For the Bored Print Media, It’s Become All the News That’s Fit to See
By Maureen Orth
The Village Voice – October 29 – November 4
Day I: This reporter discovers print is not quite dead.
Carter Campaign, Boston – Inside Jimmy Carter’s campaign press plane, ABC White House correspondent Sam Donaldson is hopping around like a deranged parakeet. “I’m in a great mood today,” Donaldson announces, waving a banana. “I’m gonna slash, burn, kill, swill.” Donaldson, whose speckled eyes burn like lasers, has the sharpest gallows humor of any of the regular White House press corps. A tough reporter, he has been covering Carter since 1975 and offscreen the experience seems to have driven him Gonzo. “The issues are caca,” Donaldson announces in true McLuhanite fashion.
“Print doesn’t mean a thing anymore,” says the Los Angeles Times Robert Scheer, who conducted the 1976 Playboy interview in which Jimmy Carter admitted to lusting in his heart. “Even in 1976, you’d see free lance magazine writers on this plane, people who wouldn’t get caught up in this daily shit. But now the expense knocks them out. If you cross the country twice in a day it can cost $2,000. Who can afford it? Besides, there’s nothing for print to do here. There are no press conferences. We learn nothing that’s not on the evening news. Print tries desperately to keep up with electronics and it can’t.”
In fact, the network’s nightly news is the main reason for this tightly scheduled seemingly endless campaign. Rarely do Carter or Reagan make a move without it. Every day there must be new pictures, new backdrops, new polls. One wonders if Campaign ’80, a manic high flying flea circus, is what Thomas Jefferson had in mind. Sadly, the people who actually turn out to see the candidates are turned into props for these made-for-TV movies, background extras in a year long multi-million dollar production of “Mr. Smith Never Goes to Washington Anymore.” The press itself is kept away as much as possible from directly questioning the candidates, and ultimately the press – the “immoral minority” – is forced into a position of strict fundamentalism: never deviate from the Bible – which is how they refer to the candidate’s eight to ten page daily schedule.
Despite the frantic pace, news advances in minute dribs and drabs, the cosmos turns on the positioning of a single adjective, and hardware and process predominate. Suddenly credentials, buses, handouts, computer banks, notebooks, lists, credit cards, and telephones are literally the most important stuff of life, and the big Boeing 707 – which the Cater Mondale Committee has leased from Pan Am for approximately $7000 an hour – becomes both dorm and home.
With days which frequently begin before 8 a.m. and end well after midnight, it is essential that the more than 100 by now totally exhausted members of Carter’s traveling press corps, Secret Service, and campaign staff, be kept somewhere between senility and somnolence. As the print reporters shuffle into the plane, having just filed their first news leads of the day – “Kennedy Stumps for Carter” or “Carter Ridicules Reagan’s Pledge to Name a Woman to the Supreme Court” – they are met by smiling stewardesses proffering a cornucopia of high calorie goodies: chocolate chip cookies, Three Musketeers and Snickers bars, Bloody Marys, champagne, hot towels, chilled white wine. With reason the campaign planes are called Air Cholesterol.
These first news leads of the day are terribly important. If the candidates have any hard news they usually announce it by 10 a.m. for the widest possible dissemination. Bad news is scheduled for late, after five p.m., when it’s much more difficult for the networks to deal with. And because he is the President, every single word Jimmy Carter utters in public is recorded for posterity. A group of awesomely efficient Whit House stenographers sit up towards the front of the plane I a space dubbed “The Princess Lounge.” As Carter begins to speak they record just as many of his words as will fit on one piece of paper and start transcribing while he’s still speaking.
Within minutes after the President has finished his remarks, mimeographed copies of his speech are thrust into the hands of the press corps. So are manifests of who’s on board, along with myriad pool reports from a small group of TV and print reporters who are allowed to follow the President when the rest of the press corps is not.
