Watching the debate from New York City: A foreign policy talk that struggled to stay on message
NEW YORK CITY -- There is nothing quite like watching a presidential debate from inside the cozy, upscale confines of the Library Bar at the Hudson Hotel in Manhattan.
Named by CBS New York as one of the six coolest places to watch a presidential debate, the Library Bar is a spot designed like an old English club, with an antique billiards table (signs warn to keep your drinks and behinds off it), classic English leather sofas, huge majestic mirrors and, of course, lots of aged-looking books placed up high on shelving.
Inside the space, three giant-sized TV screens placed at strategic points offered an oddly jarring impact, melding Old World decadence with a sleek demand for instant access to the event of the evening: The last presidential debate.
The bar, which once hosted stars such as R&B singer Maxwell at previous debate viewing parties, is surprisingly egalitarian -- if you haven't paid for reserved seat, you can crowd in from off the street, buy a $16 cocktail and check out the proceedings with a gently progressive crowd likely to cheer President Obama but sprinkled with a few defiant Mitt Romney fans.
One of those fans was Niger Innis -- a pundit, radio show host and activist known as a spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, a onetime black nationalist political group now known for its libertarian and conservative policies. As a prominent black conservative, Innis sat on a panel earlier that evening with rapper David Banner and Community co-star Yvette Nicole Brown for Don't Sleep! the new late-night talk and politics show hosted by ex-CNN anchor T.J. Holmes on the Black Entertainment Television cable channel.
Innis and I had met at that taping, where I watched in a bit of amazement as he and Banner agreed on a lot more than they disagreed. When Banner talked about the need for black people to develop economic independence to demand political attention from both parties, Innis sat back and smiled.
"I was surprised, too," Innis said, laughing at the Library Bar, which happened to be a stone's throw from the CBS Broadcast Center studios where Don't Sleep! tapes. "I was ready to sit back and let him keep talking. He summed up the disappointment with Obama pretty well."
But there was little of that disappointment left in the room Monday, as the subdued crowd reacted mostly strongly to Obama's firm attacks and practiced insults. When the president told Romney the 1980s wanted its foreign policy back, adding that the Republican's social policy was from the 1950s and his economic policy was from the 1920s, patrons let out a murmur like they were watching two cheating spouses at a Jerry Springer taping.
Romney's comebacks didn't bring the same reaction, even as he assailed Obama for promising Russia he could show more "flexibility" after November's elections. Likewise, the crowd wasn't buying the GOP candidates description of Obama's so-called "apology tour" of the Mideast, or his contention that the guy who authorized the killing of Osama bin Laden is seen as weak in the region.
Moderator Bob Schieffer came close to getting Lehrer-ed as the candidates insisted on veering toward domestic policy talk midway through the debate. Some of that was Romney strategy -- he's obviously more comfortable on those topics and Obama couldn't look like he was shying away from the subject.
But they spent too much time regurgitating talking points from previous debates in these asides -- something Schieffer seemed to acknowledge at the end of Monday's event when he noted wryly "I think we all love teachers."
Even in such a social setting, with friends gathered at tables and a busy, well-stocked bar, the two-screen experience was heavily underway -- as myriad attendees sent and read tweets as the glow from their assorted smartphones punctuated the bar's low-key lighting.
As you might expect at a bar in Manhattan's gentrified Hell's Kitchen, the Democratic president got more applause after his closing remarks -- along with a lot of wistful comments from supporters that they wished the feisty guy they saw Monday had shown up at the first presidential debate weeks ago.
I felt privileged to check out the last debate at a spot outside the tangle of TV commercials and stump speeches of our swing state, getting a different vantage point on a historic national event.