If I ever belonged on BET, it wouldn’t be like this. Not in a town hall, cast and hosted by MTV, where I’d end up asking Barack Obama a question face to face on live television. But it’s a new era.
Let’s review the facts. I’m a white conservative male from Mississippi. I own a gun. I voted for John McCain. And each morning from 6 to 9 a.m., I help produce a nationally syndicated radio show hosted by Bill Bennett and Rick Santorum. I don’t think MTV casting agents dream about finding the likes of me — not if the online commentariat got the right impression from this casting call.
I suppose that, after the infamous “boxer or brief” incident with President Clinton, people had a right to be skeptical that President Obama would be lobbed anything but softballs. But give MTV its due. Their polls with the AP have been showing Obama’s popularity plummeting among the young and the hopeful — down to 44 percent on Wednesday — and the network committed to challenging the president with questions from a disenchanted crowd.
So, a few hours after sending an application by e-mail — complete with a hastily cropped picture from Facebook — I had an invitation to interview for a spot in the audience. I did not mention my views or job in the application, which was only 77 words long. No lies, but specifics stayed at a minimum while the words “hope” and “change” were included.
There were three questions in the interview: one on job and education, one on issues, and one on “your political views, if any.” My answers stayed short; something about being a freelance journalist and, at the last second, a scribbled-in “producer, radio show.” My issues were immigration, national security, and education, but when the casting agents read my political views, they stopped.
“What does it mean to be conservative but not crazy?”
“It means that I can disagree with the administration and still be civil.”
They seemed relieved.
“We don’t want to end up with 1,000 people who voted for Obama,” said Dan, who ran the interview.
Few conservatives even bothered to apply for the town hall. I mentioned that political discourse often seemed like two sides yelling at each other from their separate mountains. No one seemed willing to come down and dialogue in the middle. They agreed and asked what question I would pose to Obama.
No room for generalities. I said I would ask about immigration. I would ask about the Arizonans and Americans who feel betrayed, left to the mercy of the drug cartels, while President Obama seems content to harangue against them and their laws. America is the home of immigrants — legal ones — but the entry system and the barriers to our country are broken and the president seems unwilling to fix the problem or secure the border.
The pause again.
“I don’t know why more people aren’t jumping on this,” said Dan. “You come down, take an hour to talk with us, and maybe you get to ask the president a question. . . . We want people to challenge him, to move the conversation forward.”
And at the end, that’s all I wanted — a chance to question the president face to face— to quit reading commentary for a few hours, to try and get a straight answer, and yet still be civil about things.
In the end, that’s part of what happened.
The studio was small, packed, and blasting out music representing the trifecta of MTV, BET, and CMT, which Arcade Fire, followed by Trey Songz, followed by Taylor Swift. Before we went live, MTV laid out the ground rules.
“If it comes to you, you don’t have to stick to the question that you submitted, you can ask him anything. Just treat him with respect and dignity.”
When I stood up Thursday afternoon, fifteen feet from President Barack Obama, the knees were shaking just a little bit.
According to the White House record, here’s how it started:
Q Mr. President, my name is Nathan Martin. I actually help produce a conservative talk radio show, and I’m getting married in two weeks.
THE PRESIDENT: Congratulations.
I went on and asked him about the inconsistencies of his administration in enforcing immigration law vs. drug law, and why California could flaunt federal law with the legalization of marijuana, but Arizona was swiftly reprimanded for “infringing on federal jurisdiction.”
I hoped he would square the two positions, reconcile them. Unfortunately, like we got throughout the town hall, all we got was rhetoric.
MTV deserves respect not only for populating the room with relatively articulate conservatives, but for actually giving those differing opinions a chance to be heard — this push on the economy was particularly well-stated. President Obama unfortunately gave little in the way of real answers. He’d hear a personal story or probing question and immediately jump off onto whatever talking point might be related to the question.
As a person, Obama was affable, kind, and gracious. When the camera turned off, he stayed after and talked to the crowd, working his way across the room and shaking hands. There were tears from a few members, and more than one person who sobbed out, “Mr. President, you inspire me more than any other person in the world.”
When he made his way over to me, he shook my hand and wished me good luck.
“Do you want the best piece of advice for a good marriage?”
“Do whatever she tells you to do.”
I thanked him.
Before Obama finally left, he got MTV to turn the microphone back on, and told the audience, “There were so many of you who got involved last time around, we can’t lose that. I don’t care whether you’re Democrat or Republican, when November 2nd comes around, you’ve got to get out and vote.” Democrats might beg to differ, if the sentiments of MTV’s audience reflect those of their constituents.
As I was leaving, I ran back into Dan, and I complimented him on trying to keep things fair and balanced.
“Man, if I wanted to fill this room with 400 Obama supporters, I could snap my fingers and have it done. We wanted conservatives, we wanted dialogue. It was just hard to find them.”
But even MTV and all the conservatives they could muster couldn’t spark meaningful conversation from a president who has learned far too well the Washington definition of dialogue: You speak, I speak — and no one listens.
— Nathan Martin is a producer for Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America.”