The star of CNN's 2004 election coverage isn't any of the people you might expect: not Wolf Blitzer, not Judy Woodruff, not any of the four shouting men of Crossfire, not a correspondent or an analyst or a bureau chief -- it isn't a person at all. It's an inanimate but mobile object propelled not by coffee or ego or competitiveness but the same dark substance that fuels not only much of our economy, but our foreign policy as well: petroleum.
Caught in the political crossfire on the Hoboken waterfront (the part that wasn't on TV)
So when CNN visited the Hoboken waterfront earlier this week for live cablecasts of Inside Politics and Crossfire, the Election Express bus took center stage. Instead of setting up in the ampitheater at Sinatra Park, where locals like myself could have gathered to sit, watch, and maybe even participate, the Hudson River lapping at the rocks nearby, the breathtaking Manhattan skyline as a backdrop, CNN parked its bus on the grass by the public toilets and erected its road-show set nearby, with the bus as a focal point. That meant the audience had to stand, so stand we did, for more than 90 minutes, even though we couldn't hear or be heard unless someone was shouting.
Aside from that, CNN picked a pretty good place to park the bus: people here are really, really, really interested in politics. And our local political scene has returned the favor by being really interesting: our politicians make as many headlines with their legal troubles as they do with their policies. There's the county official who demanded Viagra as a bribe, the other county official who found a way out of his own difficulties by wearing a wire and getting many of his associates convicted, the blatant quid pro quo of our pay-to-play development policies, the incessant squabbling on the city council, and of course you've heard about our soon-to-be-ex governor. We're also quite interested in national and international politics, as the CNN team might have noticed if they'd taken any notice of us. Instead, they found a Frank Sinatra impersonator who didn't look or sound like Sinatra to sing a few bars of "New York, New York." Unlike Inside Politics or Crossfire, Faux Blue Eyes at least encouraged the crowd to participate.
As the talking heads went about their business interviewing the same people they always interview, asking the same questions and getting the same answers, we had some politics of our own going on off-camera.
"Talk about being caught in the crossfire," my son whispered to me at one point. On our right were the anti-Kerry veterans, only one of whom seemed young enough to have served in the Vietnam era. On our left, the pro-Kerry veterans. Our moderators weren't "from the right" and "from the left" -- we had a Hoboken police officer and a CNN cameraman keeping our debate under control. That's right: only one policeman for about 100 citizens, as well as passing traffic. But this young officer did his job so well he didn't need any reinforcements; if CNN's political team weren't toward the end of their pre-election traveling season, they might consider hiring the guy to handle crowds wherever they go. For that reason, and for reasons of homeland security, I won't identify him, but I thank him.
The anti-Kerry veterans had more visual aids than the pro-Kerry veterans, which might have given them an advantage if they hadn't been either obtuse or contradictory. The ringleader, a regular exerciser-of-free-speech on the streets of Hoboken whom the policeman knew by name, wore a VFW hat, identifying himself as a WWII-era member of the same group, Veterans of Foreign Wars, as the Democratic nominee. That was the contradictory part, as the Republican nominee is not a veteran of a foreign war. The obtuse part was his T-shirt, and later his matching posterboard sign, that said "John Kerry and Jane Fonda: Perfect Together." The sign omitted the first names, but otherwise carried the same message. Both Tucker Carlson and former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman posed with the man, his T-shirt, his VFW hat, and the sign.
Since the only Kerry-Fonda connection I knew about was the doctored image distributed a few months ago that patched them both into a photo from an anti-Vietnam-War rally, at one point I asked the guy what his message meant. "I didn't know they ever WERE together," I told him.
"Oh, yeah. They were together. They were together at the meetings where they conspired to kill the congressmen," he replied.
"Dude, do you know how bizarre that sounds?" a male voice asked from somewhere behind me. "Nobody's going to believe that crap."
"They were together," he insisted. "They wanted to kill the Congress."
"Any veteran who votes for Kerry should be shot," the possibly-Vietnam-era anti-Kerry guy interjected loudly, his words a bit slurred. I don't know if the man in question was ever in the military, but if so I don't believe that's the kind of democracy he was trying to make the world safe for. Nobody asked him if he knew how bizarre THAT sounded.
The CNN cameraman made a point of aiming the unblinking eye our way as the show went into and out of commercial breaks, so we could wave to Grandmom. But between the old vet's sign and someone else making an obscene gesture, most of the images of us never made it as far as the satellite truck. By the end of Crossfire, the cameraman was pleading: "Come on! I'm really trying to get you on television," he begged the crowd in general and the gesturer in particular, all to no avail.