The President’s whiney inauthoritative voice is everywhere. The crack White House communications specialists, who also wired the White House for Nixon, arrange to have state-of-the-art sound equipment at every Presidential stop. They beam the President into the plane and into the press filing centers, and during those very brief moments when the President might deign to answer reporter’s questions (usually at the bottom of the ramp of Air Force One), cheap videotape records what the stenographers miss. But the object is to make sure nobody deviates from the carefully staged theatrics of the typical campaign day.
The air smells of hickory smoke and the high school band is playing “Hot Stuff” when the Presidential motorcade lumbers up to the Pittston Area Senior High School in Yatesville, Pa., for a presidential town meeting.
The motorcade consists of about twenty vehicles. The White House maintains a fleet of bullet proof limousines, one of which is flown ahead to Presidential stops. The President usually travels with an ambulance, a doctor, and a nurse. Each motorcade has police vehicles in front of and behind the Presidential limousines, at least two secret service cars, one to six staff, press pool cars, cars for local VIPS, four TV pool station wagons, and three press buses. The motorcade never stops for red lights.
These town meetings usually don’t produce any substantive news. They are basically shams designed for local TV consumption, where the audience, often outnumbered by the press, questions the President. Gently. Nobody knows in advance what the questions will be, but the average Joe is very polite and doesn’t realize he can ask a follow up. So the President fields his softball queries and the press hovers over the calm like an impotent tornado which will never strike, whirring its cameras, clacking its typewriters, recording its tape, scribbling its notes – barred from participating no matter how the President “misspeaks himself” or indulges in political license.
Today, however, after the press has been numbed by boredom and the networks have peeled off to get ready for the evening news, the President chooses Pittson High to make the only hard news statement of the day.
In answer to a question about the hostages, President Carter says that the US wants an immediate commitment of negotiations from both sides to settle the Iran-Iraq dispute. “This reflects the long standing policy of our country that all territorial disputes should be settle peacefully and not by aggression. The United States remains committed to the proposition that the national security and integrity of Iran is in the interest of national stability.” Aha! For the first time the President is implying that Iraq is an aggressor. It is not a visual story to be sure – the White House could afford to kiss off TV. But would the press catch it?
Just to make sure Presidential aides make the rounds whispering about the significance of the remark “on deep background of course.” Still, there are those who stubbornly cling to their morning leads. “I see no reason to change what I wrote earlier,” says Ted Knap of the Scripps Howard newspapers. “Iran-Iraq doesn’t strike me as all the interesting,” says Arthur Wiese of the Houston Post. “Carter said he wouldn’t send troops.”
Later that evening, at the Meadowlands Hilton in Secaucus, Jody Powell comes into the press filing center for the first time that day. Powell is there for a reason. It is apparent the White House wants the President’s comments on aggression to make the front page everywhere. The New York Times could be particularly helpful on the aggression story because a high level Iranian is due to arrive at the UN in a day or so. The President might be able to downplay print media most of the time on the campaign trail, but when he wants to get a message to a foreign diplomat, print has its place – an important place. It would be wonderful if Muhammed Whoever-he-is could see in cold black type that President Carter has implied the Iraqis are aggressors. And the Times is still the newspaper of record. But before he changes his lead, the New York Times man on the Carter campaign beat, Steve Weisman wants to check with his desk.
Weisman walks across the room to call his editors who consult the venerable Times senior diplomatic correspondent, Bernard Gwertzman. He returns shortly and reports to Powell what the “Secretary of State” – as Weisman refers to Gwertzman – has said: No dice. It seems he heard Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher use the word aggressor in connection with the Iraquis two weeks ago. It will not go into Weisman’s lead, or even into his story.
To soften the blow, Wiseman then tells Jody that his 5000 word profile of him has been “locked” that night but he wasn’t able to get the word Piss-ant into the New York Times. “I think that’s a great place for the word piss-ant,” says Powell. “If you can’t use the word piss-ant in The New York Times, what are you going to say when one of your editors dies and you have to write an obituary?”
