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Reports from 'Behind the Curtain'

Date: 10/15/2012

By G. Michael Dobbs

Another installment of "Behind the Curtain:" As I was walking along the line of signs that flanked Court Street a few hours before the debate between Sen. Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, I heard – bagpipes?

Alexander Sherman, who is spearheading reelection efforts for Brown in Western Massachusetts, told me with a smile he had brought them in as a precaution in case the Warren people started chanting. The Warren supporters had their own anti-chant device, a pep band.

It was a battle of the bands of sorts that reflected the political battle that was to go on in Symphony Hall.

In front of 1 Financial Plaza, there was a huge pile of Warren signs neatly stacked and stored under a huge tarp. As her supporters came by they were handed a sign from the pile with military precision.

Near Sherman's contingent was a line of television remote trucks with various dishes and antennae pointed to the sky. The nation was able to follow the debate thanks to its broadcast on CSPAN.

Interestingly enough I didn't spot – perhaps I just didn't see them – any of the Tea Party people who I would have thought would have turned out for a show of support for Brown.

This race has received national attention thanks to its inherent drama: can Brown retain the seat for the Republicans after his surprise victory against Attorney General Martha Coakley, one of the most overly-confident and self-indulgent candidates in recent history? Would Warren, the Harvard Law superstar professor and a protégée of sorts of the president, convince voters to see her as a person to whom they could relate?

Some people view this race as a kind of mirror image for the presidential run. Gov. Mitt Romney is now positioning himself as a moderate conservative – an interesting change as he tries to appeal to the undecided – while President Barack Obama continues his brand of centrist liberalism.

I have been covering politics in this area for years and I don't believe that I've ever seen such an intense public participation in such an event.

I also can't recall an event, other than gubernatorial debates conducted here that drew as many of the Boston press to our area. I'm sure it was a bit of an imposition to be forced away from The Hub and its many amenities and I'm also sure it was a pleasant surprise to many of them that we speak the same language – without an accent – have flush toilets and were not walking around barefoot.

Inside Symphony Hall, audience members looked for seats and jealously eyed the seats that had been reserved for the press. It was a capacity crowd of 2,600 people I was told – true believers from both sides.

Around me in the media section, were several rows of earnest young people all with their laptop tapping and scrolling away. I had a pad, a fountain pen and a MP3 recorder – yes, an admission to modern times.

In the Mahogany Room, two long tables had been assembled for the dozens of reporters. There was a large television monitor set up and many of the reporters stayed inside the room blogging, writing and Tweeting as the debate went on. What was the point? If you didn't have to sit in the auditorium to cover the debate, why even be there? One local reporter told me he watched the debate and wrote about it by watching the live stream on his computer – something he could have done back in his office or from home. Why bother being there?

Jim Madigan did a fine job as the moderator and the questions weren't bad, although I wish they had been more specific to Western Massachusetts.

Following the debate there were several Democratic officials "spinning the room" and speaking to the reporters about the outcome of the event. Apparently Brown and his fellow Republicans had no surrogates to perform such a task.

Then came the time-honored tradition of attempting to coerce some additional news from a media availability with both candidates – something akin to squeezing blood from a stone.

The reporters were instructed to stand in front of one of the doors separating the Mahogany Room from the second floor as the place the candidates would come for their post-debate comments.

Frankly, it was a pretty pointless exercise as the many reporters couldn't easily fit into the assigned space, leaving those who are not more than the height of seven feet or willing to stand on a chair or table – such as me – hopelessly straining in the back to see and hear what was going on, much less ask a question.

What each candidate said was essentially a repeat of what they stated on stage during the debate. Again, what was the point?

I am always tempted to ask a serious political candidate in such a setting, "In a fair fight, who would win, Superman or the Incredible Hulk?" At least I could have told who had a sense of humor.

I hung out and spoke to various people about other topics for a while and it's always good to talk with fellow reporters who actually care both the mechanism and the content of such political events. And amazingly enough, no drinking was included.

Agree? Disagree? Drop me a line at or at 280 N. Main St., East Longmeadow, MA 01028. As always, this column represents the opinion of its author and not the publishers or advertisers of this newspaper.