The first thing you notice is all the news vans and then all the cops. After getting on Interstate 77 in Parkersburg, West Virginia, it’s a straight shot all the way to downtown Cleveland. And when you get off the highway, what I still call Jacob’s Field and then The Q are right there in front of you, with Cleveland’s Terminal Tower looming off to the left. Parked outside of The Q were dozens of news vans; standing outside, everywhere you look: hundreds of cops.
I skipped the $35 event parking at The Q for the first 2016 Republican Presidential Primary debate, and drove two blocks over to Tower City to park for $10. Media were told to enter through the south entrance, so as I walked over I found my laminated Athens NEWS credential to flash to all the police patrolling the event. This credential, which looks very official with a bar code I grabbed from the Internet, got me past a dozen Ohio State Highway Patrolmen. I checked in and received an official debate credential. I laid my bag down and some detection K9s verified I hadn’t stowed any explosives.
After making it the rest of the way through security, laying my laptop out to be examined, and successfully walking through the metal detector without the dreaded alert, I found myself in a nearly-empty 100-level section of The Q, unsure what to do next, unsure what to even cover about this thing, surrounded by another couple dozen cops.
I started off in one direction. I was stopped.
“Are you looking for Spin Alley?” an officer asked me.
“I suppose so.”
“Through those doors and down two floors,” she instructed.
Spin Alley. This is a reference to the area behind the stage where the candidates or their surrogates come after the debate to “spin” their performances, meeting with the press and striving to put what happened on stage in the best light.
The 5 p.m. debate was just starting as I grabbed a water bottle from a cooler and walked past the buffet for press into Spin Alley. There were no seats left and no outlets unused, as over 400 members of the national media stared intently into their laptops at about 20 long tables set up behind the stage, under the rafters of The Q. Television screens and projectors were set up in every direction like at a Buffalo Wild Wings, showing what was happening on stage, 40 feet away, on the other side of a massive black curtain. I had traveled to Cleveland to watch the debate on television.
I couldn’t find an open chair so I stood in a corner and opened my laptop, balancing it on a railing and checking for Wi-Fi. The Q’s Wi-Fi wouldn’t connect at first, and then when it did, it ran so slowly it felt hopeless. I shut my laptop and took out my phone. The event would have to be Tweeted.
But what was I to cover? Thousands of media outlets the world over were covering The Debate. Their coverage would be all about the testy exchanges, the applause lines, who said what, how it went over, quick reacts, who “won,” who “lost,” who “gained ground,” who “lost ground.” I’m a news geek from Athens, Ohio, what can I offer?
The first debate was underway and I began to snap pictures of Spin Alley. “The Cream of the National press is here w/ me watching the debate on TeeVee,” I Tweeted with a picture of my fellow geeks, hard at work. I listened to the candidates, and poked a little fun.
I decided to share some pictures of the buffet tables set up for the press: a fajita bar, and classic salads. “This is how the people who cover the 1 percent live,” I Tweeted.
Commercials don’t play in Spin Alley, so the silence during commercial breaks gets awkward, hundreds of fingers slamming into keyboards and little else. When some custodians had a laugh in the hallway beyond, half the press turned to check out the commotion.
When Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal slammed the “far-left, mainstream media,” the hundreds of mainstream media sitting in Spin Alley didn’t bat an eye, which made me chuckle. After the first debate, we all flooded over into the official spin alley, the candidates standing under placards “spinning” their performance. I snapped pictures of each media scrum, comparing the crowds. Jindal attracted a large scrum, while former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore stood virtually alone. Failed U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina attracted a scrum that rivaled Jindal’s, but when former Sen. Rick Santorum came out, Jindal’s scrum leaked over to him. Santorum is surprisingly tall, I noticed, while Lindsey Graham is incredibly short.