Meanwhile, over on our left -- coincidentally -- were several pro-Kerry vets, one of whom wore his own veteran hat with a Kerry-Edwards card stuck in its brim. When the anti-Kerry veterans -- only one of whom appeared young enough to have served in Vietnam -- insisted that American troops had never, ever, committed the slightest atrocity in Vietnam, the pro-Kerry vet finally spoke up. "I was there. I was a medic. I saw guys with necklaces made of body parts." Nearly three decades after the U.S. fled Vietnam, there are very few people remaining who believe that war, and everything about it, was right. I was surprised that so many of that small group seem to be my neighbors.
The first half hour was "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics" -- the 's there is presumably a possessive rather than an abbreviation for the word "is."We could see Ms. Woodruff clearly, and from the time she stepped out of the bus to the the moment she climbed back into it, it seemed, you could hear someone murmuring, "She's so thin! She's so thin!"But she didn't talk to the crowd at all, except during one commercial break when someone behind me shouted, "Judy! We can't hear!"
"I can't either!" she told us. Aside from that, the only time she spoke to anyone other than a guest or a colleague was when a man walked by dressed in the typical attire of a Conservative but not Hassidic Jew. "Are you a Bush supporter, sir?" she called out, in a voice almost loud enough to get her on Crossfire. "Yes I am," he came back right away. She asked him why.
"Carville makes me nervous!" the pro-Bush passerby shouted back.
"His wife feels the same way!" Crossfire's Paul Begala hollered.
The man kept walking.
Former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman was one of the Crossfire guests, and during that segment -- focused on the subject of the current governor -- someone way off to the right -- again, coincidentally -- began chanting, "McGreevey out! McGreevey out!" They cut to a commercial, and as soon as they were off-air, Carlson shouted, "Look! I feel the same way but please don't shout while we're on television." Our police officer had already explained that there were only two things we couldn't do: shout, and moon. Maybe he should have included whatever gesture our fellow crowd member was making.
Eventually, the shows were over, and miraculously, I could still move my legs after standing still for 90 minutes. I walked down to the pier from which my grandfather and all the other American doughboys departed to fight in the First World War, then walked back home along the waterfront. To my surprise, the cameras were still on.
"Hello, and welcome to an extra web edition of Crossfire," Begala was saying. He and Carlson argued a bit, and then they recorded another web extra, and another, and another, and finally some advance promos for the Republican convention. "Vice President Dick Cheney speaks tonight," was all I heard of those. Finally, the cameras and the lights were turned off, and Carlson and Begala were kind enough to greet the half-dozen or so people still standing around.
I had one question for both of them. Carlson shook my hand first. "I understand the CNN bus used to belong to Hank Williams, Jr.," I began.
"Yeah, some country guy," Carlson said.
"So now that it's CNN's bus, do you guys know what happened when it was Hank Jr.'s bus, just like that Elliot guy somehow knows what happened on that swift boat before he ever stepped aboard?"
Carlson didn't quite seem to get my point, but that didn't stop him from answering. "Oh, yeah, it still smells like Jack Daniel's."
Actually, legend has it that Jack No. 7 was Sinatra's favorite drink, but I didn't follow up on that. Instead, I asked the same question again: "So now that you're on the bus, do you know what happened before you were on it?"
"Oh, yeah, there are all kinds of weird signs that it was once used by hillbillies," Carlson told me, oblivious to the fact that I am myself an Appalachian-American.
"I'm a hillbilly," I told him.
"Oh, well, I, uh" --
"We're the last ethnic group that it's still socially acceptable to make fun of," I told him. "So let's just enjoy it while we can."
I had one more question for Carlson, since he had posed with the guy with the Kerry/Fonda sign. Did he know what the sign meant, and if so did he endorse it? Carlson said he didn't know, so I repeated what the old vet had told me. He began shaking his head before I even finished. "No, no, no. I don't endorse any views other than my own -- they're weird enough."
With that, I moved on to Begala and asked him the same question about whether "on Hank Jr.'s bus" was the same as "on John Kerry's boat," and whether the CNN crew that now rides the bus has the same paranormal ability to know what happened there before that the asynchronous Swift Boat vet claims. Begala listened, paused and appeared to be thinking, then busted out laughing. "That's good!" he said. I told him that Carlson had said the bus smelled of Jack Daniel's, and Begala, too, made a remark about hillbillies. When I outed myself as one, he was apologetic, explaining that he was from a small town in Texas himself. I figured he could include himself, or not, as I gave him the same answer I'd given Carlson.
(That's enough time at the computer for today. I'll add the rest of the photos tomorrow.)
posted by Janet Dagley Dagley @6:03 PM