Phony as a $3 bill

Maybe I've been watching politicians too long, but rarely do scheduled events contain much drama -- or even an element of surprise.

Whether it's the beloved "town hall meeting" or a basic legislative hearing, the players trot out their scripts. Some actually read from them.

It's almost formulaic in Carson City. The expert testifies, the lobbyists weigh in on both sides of the argument, the legislators ask a few questions and then the committee punts. Eventually, after more behind-the-scenes testimony, lobbying and questions, the committee gives an up or down vote on the issue and off it goes for another round.

At the town hall, long before the candidate appears in front of a banner proclaiming something positive in three words ("Winning the War"; "Securing Our Borders") the event has been fully vetted.

Typically, occasions like the dozens of events held here in advance of Nevada's Jan. 19 presidential caucuses are free with the campaign quid pro quo that you give them your name, address and phone number. I'm not sure what some of the candidates are doing with this data, but Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign is clearly uploading it to compare against voter files, and who knows what else.

Former Sen. John Edwards lashed out in Iowa over the weekend against "plants" at town hall events as if he'd just fallen off the ethanol truck. Edwards said voters expected frank and honest answers to their legitimate questions at such events.

"What George Bush does is plant questions and exclude people from events, and I don't think that's what Democrats want to see," Edwards told The Associated Press on Sunday, apparently worried that his Veterans Day speech wasn't going to generate any headlines. Edwards was upset that the Clinton campaign admitted it gave a question to a college student, who was then called on at a recent town hall event.

Sen. Chris Dodd, appearing on ABC's "This Week," also criticized the Clinton campaign tactics. Voters, he said, really want to know the candidates' views.

"If they discover, in a sense, that these are orchestrated events, then I think that's going to upset people here," Dodd said.

I hate to break up the warm glow around these things, but town halls are staged from the stage to the back of the room. Clinton's recent health care town hall was a prime example. Those attending were checked off against a list of the pre-registered. Once inside, those belonging to the Service Employees International Union were shuttled to some roped-off seating.

The central press area provided visual access to the center of the stage, while a secondary press riser stage right looked out across beaming rows of appropriately diverse supporters seated on bleachers under a big American flag.

Three men in wheelchairs were seated in the front row. Clinton took questions from each. She took a question from a young lady whose T-shirt color indicated she was going to ask something about choice. Then there was the highly staged "conversation" portion of the event in which the senator listened attentively to two women discuss their personal travails with breast cancer and multiple sclerosis.

A woman who repeatedly strained to get Clinton to call on her at the health care event had no luck. She caught my eye because she seemed so earnest in trying to get her question asked, waving her arm like a smart second-grader begging "call on me!"

A few hours later, I spotted her again, this time postering the parking lot at the Clark County Government Center, where the Clark County Democrats were meeting. She had Clinton signs.

Inside the central committee meeting, she was there again, waving her arm in the air when Clinton asked for questions. This time she got called on and asked how you can take profit out of the health care system. The senator told her it was a good question and then talked about how she envisioned a health care system that would once again be vibrant for nonprofits.

Did Clinton know that woman was volunteering, or more likely, on the payroll? Who knows? But she didn't come to the central committee meeting for the group's business.

George W. Bush usurped the town hall back in 2000, and to a greater degree in 2004, when his campaign actually gave the carefully selected attendees the questions to ask. The media still covered these events in 2004 because he was the president, and you cover the president even if he's just waving from his plane.

National political conventions once had enough drama to cause riots. These days, even speakers who aren't on the prime time schedule have their speeches vetted days in advance.

Don't get me wrong, there are occasional, real moments in politics when elected leaders or candidates are actually on the spot. You can see them work through a question, witness how they make decisions and maybe even see a little character.

When have you seen that in a quick sound bite?

As long as the campaigns are putting on the show, voters should expect to be put on.

Contact Erin Neff at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at