BENSON'S BULLY PULPIT
The press won't have Bruce Benson to kick around anymore.
But he sure gave journalists something to remember him by.
The Republican gubernatorial candidate waited until almost ten o'clock last Tuesday night to concede that he'd lost the election. Lost despite the fact that as late as September, polls actually showed him ahead of Roy Romer. Lost despite the millions of dollars he'd poured into the state's most expensive governor's race. Lost despite the high-priced Washington handlers advising his campaign. Lost--and lost unbelievably badly--even as Republicans across the country were trouncing Democratic incumbents.
What went wrong? In news accounts the next morning, Benson blamed the media.
But the media had already gotten that message the night before. Seconds after Benson entered the Sheraton ballroom to concede the race, journalists became the literal fall guys.
Reporters and photographers had been hanging out for hours, waiting for Benson to make an appearance. It had been apparent shortly after the polls closed that Romer, through almost no fault of his own, was the big winner; before they could call it a night, though, the press still needed to hear from Benson, to get some footage for that night's newscasts and quotes for the next day's papers.
When Benson finally arrived in the doorway, he was flanked by his second wife, Marcy, and children David and Ann. And surrounding the family was a wedge of ersatz bodyguards, close to a dozen big, thick-necked, gum-chewing guys wearing dark suits and bad attitudes. They looked like Colorado football players--CSU football players--or Mormon missionaries on steroids. They certainly resembled nothing the journalists had encountered before on the campaign trail. Elbows out, Benson's bullies waded into the crowd, pushing their way to the dais, where state party chairman Don Bain waited to greet Benson.
It wasn't a pleasant journey, as is readily apparent from footage of the event. "C'mon," a voice protests as a fist comes toward the Channel 4 camera. "Jesus Christ!" After that, KCNC's tape shows not Benson and his goon squad, but tilted views of chairs, bodies and the floor as the cameraman apparently is pushed backward into the crowd. At one point, he rights himself and focuses on the most aggressive of the guards. "Fuck you," the guard says. "Get out of my face." And then a hand goes over the camera.
KUSA and KMGH cameras captured the action from other angles, showing waves of shocked reporters pushed out of the way by the Benson honor guard. Writers from the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post were both shoved aside, as were comparatively innocent bystanders. One man fell to the ground. "I watched your cameraman get jostled," a non-journalist witness told Channel 4 in an interview the station never aired. "It appeared to me he really had a vindictive attitude towards your cameraman. I was angry."
So were many others in the crowd, one of them a photographer who's covered presidential appearances--and thinks that compared to these guys, the Secret Service is a bunch of cream puffs. "They'll get aggressive, but they won't knock you to the floor," he says. "And this was not a hostile crowd--it was all the Republican faithful.
"Nobody expected it to go like that," he continues. But as the bodyguards pushed in, the press was pushed back, double-time. "One guy was lying on the floor, and things were starting to pile up on him. I almost got knocked over and hit a table filled with empty glasses and bottles." And still the flying wedge kept coming, leaving curses and confusion in its wake.
Journalists had never seen anything like it.
But then, Colorado hasn't seen a candidate like Bruce Benson before.
After viewing his station's unedited videotape, Channel 4 news director Marv Rockford sent a letter to the Benson campaign expressing his concern. And Benson himself called station manager Roger Ogden, offering his apologies for anyone who had gotten out of line.
Certainly candidates have wanted to punch out journalists, and no jury in the land would convict them for doing so. But Benson has no legitimate complaints about his treatment by the media this year. The bottom line is this: The 1994 campaign simply never went the way Benson wanted it to go. As a businessman in the Ross Perot tradition, he was used to giving orders--and having them obeyed. He'd bypassed the traditional caucuses--even though he'd just finished chairing Colorado's Republicans--to petition his way onto the ballot.
During his first face-to-face debate with Roy Romer, he'd showed character--or at least the ability to follow good advice--when he confessed to two DUI arrests in Jefferson County a decade before. That, however, was Bruce Benson's last smart move. From there his campaign careened erratically through the curves thrown when his divorce file was opened, then came to an abrupt stop after he put the brakes on any future debating. By the time his TV ads showed his daughter's tears and his own derriere, Benson was clearly in reverse.
In the bitter end, he finished his race just as he had started it: as a bully. He had bullied his way onto the ballot and, a sore loser, he bullied his way out of the public arena in a very public way.
Earlier that day, campaign manager Katy Atkinson had told a News reporter, "There's a lot of anger and frustration among younger staff members with the media and, frankly, a lot of disgust."
But it was Benson, not the media, who had called his wife of twenty years from the airport to tell her that he would be taking another woman on their annual Hawaii vacation--and then petitioned to have the files of that divorce kept from the public. It was Benson, not the media, who called off the debates, then lamented that the press was ignoring the issues. It was Benson, not the media, who bought all the advertising that failed to deliver any coherent message--much less any votes.
And it was Benson who lost. All on his own.
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