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    Between Mouthfuls, Reporters Hear a Mouthful

    08/23/2001
    on 8/23/01.

    It had the desperate atmosphere of a red-light district, these hallways of the hotel where the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security met Wednesday.

    Here, in the fierce competition for public opinion, interest group representatives strutted about with bold-faced press releases and laid bare their hospitality tables piled high with pasta salad and cold cuts.

    The goal: lure reporters into their news conferences.

    With the commission weighing partial privatization of Social Security, the stakes are high. Conservatives argue that Social Security privatization will give people a greater return on their money. Liberals denounce privatization as a risky scheme that will endanger the nation's retirement security while enriching the financial services industry.

    Reporters are well-versed in these arguments, so there had to be another reason for all the ideological elbowing other than education.

    And that, it seemed, was this: Each side was simply trying to drown out the other so no one would get a public relations advantage.

    "Are you going to come on up? We'll even feed you," Khristine Bershers of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank said as she tried to usher an uncertain reporter up the steps to her news conference.

    "It's a cheap luring tactic," Bershers said of the food: potato salad, mixed greens and cookies. It was a strategy learned from the liberal groups that, at the last commission meeting in July, offered noontime sustenance.

    Reporters who normally would have scattered during the commission's lunch break instead stuck around to snack with a liberal coalition called the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare - and absorb their message, Bershers said.

    "We were disappointed that they got so much attention," Heritage spokesman Chris Kennedy said.

    But the liberal groups appeared still to be one step ahead of the conservatives. Their coalition had reserved the first in a block of conference rooms along the hotel hallway leading to the commission's meeting. It was there that many reporters naturally congregated.

    And, yes, ate their food and absorbed their message.

    "Would you like our statement?" a young woman with neon maroon hair said, handing out a flier that read, "Feminists Call for Strengthening Social Security, Not Peddling Privatization."

    She brushed past veteran New York Times reporter Adam Clymer, who gained notoriety last year when George W. Bush called him a "major-league (expletive)" in comments overheard by reporters.

    Clymer piled a slice of bread high with roast beef and turned, cheek bulging, to chat with the Washington Post's David Broder, who helpfully wore a bright blue tag that read PRESS.

    Down the hall, a member of a television crew had collared the young woman with the coif.

    "It's really, uh . . ."

    "Bright?"

    "Yeah," said the young man, who then launched into a reverie on his days in the punk rock scene.

    One of the stranger scenes of the day was the appearance of Justin Dart, once a member of Ronald Reagan's informal "kitchen cabinet," at a news conference opposing privatization.

    Dart has lost a leg to amputation and uses a wheelchair. He wore a National Rifle Association pin in his lapel and a U.S. flag pin in his carefully blocked Western hat.

    He said there was no contradiction between his support for Reagan, who wanted to either privatize Social Security or abolish it, and his work against the Bush proposal.

    "I did not agree with privatization then and I don't agree with it now," Dart said after introducing a young African-American man, also in a wheelchair, who receives Social Security disability payments.

    Both listened expressionlessly as Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, relayed a long list of what she considered the flaws in the Bush plan.

    In the afternoon, as the TV crews and reporters peeled away to begin filing stories, a cell phone rang. A man dressed as Uncle Sam fished the device from his red-and-white-striped pocket.

    "Hey. What's up? No. I think we're done and we're heading back," said the man, who had been roaming the crowd on behalf of the pro-privatization Citizens for a Sound Economy.

    Then Uncle Sam headed for the elevator, tipping his hat to some tourists.