Reporting on the Democratic Party Debate

Published 6:02 pm Monday, November 25, 2019

It’s hard to believe that several decades ago, I was watching the 1984 Presidential Debate in my parent’s living room. Now I’m a parent, and getting a chance to cover the debate. The question is whether we’ve learned anything from those earlier debates, covering the issues or chasing the race for the presidency.

I can distinctly remember President Ronald Reagan, so unflappable, stumble so badly in Louisville. I began to wonder if Vice-President Walter Mondale would unseat him. But Reagan recovered, won the debates, and took the election in a landslide.

This year, I was happy to get permission from the Savannah Morning News to cover the Democratic Party debate. And boy there was a lot of behind the scenes material that night beyond the event you watched.

Coolest Candidate: New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. He may not be breaking through on the stage, but this charismatic guy is an incredible interview subject. You can tell he’s in his element, and he worked the media center longer than any other candidate after the debate. You can’t help wonder why he’s not the front-runner. Senator Isakson had compliments for him.

Crushed Candidate: California Senator Kamala Harris. After her second debate performance, you had to wonder about her toughness. But even as she waded into the pit and was nearly squished by reporters, she answered all questions in a straight-forward manner, not fazed by the stress. She may look more vice-presidential if she doesn’t come back to win the nomination.

All-Business Candidate: Minnesota Amy Klobuchar. She doesn’t answer questions thrown at her from the gallery, but locks on with an interviewer and responds to all queries, including a young reporter (see below). In Skyping with my students, GOP Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson praised her for her ability to work across party lines and get a lot of bills passed. 

Coldest Shoulder: Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. I thought she would be great to interview give how low she is in the poll. But she had her back to the gallery the whole time and wouldn’t even look at press for a photo. It’s not how you win back the media after a rough start.

Funniest Diss: Entrepreneur Andrew Yang. He came over to shake my hand after breaking from the reporters. Before I could ask my question, his staff dragged him off. “Sorry for being a jerk!” he pleaded. “It’s okay. No problems” I replied. He gave me an appreciative smile.

Most Honest Answer: Businessman Tom Steyer. When I asked him about helping students at small liberal arts colleges, he told me “We don’t have a plan yet, but I promise we will.”

Smartest Front-Runner: South Bend Mayor Peter Buttigieg. Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders generally passed on the Media Center. But Buttigieg gave a few televised interviews, and was featured in a lot of cell phone photos. Others could have learned from him.

Industrious Chair: DNC Chair Thomas Perez. He gave tons of interviews, with smart answers to my tough questions. You can see how 2018 in the House was no accident.

Professorial Pundit: Chris Matthews. I had been warned that he was prickly (and Booker teased him about that), but we hit it off very well. He reminisced about taking philosophy and economics courses at Holy Cross College, and how he enjoyed those cerebral debates.

Awesome Celebrity: Rosario Dawson. As an ally of Cory Booker, she was great to chat with, talking politics and admiring the campaign buttons on my bag. In fact she introduced me to the…

Adorable Correspondent: Macey Hensley. Ellen Degeneres’ young correspondent Macey Hensley, the nine-year-old reporter who interviewed most of the candidates quite effectively, and gave me a button saying “Macey in 2048!”

Certainly times have changed since those 1984 debates, when I wasn’t much older than Macey Hensley herself. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the importance of watching these contests, and getting your kids interested in them at a young age. 

It’s their future on the line too.