Spin Central: Pandemonium Reigns Among Journalists

Times Staff Writer

The first review was in before the curtain went up.

Fifteen minutes before Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis and Republican nominee George Bush faced off Thursday night for their second and final debate, Steven Engelberg, a Dukakis adviser, grabbed a reporter and offered this pre-appraisal.

“In case I miss you later,” he said with a grin, “we’re elated.”

So it went in Spin Central, the cavernous grand ballroom of UCLA’s Ackerman Student Union as dozens of campaign operatives and surrogates mixed and mingled with more than 800 journalists to put the best possible interpretation, or “spin,” on the candidates’ confrontation.


As reporters watched the debate on 50 TV monitors and argued such weighty issues as whether the slope-shouldered Dukakis was wearing shoulder pads, five Shanghai journalists watched in apparent amazement.

“This is one of the highlights of our visit,” said Cao Guoping, reporter for China’s second largest TV station. “Very interesting.”

That’s putting it politely. It may have been a kinder, gentler debate than the fisticuffs of the last presidential match-up, but journalistic pandemonium broke out in the media center as soon as the candidates stopped talking.

TV lights blazing and tape recorders whirring, reporters and TV crews descended on arriving spinners--and even each other--like locusts. One local TV crew, temporarily interview-less, even shoved a mike at one of the caterers. “I’ll still vote for Dukakis,” said the man behind the roast beef.


Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) won the prize for the first post-spin of the night, arriving while Bush was still giving his closing statement, to say Dukakis “won on points.”

Bush’s campaign manager Lee Atwater and senior aide Richard G. Darman were hot on Gore’s heels, offering a similar upbeat analysis of their man’s showing. “It was a clear win,” Darman said. “We’re very, very happy.”

But spinning is a dizzying art. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) told one group of reporters that Dukakis had “showed the American people what a warm guy he really is,” and had “scored points on issue after issue.” Then he turned 90 degrees and repeated the same spin, word for word, to a new group.

Nearby, Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) mixed his metaphors with his enthusiasm as he blasted Dukakis. “The Iceman melted and came unglued,” Dornan declared.

Both campaigns came armed for the evening’s spin cycle. The Dukakis spin patrol included 12 congressmen, 2 senators, 1 governor and a mix of Democratic Party officials. Satellite TV trucks waited outside to beam their cheerful comments to home audiences from New York to Honolulu.

About 18 Bush boosters, including former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, similarly boasted of their man’s success.

Both campaigns also distributed alleged “fact sheets” for special slander control about taxes, crime and defense. Happy to join the fray, UCLA offered 23 experts of its own for interviews and information.

Even corporate sponsors did their bit for democracy, providing free cigarettes, lighters, coffee, beer and dinner for the media horde.


Watching from one side, a Japanese NHK-TV crew filmed the spinning back to a presumably bemused nation. “It’s a very far-fetched thing that this would catch on in Japan,” the reporter explained. “But we heard about it and decided to focus on it this evening.”