The boys in the bubble

Security, media and scripted stops leave the candidates little room for any

real spontaneity.

Postcard: Campaign 2000

March 12, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff

More than anything else, it resembles a movie being made. A lot of people run around talking into walkie-talkies, listening to the little headsets plugged into their ears. They get the extras in place. They position the supporting cast.

Now, here comes the leading man, who's got his lines down pat.

You look around for the director to shout, "Action!"

Such is life inside the bubble that is the modern presidential campaign. During Maryland's just-concluded primary season, just two candidates -- Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley -- made appearances here. But their two short visits each were enough to see the political bubble in all its multilayered glory.

One layer of the bubble, of course, is security. As vice president, Gore has been inside that bubble for years. When he moves, a small army of Secret Service moves with him -- inspecting and clearing the path in front of him, essentially surrounding him at every turn.

When Bradley first came to the state for a visit to the University of Maryland, College Park in early February, he'd not yet received the Secret Service protection that candidates for the presidential nominations began receiving after Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. Bradley would have it around him by the time he returned a month later.

Another layer of the bubble is the need for control. Bradley's visit to College Park, for instance, was a typically stage-managed affair. First the Maryland students picked to be onstage were put in place, followed by the candidate's B-list supporters. The A-list backers walked in ahead of Bradley, who gave his stump speech to about 300 curious students.

The speech starts with a joke about two guys in a diner who want more than a Danish and a couple of eggs from a surly waitress. They want a kind word. She finally gives it to them after putting their food in front of them: "I wouldn't eat them eggs."

Things were not much different in mid-February when Gore brought his traveling production to Morgan State University: students onstage, then local politicians, then, finally, the star of the show.

Gore's talk highlighted his plans for dealing with "the digital divide" that threatens to leave some of the country out of the technological revolution. That he was failing to connect with the Morgan students, whose curiosity about Gore was clearly not focused on this particular issue, mattered little. As at any stop, they were merely the studio audience for that day's television show.

Things were even more scripted a few weeks later, when Gore celebrated Dr. Seuss' birthday by reading "Green Eggs and Ham" to elementary school students -- and a gaggle of television cameras and boom microphones -- in Prince George's County. The children were in place, waiting quietly. The candidate arrived, exchanged pleasantries, read his lines, and left, headed to the next event in the school's aptly named media center.

A month after his first visit, Bradley returned -- this time with the Secret Service joining his handlers -- for a visit to the Inner Harbor. Lines of supporters, carefully formed outside the ESPN Zone restaurant, were joined by curious passers-by interested in seeing a celebrity. Inside, bomb-sniffing dogs checked out the place.

On this day, the third layer of the bubble around candidates -- the media -- was omnipresent: cameras trained on his every move, long boom microphones picking up his every word. Inside the media bubble, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is in full flower: these observers certainly affect what is observed. Amid such scrutiny, it is virtually impossible for anyone to interact with the candidate in a natural, spontaneous way.

The choreography for Bradley's appearance was announced to the waiting press -- Bradley would go here, do this, then go there, do that, then finally, go over there. At 2 p.m., a half-hour late, distant sirens announced the arrival of the Bradley motorcade.

First the press that travels with the candidate appeared, sprinting with ladders and cameras and microphones to get in place. Then Bradley emerged -- at 6-foot-5 easily spotted -- and walked down the line of supporters, shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries.

Making his way inside, he stopped at every table on ESPN Zone's lower level, his every move being photographed, his every word recorded. The crush of press eventually got to the ESPN Zone staff. Bouncers were dispatched to ensure that aisles were clear for waiters, and the press -- dutifully watching Bradley being interviewed on ESPN radio -- was ordered away from a table reserved "for our paying customers," though none was ever seated there.

The Bradley people were more accommodating. Back outside, there was a small press conference for local media. This was, of course, the real point of the visit -- not to talk to people at the Inner Harbor, but to get Bradley's name and face and voice in the local media two days before Maryland voted.

There seemed to be at least a chance for true spontaneity when Bradley left the Inner Harbor and traveled to his state headquarters in Bethesda. Among hundreds of people who turned out for a rally on Wisconsin Avenue were many of his old friends, people who had known him during his years in the Senate and who had supported his presidential bid from the beginning. The outpouring of affection was strong and genuine.

Though he must have known that there were only 48 hours left in his campaign, Bradley still could not get outside the bubble.

He could muster up nothing more than his stump speech, already heard hundreds of times by many in the crowd, especially those with Traveling Media tags dangling around their necks.

"I wouldn't," he advised yet again, "eat them eggs."

Pub Date: 03/12/00

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