The undercard was over, and the national press ate fajitas and classic salads while waiting for the main event two hours later. I saw Esquire’s Charlie Pierce wearing a bright Hawaiian shirt and sitting at the end of a table. Pierce is one of the funniest, most intelligent and incisive writers I’ve ever read. I took the opportunity to introduce myself. Later, talking to a stand-up comedian friend of mine, I compared the moment, in his world, to getting to meet Louis C.K.
The Main Event
Just as the main event was getting started a fake wall in Spin Alley nearly fell over onto the press. It had no support structure. Omens.
The show began, and a show it was. Circus metaphors had been employed consistently by friends, family, fellow press, and total strangers in the lead-up to this event. They continued as it went on.
When Donald Trump raised his hand admitting he wouldn’t rule out a third-party run, and the boo birds in The Q voiced their displeasure, the press in Spin Alley laughed. The press would laugh a lot throughout this event. Trump’s Rosie O’Donnell line came shortly thereafter, and the press laughed at that too, in disbelief.
I finally found a chair, and an outlet to recharge my phone, as I continued to Tweet the event. When Donald Trump called the media “a disingenuous lot,” chuckles and a few sardonic claps echoed through Spin Alley. During commercial breaks, the Cleveland audience gave rounds of O-H, I-O. During the first commercial, the chant came strong, with gusto. It diminished throughout the evening before vanishing altogether in the second hour.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich soft-peddled an opportunity to slam Donald Trump. He would soft-peddle several opportunities to slam his opponents. Comments were made in Spin Alley about this being standard behavior for a candidate who wants to leave a Veep nod open to himself.
When Dr. Ben Carson said he wasn’t sure if he’d get to talk again, Spin Alley liked the line. Twenty minutes later, after realizing Kasich hadn’t been called on in a while, I wondered if he had meandered off. After all, I couldn’t see the stage. #SpinAlleyProblems, I Tweeted.
At one point, Donald Trump asserted openly that politicians are bought and sold in the marketplace in modern America. I thought this extraordinary for a Presidential candidate. After all, as much as that’s been true throughout history, with the Citizens Unitedand McCutcheon rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years, it is more the case now than ever.
By the second hour, Spin Alley was noticeably tired, ready to scrum it up after the debate, file, and be done with it. When the debate was over, most candidates sent surrogates to spin alley to do their spinning for them. Much talk had been made about Kasich’s budget balancing, so I asked his surrogate how his doing so by cutting over $1.8 billion from local governments and public schools might bode for what he would do with a federal budget. I got a canned response about making decisions when they are in front of us.
I ran into Pierce and he told me he thought our Ohio governor did perhaps the best of anyone on the stage. I’d hear this same sentiment from friends and family over the weekend that followed. To Pierce, I made a joke about Kasich’s expanding Medicaid not because he thinks it’s the decent thing to do, but because he’s existentially terrified about what St. Peter is going to say to him at the Pearly Gates.
Others in the press expressed how impressed they were by Kasich’s answer on marriage equality when he said that while he doesn’t support same-sex marriage, he attended a same-sex wedding. I thought this was cheap, akin to opposing the #BlackLivesMatter movement but noting, “I have many black friends.”
I recalled to Pierce that during the debate Kasich said he doesn’t advocate “hateful” rhetoric in the same-sex marriage debate, but Kasich’s Anglican pastor, it was reported last week, has compared LGBT activists to fascists and Nazis.
“Oh that’s not hateful,” Pierce joked. “Those are just political categories.”
Kasich eventually did come out for a media scrum, and the press lobbed softballs at him. I got the picture I needed, and the rest of the press fled to Donald Trump when he came out. They were the only two candidates from the second debate I saw actually come into Spin Alley. By the time I left The Q, it was 1 a.m. and I drove over to Tremont for a pint with some friends. After that kind of show, I needed that pint.
David DeWitt is a writer and man of sport and leisure based out of Athens, Ohio. He has also written for Government Executive online, the National Journal’s Hotline, and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com. He can be found on Twitter @TheRevDeWitt.