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Not managing a smile

Sunday, October 24th, 2010



Know who may be the most stressed-out people on the planet right now? The folks managing mid-term election campaigns. In this week’s Centre Square essay, Chris Satullo reports that trying to negotiate election debates with campaign staff can be a daunting task.

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Now, a couple of weeks from Election Day, is the season of the stressed-out campaign manager.

On a big-time campaign, the manager is often a hired gun, a profane sort with a haunted look and profound bags under the eyes.  You’d look like that, too, if you worked 16 hours a day hustling an irritable egomaniac – that would be the candidate – through an impossible schedule.

Having organized many election debates, I’ve dealt with campaign managers at their crankiest.  They hate debates. All that unscripted risk.  WHYY broadcast a debate last week, in the Delaware Senate race.  One of Christine O’Donnell’s staffers was a particularly gloomy example of the breed.   He kept grimly listing all the missteps on our part that would lead him to pull his candidate from the event.

Wouldn’t you know it, a dreaded glitch happened. The makeup person didn’t show.  Told this, the staffer’s face looked as though we’d just announced the start of Armageddon. (To be fair, anyone who remembers Dick Nixon in 1960  knows debate makeup CAN matter.).

Thankfully, the candidate herself arrived just then. O’Donnell was gracious and understanding, saying, “No problem, that’s why I always bring my own makeup, just in case.”   Crisis averted.

In debate planning, campaign staff always finds something to fret about.  Once,  I helped organize a New Jersey gubernatorial debate at Rowan University.  The incumbent, the classy Christie Whitman, was being pressed hard by the creepy Jim McGreevey. The stakes were high.  I wanted an informal, town-hall staging, with the candidates sitting on high stools inside a semicircle of citizens.

“No stools!” Whitman’s guy screeched.  The governor, he said, could not wear a skirt while perched on a stool, and a pantsuit was out of the question.   Too Hillary Clintonesque.  I conceded. Lecturns it was. Next, he pounded away at the idea of voters on the stage. Would they be visible while the governor was answering a question? One of them might frown, you see.

The TV producer explained, no, when the camera focused on the candidate, the voters in the background would be fuzzy.  Well, in that case, Whitman’s guy said, that’s an OK use of voters.

Unable to resist, I said, “So let me get this straight, the official position of the Whitman campaign is that the proper place for voters is: in the background and out of focus.”

After Whitman won, for some unimaginable reason, I was not offered a position in her cabinet.


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