ST. LOUIS—My mom texted a couple times about the debate last night. I thought about calling her when it was over, but it was pretty late and I didn’t have much time anyway. So I drafted the following SMS: "Hi Mom, Trump did better I guess. Have to go to spin room now."
I deleted it. Of course she wasn’t going to know what a "spin room" is. She is a normal, socially well-adjusted adult with a healthy moral and spiritual imagination. "Spin room" is one of those items in our language that could only have come out of political journalism: knowing, incestuous, tawdry, post-ironic. ("Gaggle," with its overt connotation of patterned animalistic noise making and its aural and visual similarity to "giggle," is similar in many respects.) It’s a phrase you can only use with your tongue so much in cheek as hanging stupidly around the nose. In a politer age, one in which not we were embarrassed by as well as tolerant of petty falsehoods, we would call the place where we all go to hear political hangers-on lie glibly the "interview space"; in a more honest one, it wouldn’t exist.
My first presidential debate was last fall in Simi Valley. I’m not sure I knew myself what a spin room was then. At my second one, in Las Vegas, I wandered around the spin room more or less at random, narrowly avoided the stampede that nearly killed Andrea Mitchell, borrowed a pen from a Breitbart reporter, and stood awestruck behind Lincoln Chafee trying to think of a question that wasn’t spurious or facile. He had done such an unambiguously great job in the debate that I was having a hard time formulating the sort of query that I knew reporters were supposed to toss off in these situations.
"What did you mean when you said you’ve ‘never had a scandal’?" Exactly what he said—duh. "How are the horses, Governor?" No, I don’t want to sound like I’m teasing him. "Governor, why are you in this race?" That isn’t very kind.
I ended up just standing there dumbly, snapping two pictures of him on my phone before turning around to find a colleague of mine, who asked me whether I had everything I needed (yes) and whether I felt like going to a strip club (no).
Looking back now, I seem to recall that there were only two or three other reporters gathered around Linc that night. Was this because no one cared what he had to say—or because they knew he was incapable of spinning? Chafee is many things—former mayor, governor, and senator; father; horseman; mandarin—but prevaricator isn’t one of them. The six or so foot circumference surrounding him was a no-spin zone. Not very good training.
Last night I decided that it was my professional duty to stalk the campaign quarry with the rest of the big-game hunters. After smoking a cigarette, without calling my poor mother, who worries, I walked up the stairs from the overflow media filing center to the spin room.
At first I was able to advance about a foot past the threshold. There were hundreds of people, very possibly more than a thousand, in a room not much larger than my two-bedroom condo. Bodies touched bodies; sweat mingled with sweat. A vicious and uncharitable person with no love of his fellows could move at the pace of a sloth by elbowing and shoving and pulling his way toward—what exactly? Red and blue signs emblazoned with names spelled out vertically in white capital letters—JOHN PODESTA, RICHARD TRUMPKA, KATRINA PIERSON—flew up randomly from the mass of blue-blazered and pantsuited flesh like the banners of savage chieftans in some ancient gathering of clans. Camera crews rode through the rest of us like cavalry. Lights from phones and cameras and makeshift sets flared over our heads like will-o’-the-wisps. Hundreds of voices cried out simultaneously in tones that alternated between hectoring and panic.
All of which is to say that in such conditions it was impossible to take notes. I actually dropped my notebook (actually a pad of Chase Park Plaza hotel stationary) at some point, and, rather than risk death by trampling elected to leave it on the floor, where, for all I know, it is sitting even now with "RAGNAROK" and "GOTTERDAMMERUNG" and other precise impressions waiting to enlighten whatever student volunteer is assigned to clean-up duty. For the following I must rely entirely on memory and audio taken with my phone. The recording itself sounds like a low-fidelity version of the audio track from the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan.
By the time I had come to, I decided that the person to whom I should address a question was Katrina Pierson, the ubiquitous and persistently evasive Trump campaign spokeswoman. I tried to think of something cutting and journalistic to ask. When Mr. Trump said that he and Gov. Pence disagreed about Syria and hadn’t talked, what did he mean? I had no way of knowing whether anyone had asked this question before, but it sounded very serious and exacting and relevant. So I walked towards her red cardboard sign, doing my best not to injure or even inconvenience anyone in the process as she moved somehow effortlessly further into the room. It somehow seemed that whenever I got within five or so feet of her and reached for my phone in the hope of thrusting it in her general direction with a competent flourish that said "Yes, I am a journalistic professional asking a question that contributes to that public discourse about the issues vital to the flourishing of any healthy democracy," she managed to teleport as if by some arcane sorcery or advanced technology halfway across the room before I could open my mouth.
Finally I found myself standing right behind her. A kid who looked as if he might have been from the student paper ran in front of me, shook her hand, and asked for a selfie. When it sounded as if he had finished, I tried to butt in.
"Katrina?" I said. Using the first-name seemed like the in-the-know thing to do.
