If The Atlantic was really going to reinvent CNN’s “Crossfire” at a quasi-debate event Thursday at their Watergate HQ, they would’ve been well-advised to invite someone like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to square off against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Instead they invited Grover Norquist.
Under normal circumstances, Grover, President of Americans for Tax Reform, is undoubtedly a great foil for Democrats. The trouble here was he and Rahm agree on mostly everything where immigration is concerned. So instead of being “Crossfire” it was more like GMA’s news family meets Hoda and Kathie Lee minus the wine. Everyone was cordial and kind. No cussing. No deep sighs. No pointing fingers at the media, unless you call The Atlantic‘s Editor-at-Large and emcee Steve Clemons insistence that The Atlantic‘s James Fallows and CNBC and NYT‘s John Harwood pose questions as finger pointing. The first time around, Fallows admitted he had no question. Later on, he came up with something. Harwood came prepared (or seemed to) with a two-parter.
Emanuel did acknowledge Chicago Sun Times White House Correspondent Lynn Sweet for attending the same high school as his mother — if that even counts for calling someone out. It was more the classic Bill Clinton technique of connecting people in an audience through vignettes. Sweet, who’s notoriously tough on Emanuel, tried to chase him out after, but a witness was unclear whether she caught him as he made a mad dash for the White House.
But no. There were no “f**k you’s” from Rahm. No tenseness between the two men. “I don’t think Rahm and Grover like each other,” Clemons told FishbowlDC in a follow-up interview Tuesday. “They aren’t going to hang out over beers — but they demonstrated an ability to be civil, humorous and maturely manage their differences and similarities quite well.”
Inexplicably in the subzero debate room was a vanilla-hued grand piano. Optics were apparently important. “Can you be a seat filler?” one official-looking woman asked another who was wearing some sort of sheer gown getup.
When asked if Grover or Rahm made any special requests or stipulations, Clemons said, “Neither asked for anything behind the scenes. I called Grover Thursday night midnight last week to ask him to do this — and he agreed with no request. The only thing Rahm mentioned to me is that first, going on with Grover was an ‘out of body experience’ for him — and acknowledged it must be for Grover too.”
Emanuel did have one request of Clemons: “He said that we’d get more out of this if he could approach my questions more from the perspective of a mayor of major city rather than former White House chief of staff,” Clemons added. “I thought he did well on that front — but I still asked him later in the questions to think about what he’d do in this process from his old role, and also humorously suggested that he might run for President one day when Grover talked about future Democratic presidential candidates.”
Clemons tells me there is a back story where this pairing is concerned. He said he considered this debate Round 2 of an encounter that occurred at Emanuel’s Inaugural party in which Clemons took Grover to Emanuel’s party at The Hamilton. Clemons got Norquist in by pretending he was a “friend of Ram’s.” It worked, despite it not being the slightest bit true.
See who was there and what they said…
Notables and Quoteables:
“Still befuddled by the geography at the Watergate” – Chicago Tribune‘s Clarence Page to NYT‘s John Harwood in the elevator up to the event. U.S. News & World Report‘s Robert Schlesinger showed up in what looked to be a heavy houndstooth blazer. He said he took a cab the short distance to the Watergate from Georgetown because of the heat. Chicago reporters Lynn Sweet (Chicago Sun Times) and spent much of the reception chatting with Page. Sweet recently returned from a trip to Sweden and attended Paul McCartney‘s concert last Friday so she hasn’t had a chance to check out Mark Leibovich‘s This Town. Page, in his signature oval glasses, is such a chit chatter. He regaled us with stories about the Beatles as well as eateries in his Takoma Park neighborhood. He also told us about the deer who occasionally eat his tomatoes. He recalled an instance where one approached his front door to stare at him. Soon there were two staring deer. Red Alert Politics‘ Nikki Schwab, who writes “Yeas and Nays,” was in attendance as was Bloomberg‘s Margaret Carlson.
Lynn Sweet and Clarence Page get chatty a pre-event reception.
The Atlantic’s James Fallows
Photographs by Austin Price