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It must be a debate night: Suddenly I'm irresistible


RICHMOND -- The campaigns have told you that watching these debates is your way of seeing the candidates unfiltered.

The candidates are reaching you, they say, without the filter of the news media getting in the way.

But if that were true, why are the campaigns kissing up to us reporters like they were Chapstick salesmen at a mistletoe convention?

Never have the media been treated so well. Campaign aides and even candidates who haven't returned our phone calls for months are now pounding our backs and whispering in our ears.

I sit at a press table behind my computer. Torie Clarke, campaign spokesperson for George Bush, appears before me.

"Would you like to talk to Fred Malek?" she asks.

Would I like to talk to Fred Malek, George Bush's campaign manager? Would I like to talk to Fred Malek, the man I have severely criticized in print for his despicable actions when he was Richard Nixon's hatchet man?

The better question is would Fred Malek like to talk to me?

But of course he would. On debate nights, Fred Malek will talk to anybody.

And so Malek appears before me. "I think the key thing is for the last six months the campaign has been about the past state of the U.S. economy," he says. "Now it is time to get off the past. Now it is time to concentrate on who's got the right agenda for the future."

I write this down in my notebook as if this guff actually meant something.

What Malek is doing, as you know by now, is "spinning."

People think the word comes from campaign aides putting their own spin or interpretation on events, like a pool player might put spin on a cue ball.

A better metaphor, however, is to imagine the spin cycle of your washing machine: It's when everything swirls round and round and all the juices get sucked out of it.

Now you have a better understanding of spin.

But wait. Remember how I began by saying the campaigns like debates because they can reach voters without going through the filter of the press?

If that were true, however, then why bother with spin? Why bother making a pitch to all of us media filters?

Because the campaigns know that debates do not really eliminate the filter, that's why. They know that voters don't click off the TV or radio as soon as the debate is ended. And they know the voters don't ignore their newspapers the next morning.

They know the way in which the press portrays the debate -- Bush weak! Clinton smug! Perot folksy! -- may be as important as the debate itself.

And so for four evenings during the campaign, the four evenings of the presidential and vice presidential debates, the campaigns love us. And cannot do enough for us.

Want to reach Ross Perot these days? Ha. From the day of his announcement until a few days ago, he had neither a press conference nor a public appearance.

But then, lo and behold, following the first presidential debate, Perot had both.

In a hotel about 15 miles from the debate site, his campaign rented a hotel room and set up about 100 chairs for the press. Only about four print reporters showed up, however.

Why? Because the Perot campaign staff, having cleansed itself of political experts, had nobody to tell them why most reporters could not possibly leave the debate site following the debate in order to talk to an actual candidate for president.

The debate site is where the reporters were getting spun. And reporters could not miss hearing an interpretation of events in order to attend an actual event.

And so most reporters missed one of the warmest and oddest moments of the campaign: Perot introducing each member of his family, including his wife, son, daughters, sons-in-law and daughter-in-law and telling wild and woolly anecdotes about each.

And then Perot took question after question from the press and )) when the reporters had exhausted themselves, he concluded in a most unusual fashion:

"I love you guys," Ross Perot told us.

Oh, sure. On debate nights, they all love us.

But I doubt that they respect us in the morning.

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