Meanwhile, down in the banquet room of the Hilton, Ted Kennedy is shifting restlessly in his seat and staring into space while Carter exhorts the Democratic machine to get out the vote. It’s sort of like watching a little league coach asking the Phillies to ring doorbells. Then Carter delivers his favorite line: “Remember,” the President says, “the best weapon is one that is never fired in combat and the best soldier is one who never lays down his life or sheds his blood in the field of battle.”
Later on the way back to Newark airport, one of the reporters starts a pool on how many times Carter will used his “best weapon is the one that’s never fired” line between now and Election Day. 112 is the low estimate. The bus arrives at Andrews Air Force Base a little before midnight. It has been a 17 hour day: the press has made nine stops, visited three states, and none of them knows any more about Jimmy Carter than when they started off that morning.
Day II: This Reporter Experiences First Hand Commodity Fetishism and Video Jam.
The Carter campaign, Windsor Locks, Conn – “It’s a commodity fetishism,” lectures Robert Scheer, as the press waits for the arrival of Air Force One. The ramp is “frozen”, a Secret Service phrase for securing the area near Air Force One before the President either takes off or arrives. When the Deacon – the Secret Service code name for Carter – touches ground the ramp is unfrozen and the President can proceed with his first “set piece” of the day – the airport arrival. (Town meetings are also called set pieces, and so, in fact, is most of the campaign.)
While Air National guardsman come to their doorways to witness the scene of the Presidential bullet proof limo being eased into place, Scheer continues: “It used to be assumed that if you traveled with a politician you could question him. But why are reporters here? There is no reason. We pick up the leavings of these set pieces. It’s feeding the news commodity. These news organizations make a lot of money and they have to write it off so they pile up these expenses. There’s no use value. We could be making mattresses or something.”
Donaldson, meanwhile, has another gripe. He wasn’t able to get anything about Carter’s aggression remarks in his spot for World News Tonight. The news had come too late in the day, and on “deep background,” which essentially means the reporter’s own authority. By the time he could check it out, he was already halfway home with a political spot. The insertion of an item on a foreign policy shift would just be confusing to viewers. “In the best of all possible worlds you would have had two spots,” says Donaldson, “a foreign policy spot at the lead of the broadcast, and then a Kennedy-Carter spot during the political section. The curious thing to me is that if the administration wants to send these diplomatic signalings it has to prepare the ground some way if it wants immediate dissemination. Not that this was a TV story necessarily. This is not huggin’ Daddy King after you’ve blown it on ethnic purity. That’s a picture story. You can write all day about that and it means nothing. They didn’t give a damn whether we picked up on it immediately or not.”
“Quite frankly,” Robert Neuman of the Carter campaign staff says later on the plane, “these reporters are boring and lazy. They ask the same questions over and over again, they’re so repetitive, and the stories they go after don’t have any relevancy.” So much for why reporters don’t get access – they bore the President. Neuman later amends his remarks to say that daily coverage of the President is spoonfed drone work and not the way to interpret a campaign. He’s partially right, but is it any wonder that the national press corps and the Carter White House are not a mutual admiration society?
“He’s going to accuse Reagan of being against crippled children today” says a reporter, referring to the mornings’ town meeting at a Connecticut crippled children’s hospital. The reporters begin to mimic Carter: “Can you imagine how many children will be crippled in a nuclear war?” By lunchtime the AP’s first lead carries the “news” of the day. The reporter hasn’t been far off: “Jimmy Carter portrayed himself as the protector of the very old, the very young, of the ill and the crippled, and pictured Ronald Reagan as the enemy of social security, medicare, and national health insurance.”
At 1:35 pm, back on the plane, a CBS producer sounds worried. “We’ve really got to count on the next town meeting. We have nothing.” Ten minutes later all that changes. Donaldson asks the President at the ramp of Air Force One about the impending visit of Iranian Prime Minister Muhammed Rajai and Carter says he would be amenable to meeting the Iranian official. Donaldson and the ABC crew are elated. They have their hard news story and don’t have to worry about “another bullshit town meeting.”
