Behind the Scenes at the CNN Democratic Debate

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Perhaps you saw the debate from Flint, MI on Sunday evening, March sixth? It was a debate of substance; two amicable ex-colleagues both on the hunt for the nation’s top elected office. Hillary made her points. Bernie delineated the differences between the two.

I was there, stage right, first balcony, first row. Come with me and I’ll tell you what you didn’t see on CNN Sunday night.

Flint’s Cultural Center was sealed down tight. I counted three choppers overhead as I neared The Whiting, Flint’s bejeweled, 2,043 seat performance hall. All roads were closed save one; all traffic was filtered through a single checkpoint manned by Secret Service, Michigan State troopers, and Flint PD officers. No window placard, available only by download to those on the email ticket list? No admittance.

“No, sir. You must pull over there and turn around. No, sir. Sir, I will not say this again. Turn around right there and exit the area immediately or an officer will escort you away. Thank-you.” This to the car in front of me.

The line to the ID checkpoints, yes plural-checkpoints, stretched 100 yards from the front doors of the hall, around the corner of the building and down fifty yards of sidewalk, tailing off 400 yards away at the access road. At its peak, the line was 2 abreast and not quite ½ mile long. The line began to form around 4:00 pm. The doors were opened at 5:30. I arrived at 5:45 and took my place in a line that was then only 300 yards long.

As you neared the front of the hall, you were asked to present your ID and your email documentation. Herded into a series of chutes, you were again asked for your papers. You were then compared to the data on an attendant’s iPad, your ID re-checked, and issued a ticket. Tickets came in a variety of colors. Which color depended upon how big of a bigwig you were.

Once in The Whiting’s foyer, you were asked for your ID and ticket, and directed to walk through a magnetometer staffed by TSA agents. If you passed, you were wanded by a polite and pleasant Secret Service agent clad in body armor with a variety of weapons attached to his/her person. “Enjoy your evening, sir,” my agent said with pleasant smile.

At 6:10, I found myself inside the hall. I felt very safe.

Seats were carefully allotted but not assigned. First come, first seated. As a Flint native and frequent visitor to Whiting, I knew the key seats were the first balcony. Excellent view, close to the stage; what I didn’t realize until I neared my seat was that I was 12 yards from CNN’s Wolf Blitzer’s set for his pre-game show. I stood as the hall below filled and I watched Wolf interview Flint’s US congressman Dan Kildee. During a commercial break, Wolf stood, turned, and began to fiddle with his IEM, the in-ear monitor all TV talking heads wear. I must have been staring, because I caught his eye, he waved his hand at me, shrugged with a sheepish grin, and went back to fiddling with his earpiece.

Kildee left, and was replaced by Jim Ananich, a Flint state senator, and the conversation continued. Rev. Jesse Jackson strode down the aisle below. My friend Sheryl Deutsch, seated on the aisle on the floor, greeted him. Moments later, Jesse popped onto the CNN set during a break. Wolf waved him onto the set, they hugged, shared a laugh, and Jesse vanished.

I looked towards the stage. The crew was doing a last minute light check. Anderson Cooper was standing stage right, sorting papers into neat piles in preparation. Stage left, co-host Don Lemon was seated and doing the same. A text came in from a friend. Actor Mark Ruffalo was somewhere in the hall.

Ananich was replaced by Michigan’s ex-governor Jennifer Granholm. She is touted as the likely Secretary of Commerce should Clinton win the presidency.

By 7:10, the hall was full, and the stage manager/warm-up comedian stepped forward to give us instructions.

“We have roaming cameras for crowd reaction shots,” he said. “Always be camera-ready. Sit up straight. Don’t scratch it. Don’t pick it. Unless you want to be the subject of someone’s viral meme or Vine on Twitter. Then, by all means pick it.”

A youth choir from the Flint School of the Performing Arts staged an excellent version of America the Beautiful to open the evening.

Whilst CNN was doing their pre-debate coverage toward my right, we watched several speakers on stage to my left. When Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha was introduced as one of the first speakers, the MC couldn’t get any further than “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Dr. Mona…” before the crowd burst into a standing ovation.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH owned the stage. Quite frankly, she just freaking killed it up there. She is the Director of Pediatrics at Hurley Hospital. It was her research and unceasing energy in the cause of children’s health in Flint that finally broke this story. She is so bright, so damn warm; her aura radiates from her being whilst on stage.

We heard from Marcus Duncan, a special ed teacher in the Detroit Public Schools. A tall, thin, quiet man, Mr. Duncan walked to the mic and introduced himself.

“Good evening, my name is Marcus Duncan and I am proud to say I am a teacher.” Tom Brady at a New England Patriots Super Bowl victory rally could not have been welcomed with a bigger ovation than Mr. Duncan.

Just recently, to demonstrate to the people of Michigan the heart-rending state of the DPS, teachers and parents posted photos and videos of Detroit Schools. Teachers stage a sick-out. Detroit’s public schools are not fit to be prisons. As an ex-teacher, I would much rather teach in an open-air school in Kenya than in the physical plants of the DPS.

