The not-so great debate

If you missed the first gubernatorial debate in Jacksonville Friday night and somehow managed to avoid the endless regurgitation given same by the media, here's a brief recap: McBride was nervous as a new bride, stuttering over his words and mouthing vagueries that, if continued through the campaign, will get his ass handed to him as a hat come election day. Bush was poised, calm and armed with statistics. He won because McBride failed to get in the dirt and exploit the many shortcomings of the Bush era.

It was a predictable exercise in high-stakes politics, with nonspecific questions -- "What will you do to improve education?"; "What will you do for the environment?" -- prompting nonspecific answers. And we the voters of Florida learned practically nothing about the two guys vying to run the state, except: Bush hates taxes and swears last month's election debacle wasn't his fault (though he pledged to fix the problems); McBride wants more money for schools (but the GOP-heavy Legislature will never raise the necessary taxes). Both men professed an undying love for the Everglades and unending hatred of traffic congestion.

So instead of yet another analysis of the debate, we thought it would be more fun to take you behind the scenes of the event. Your hosts are one Orlando Weekly scribe and two dozen or so Greenpeace activists who were kind enough to offer said scribe a ride to Jacksonville, where the debates took place.

Because activism has a bad name in this town, I'll start with a word about the Greenpeacers. For the most part they are average, everyday, left-of-center college types. I note two exceptions: a guy with an abnormal appetite for science fiction, and an unemployed gentleman who lives in his Volkswagen van.

After a couple hours of chatting with the van dweller about spray-painting his vehicle/home, I arrive at the Channel 4 studios in Jacksonville about 30 minutes before the debate begins, and two hours after I was supposed to get there. (Long story short my ride was late, I spilled grape Gatorade on my shirt, and we got lost.)

So we missed Greenpeacers erecting their eye-popping, 20-foot inflatable globe-topped-with-a-huge-mosquito directly across the street from the TV studio. (What, you didn't read about that prop in the Orlando Sentinel? Yes Virginia, there were protestors at the debate.)

By way of explanation, the Greenpeace members are raising awareness of global warming. Rising temperatures, they posit, mean more rain, which means more swamps, which means more mosquitoes, which means more mosquito-borne illnesses, which mean more giant props at political events. Higher temperatures also mean a rising ocean, which doesn't bode well for a low-lying state like Florida.

Once at Channel 4, I dart inside to secure my place in the media room, which is the station's prop room packed with laptop-laden picnic tables, fold-out chairs and dozens of telephones. More than 30 reporters from across the state are inside, already furiously typing on their laptops. There are no open computers or phones (not that I have anything to write for the next day or anyone to call), so I join a handful of broadcast reporters watching "Entertainment Tonight" on a big-screen TV.

Here's a dirty secret of daily journalism: All those news and analysis stories you read Saturday morning were written before the debate even began. Daily writers have to get their stories in the second the debates are over so their editors can chop them to bits and reassemble them on the front page. There's really no time to listen and summarize. Besides, they all know what the candidates are going to say anyway. Don't we all?

Had you peeked at Sentinel reporter Mark Hollis' computer like I did (sorry Mark), you would have seen Saturday's story sketched out, minus a few gaps left for pertinent quotes. "Insert vague Bush or McBride quote here," Hollis reminded himself in a capitalized break between paragraphs. "Insert Bush flip-flop quote here," he cribbed after the next graph.

Sentinel "analysis" man Mark Silva also has most of his story done before the curtain goes up. He watches the debate, splices in a few quotes, declares Bush the winner and pushes the send button.

Spin doctors are just as busy as the journalists before things got started. McBride's team circulates a six-page "debate-watching guide," reminding us that "Bush can recycle promises, but not a record of results." The guide charts how Florida had fallen in national tallies of per-student spending and tracks the state's financial woes.

Then halfway through the spectacle, McBride's people scurry through the assembled media with a follow-up "debate fact check."

Bush's people are behind the curve; his spin team doesn't come out until the closing statements, then issues a quickly scripted press release that claims McBride wants to do away with standardized testing, jeopardizing federal education dollars. (Weekly spin check: McBride never said he will do away with the FCAT; he wants to kill the idea of tying test scores to state funding.)

The media clamps on to a few predictable angles -- McBride's comparison of Jeb to an orange picker who slacks off until the boss comes around; Bush's manic repetition of the word "taxes" -- and the whole thing is over.

After the nonevent, McBride hangs around the studio so reporters can lob softball questions ("Do you think you got your message across?"). Bush scurries into a narrow hallway where he is set upon by TV cameras wielded by cameramen who are stronger than I am and refuse to let me through.

McBride isn't saying anything enlightening, so I eavesdrop on the political operatives (from both sides) circulating the room. One of Bush's minions tells a reporter, "What you saw tonight was a heavyweight vs. a lightweight," and the reporter scurries across the room for McBride's response. The Bush people declare victory, while McBride's people insist he got his points across. They know better than to declare anything.

Outside, my Greenpeace pals manage to get closer to Bush than I do; he actually got out of his black SUV to chat with them. He even promised to meet with them. We decide a visit to his post-debate party is in order.

The Republican horde is headed to Legend's Sports Bar in Jacksonville Landing, where they charge Republican prices for drinks ($9 for a Scotch rocks). But Bush doesn't stick around long. By the time we find the place, he's already gone. Only the dregs remain: drunk GOPers, TV reporters, a bad cover band and Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan.

The Greenpeacers chat briefly with Brogan, who promises to look over their global-warming literature. "This is my airplane reading," Brogan says, smiling like only a politician can.

He is more receptive than most at the party. One 40-something woman starts shrieking -- nearly in tears -- at the mere mention of solar energy. In the rest room, she yells at my female Greenpeace accomplices: "I can't afford that stuff. You college students don't know anything."

And so, having been put in our place, we're off, tackling the three-hour trek home to The City Beautiful where the next two gubernatorial debates will take place (Oct. 15 at Universal Studios and Oct. 22 at the University of Central Florida). As the music of Death Cab for Cutie lulls me to sleep on that long drive down I-95, I drift off thinking what a pointless affair the debate really was. After all, if you're any sort political junkie you already know the rhetoric and sound bites. And if not, nothing that took place during the highly staged spectacle would dissuade you from your political apathy.

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