Are You Ready for Some 'Roundtable Discussion'?


BEAUFORT, S.C.--I'm sure that a lot of folks think a monkey could do my job.

And often you're right.

Like this afternoon, for example, when I arrived in here in Beaufort--the second oldest city in South Carolina and setting of the Baby Boomer classic "The Big Chill"--to cover Barack Obama's "Roundtable Discussion with Veterans." If you never witnessed a "roundtable discussion" on the campaign trail, I wish I were you. Next time you're invited, I recommend that you watch "Baby Geniuses" instead. It's that bad.

In case you're still curious, here's how these shindigs work. (Every candidate indulges.) The press is corralled into the back third of a handsome little room. The emphasis is on little--minus two-thirds. Then more press shuffles in. Then more. Soon, there are 45 reporters, cameramen and photographers sardined into a space the size of a Chevy Malibu. Every seat--there are about 15--is full, meaning people are perching their PCs on armoires, sitting Indian-style on the carpet and leaning one-legged on window frames like woozy flamingos. A phalanx of television cameras blocks the view; all you can see is the backside of a boom-mike operator.

When Obama enters, he strides to a podium emblazoned with a new, computer-generated slogan--"JUDGMENT TO LEAD." In case the reference is lost on you--tell me again who opposed the Iraq war from the start, and who voted for it?--the Illinois senator immediately unleashes a statement accusing "one of [his] opponents" of "trying to rewrite history." "We need accountability in our leaders," he says. "You can't undo a vote for war just because the war becomes unpopular." And that means you... Cillary Hlinton.

Next, staffers remove the podium and Obama joins the four military veterans who, until now, have sat silently behind him. The table is rectangular, not round; the chairs are arrayed along one side, facing the lenses and klieg lights. "What are you seeing?" Obama asks the first vet. "What's your situation?" A former gunnery sergeant, she bemoans the state of retirement benefits, the VA and screening practices for PTSD victims. "That's an important recommendation," Obama says in a slumberous baritone, his eyes hooded, his chin resting in his hand. He then turns to the next vet and asks the same question. The answer? VA, PTSD, brain trauma, benefits. "Important," says Obama. "My staffers are taking notes." Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat, and 45 minutes after it started--with the three missions of the day (conveying openness, responding to attacks on Obama's Iraq war consistency and appealing to the Palmetto State's massive military community) accomplished--the "roundtable discussion" is done.   

Provided that the cameras were rolling, the recorders were running and the reporters were writing down every word. Which, of course, we were. (Note that the "discussion" merited nary a mention in that account. Or this one.)

Now, I'm not knocking the veterans' concerns. These problems are critical, and ignoring them would betray the solemn compact we make with our military men and women. But Obama already knows what these folks are worrying about.  "Roundtable discussions" aren't a fact-finding missions, policy sessions or heart-to-hearts. If they were, Stumper wouldn't be invited. They're press conferences, plain and simple, and to pretend they're anything else--especially freewheelin' conversations--seems sort of condescending.

That said, I'm the one who flew from New York and drove an hour-and-a-half from Charleston for the honor, so I can't really raise a ruckus.

I'll leave that much, at least, to the apes.