She turned around and started talking to Tucker Carlson, who popped up out of nowhere. I feebly repeated her name once more before embracing defeat. Who else was there? I started moving slowly back in the direction of the door through which I’d come in, inching for air and doing my best to keep contact with other bodies to an impossible minimum.
"Sir, we need you to move forward," said a voice from behind me. It was a bald guy who seemed to be handling security. I did as bid and pushed myself into the back row of a massive crowd of people holding their phones in the (very) general direction of what might have been a brief Paula Jones press conference—I’m still not sure.
"I said to back up, sir," the bald man said about 10 seconds later.
I haven’t got much patience for this kind of thing. I have plenty of experience dealing with surly-sounding cops, security guards, and other thugs. The best thing to do is to call them either "bub," "guy," or "pal." I opted for the last of these.
"Back or forward, which is it, pal?" I said.
He shoved me.
Right then. With hundreds of people tittering and exclaiming and convulsing with enthusiasm about some event happening a few feet in front of me where I could not see, I reached in desperation for my phone again and checked Twitter, where I saw that a piece I’d written had gone up minus the last 600 or so words. I realized I’d sent the wrong file and ran back to the filing center to fix it, a mistake that cost me at least 30 minutes of spin time. But there was no question of my not coming back. Like Susan Sarandon in Rocky Horror, I’d tasted blood and I wanted more. A lot of time had passed, though. Who would still be hanging around the first basement level of the hall this time of night? Hackish GOP state senators? Pro-Clinton professors of foreign relations direct from George Washington University? Diamond and Silk?
The room was far less crowded when I went back in. Standing near the doorway I immediately spotted Stephen Miller, the only person on the Trump campaign to whom I have ever spoken, albeit via telephone.
"Hi, Stephen, Matthew Walther, Washington Free Beacon. Nice to finally meet you," I said, reaching for his hand, which he shook very quickly without looking at me.
"Thank you," he said and continued a nostalgic conversation that I thought had ended with a woman who seemed to be walking away.
Then someone came up and asked whether he preferred Batman or Superman.
"Batman," Miller said.
"Because he uses wit, ingenuity, and determination to overcome challenges. He has no built-in advantages. He’s an underdog."
"So," I said, cutting in again, "to what extent do Mr. Trump and Gov. Pence actually disagree—"
"Zero," Miller said. Apparently the "disagree" in "We disagree" means something other than "have or express a different opinion."
"—About policy towards Russia, policy towards Syria?"
"The question by Anderson Cooper was asked in an incorrect and misleading way, which is fine," Miller said. "You know. He can do whatever he wants. He made it sound like Pence was talking about regime change. Pence was talking about enforcing a safe zone, which is two different things. And under a Trump administration, the safe zone will be made diplomatically with Assad and Russia to establish a safe space because that’s what effective diplomacy can accomplish."
"When is the last time the two of them discussed the issue?"
"Recently. Next question."
Hearty laughter broke out from a few feet away. Other members of my profession had joined us. Time to shine.
"When Trump said that they hadn’t spoken did he mean, what, that they hadn’t spoken today?" I said with what I hoped sounded like steely resolve.
"They discuss foreign policy all the time is what I’m trying to say," Miller said. Then he talked for a few minutes about how Trump, not Pence, is the one who sets the foreign policy and how the official position is to deal with ISIS first and Assad later, as opposed to Hillary Clinton, who has said and continues to say that "Assad has to go."
Someone else asked about whether Trump wants to punish Republicans who have reneged on their endorsements and a reporter from the Guardian tried to push the conversation, if you can call it that, back to Syria.
The last thing those of us in the gaggle—is that what we were?—tried to talk about was sexual assault. One of my coevals from the Weekly Standard drew first.
"The behavior that Trump described in the infamous video he never actually engaged in, he merely described it as locker-room talk—was that behavior sexual assault?"
"What he said very clearly is that there was no behavior to correspond with what he said. Period. That is it. You want to talk about sexual assault? Talk to Juanita Brodderick. Talk to Kathleen Willey. Talk to Paula Jones, who’s another victim of sexual harassment by Bill Clinton. And Hillary Clinton shamed mercilessly those victims. You can read about it books by Carl Bernstein, books by Stephanopoulos, books by Dick Morris. And it’s a travesty what Hillary Clinton did to those women. Any other questions?"
"Is what he described—is that joking about sexual assault?"
"Donald Trump has answered the question over and over again. He apologized for his remarks. He described it as bawdy locker-room talk—"
"Describing grabbing a woman and kissing her without waiting and grabbing her by the genitals—is that sexual assault?"
"Nothing he has said he has ever done."
I did my best.
"Okay, so, the behavior in which you’re saying he did not engage, is that sexual assault?"
"That’s the question I’ve tried to ask three times," said the Standard reporter.
"The real sexual assault that took place was by Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton enabled decades of sexual assault," Miller said. "Mr. Trump opposes sexual assault in all its forms and will be the greatest protector of women and all Americans against crime of any president who has ever served in the Oval Office."
Miller darted away.
"If I kiss or grope Mr. Jacobs here, would that be sexual assault?" I cried desperately.
The whole circle laughed.