Detroit Public Schools: Black mold. Few working water fountains or toilets. The only running water? Down the walls of classrooms during a rainstorm. Intermittent heat. Rats and mice and vermin.

Yet, Mr. Duncan and his colleagues still find the strength of will to show up and try to teach the most powerless of US citizens- inner city children.

As we neared show-time, the host of the event, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz came out to inspire us. I believe she moonlights as an old-time revival preacher. I’ve spent some time on stage. This was a great room. The people were stoked and ready.

The MC said, “Live in two minutes. Sit up straight. Don’t act the fool!”

“Okay, folks. I’ll give you the sign at 7 seconds to live, you start clapping at 5, and let’s do this!”

“Seven, six, <we erupt in applause> four, three!”

And the familiar tones of Anderson Cooper fill the hall. “Good evening and welcome…”

What happens during the debate that you don’t get to see?

During the commercial breaks, Bernie and Hillary turn to each other and smile. Fingers are pointed, in a friendly way, as if to say, “That was a pretty good one there. But I’m gonna getcha next.” Then, they scurry off-stage, presumably to visit the loo.

Anderson Cooper does not stand still. Ever. He chats with the MC, he talks to his steadi-cam operators, he talks with his director, all the while he walks and paces. Don Lemon, on the other hand, exudes an aura of casual cool.

“We’re back in 2:00 minutes everyone. Places, please. Seats, take your seats.”

“60 seconds. Let’s go everyone, get there, get there. Live in 60, everybody.”

“And in 7, 6 <applause> 3,2…”

What was the most touching moment?

On Saturday, Feb. 20, a monster in Kalamazoo gunned down six people and shot several others. Fourteen year old Abigail Kopf survived. Anderson Cooper called her father to one of the two microphones set aside for pre-vetted queries from the audiences. Cooper identified him as Abigail’s father whilst photos of Abigail went up on the big screens in the hall. The hall was stunned: utterly silent, totally still. As Mr. Kopf told us that Abigail was laughing and talking, no one present was unmoved. When Mr. Kopf asked each candidate about gun control, all eyes were on him as he contemplated what each candidate might do so that no other father would ever again have to stand in his shoes.

What was the best answer?

Bernie Sanders lost much of his family in the Holocaust. His voice quaking, he described what it was like as a penniless young boy as his mother explained to him why he saw other Jews in his neighborhood with number tattoos on their forearms. Hillary stood beside him, her jaw open. She was clearly touched by Bernie’s emotions on the CNN stage.

What was my best moment(s)?

Hypothetically, each response was timed. Candidates saw a green light when they had fifteen seconds left. At five to go, it changed to red and began to flash. Time’s up, it turned solid red. Of course, both candidates went over, and when prompted by Cooper, Bernie would finish his sentence and stop. Hillary, however, often took the red light as an excuse to begin a whole new Shinkansen train of thought. Anderson Cooper’s body language as he tried to politely stop Ms. Clinton was the high point of the evening. Sometimes, he looked like he desperately needed to pee. Others, he looked as if his suit was made from a blend of sandpaper and fiberglass insulation . At sometimes, he looked like an angry school teacher, tapping his foot on the floor and pointing a waving finger at Ms. Clinton. Hilarious. You had to be there.

Most fun?

Wolf Blitzer must be quite the cut-up. Whenever his show went to commercial, my attention would be drawn by the laughter coming from his set.

Most telling moment?

Bernie and Hillary have some clear and fundamental differences, but there is no doubt that each will campaign hard for the other come election season. They were in clear agreement on the Republican playground slap-fight pissing match that passed for a debate several nights prior.

At the close of the debate, Clinton turned to Sanders and said, “You know, we have our differences, and we get into vigorous debate about the issues,” and she turned to audience, “but compare the substance of this debate with what you saw on the Republican stage last week.”

As Sanders nodded vigorously, the crowd went wild.

As I stood in the queue to retrieve my coat, I received a text from my sister. “Great show,” she said. “How was it live?”

“Like an NBA finals game, a World Cup,” I texted. “It’s the world stage, it matters. Everyone; CNN, candidates, even us in the seats -brought the A game.”

As the show went off the air, Bernie and Hillary, under the seriously attentive eyes of the Secret Service, went down to the stage front to shake a few hands. Mark Ruffalo was stage left, with a line much longer than Bern and Hill’s combined as folks waited patiently for selfies with Ruffalo. As my friend Michelle Vincent said, “Well, sure. Who doesn’t love The Hulk?”


The Beginning
About David Stanley

Teacher & science guy, writer, musician, coach, skier and bike racer, I am interested… in everything; your story, food & spirits and music and everything in the natural world, spirit & sport. My son is 22 and still needs his Dad. I am 56 and so do I.
I blog on life and death, cancer and sports, kids and education at

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