about the environment, two about gay rights (both posed by women), three about foreign policy, four about health care, four about education, and (a boon to Bradley) eight questions about “leadership.” The screening of the audience was not, as it turned out, quite foolproof. Gore’s first questioner, an older man who asked whether public cynicism about politics had been increased by the scandals surrounding the Clinton administration, was accused, several days later, of being a field organizer for the Bradley campaign.

Some columnists complained afterward about the me-centeredness of the questions (“Vice President Gore, my child has diabetes,” and so on), but the audience was not to blame for that. Before the meeting went on the air, Gore and Bradley (at Gore’s instigation) took a couple of warm-up questions from people in the hall whose questions had been rejected; one of these concerned American relations with Cuba. Later Gore met with members of the audience who wanted to stick around after the meeting was over, and he got questions about Russia, Rwanda, and his administration’s foreign policy (or, as the questioner suggested, its lack of one). The human interest topics that got on the air were just the ones the news organizations running the event judged televisually appropriate. One of the questions to Gore, for example, was about Alzheimer’s disease; the response was accompanied by shots of elderly people in the audience listening raptly. These faces had obviously been picked out to illustrate the exchange before the show.

The stories accompanying the photographs …

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