Several set pieces intervene between the hard news and Carter’s arrival at Hofstra University, the site of the second town meeting of the day. As usual we arrive with an elaborate police escort, roads cleared at every stop. There is a kind of contact-high from all this seeming power: action substitutes for substance. Occasionally people ever ask the press for their autographs. Time photographer Arthur Grace spots Jody Powell walking into Hofstra’s Physical Fitness Center. “Hey Jody,” he calls out. “Did you know that the best hamburger is one that’s never eaten and best bun is one that’s never toasted?”
At the Hofstra meeting Carter is so hawkish and hardline that if Ronald Reagan said some of the same things he’d be crucified. At one point Carter tells the crowd that “any potential adversaries” should know that if “they attack the United States they will be committing suicide.” The remark goes right over the heads of the regulars who say they’ve heard it all before. But Times man Frank Lynn who doesn’t regularly cover the Carter campaign, is sufficiently jolted to use the suicide line in his lead the next morning.
By 4:35 p.m. Donaldson is walking around like a tightly wound coil. It is time to become Mr. World News Tonight! He calls the crew over, does a little dance, drops his notes on the floor, and tapes the final close for his piece while the town meeting is still going on. “Today the President seems to be appealing to make a deal . . .”
“It’s relatively simple today,” Donaldson predicts confidently. “All I have to do is an Iran piece, not a campaign piece.” The story has to be ready by 6 p.m. when ABC begins to “feed” World News Tonight to local affiliates. But for all of ABC’s vaunted technical ability, and for all the millions spent on the network’s campaign coverage, it proves no so simple after all.
4:50 Donaldson, his producer, Terry Ray, and an editor set up a makeshift video editing operation with two tiny monitors in the back of the Hofstra gym.
4:55 Terry Ray tells Donaldson that the President also covered Salt II and some social issues today. “Forget that,” says Donaldson, “he didn’t say anything new.”
5:00 “Mr. Donaldson,” says a little boy, “can I have your autograph?” “Quickly,” says Donaldson, scribbling. “I’m busier than a one legged man in a kicking contest.”
5:10 Donaldson kneels down on the floor of the noisy gym, his head inside an open equipment case which is propped up on a table to shield him from noise. He is madly writing his first voice over. Several bystanders have gathered to watch.
5:12 “I’m ready,” Donaldson announces. “Let’s do it.” He begins to record inside the equipment case. “President Carter was campaigning in Connecticut when reports flooded Washington that a deal was about to be struck with Iran for release of the hostages in return for war materials which Iran badly needs, but he denied it.”
5:18 Trouble. There are no good campaign shots of Cater not speaking which are long enough to cover Donaldson’s voiceover.
5:20 “Are you telling me we aren’t going to be able to edit today?” Donaldson asks. “My friends, it’s a little late to decide we can’t edit. Two days in a row now have been a disaster. Ok, let’s go for a less dramatic shot.”
5:23 A frantic call to New York to find out Rajai’s exact title. Donaldson has called him the Foreign Minister. “New York says he’s the Prime Minister. Carter calls him the Foreign minister,” protests Donaldson. “They all do,” say Ray. Donaldson re-records his voiceover.
5:37 More trouble. They have now “brought” Carter to Long Island but in the middle of the meeting Carter took off his jacket and now they cannot match shots. Moreover, the crew has shot no “cutaway” of the Hofstra crowd or Carter.
5:42 A technician comes running up. “Call your desk in New York. They’re yelling.” Donaldson and Ray are manically shuffling video cassettes and speeding them up on the monitor to find the right shot.
5:46 Donaldson slumps to his knees, sticks his head in the equipment case and records the transition to his final close.
5:50 The spot is too long. They cut it and make do with a poor cutaway shot.
5:55 The last shot is laid in, but Ray can’t get through to the New York “feed line”. “Is there another line, Terry?” Donaldson asks, about ready to explode, “I got it, Sam, it’s ringing.”
5:58 “Stu, there’s no leader on this,” Ray says into the phone, “and you’ve got to boost the audio up. Listen, just cover this one at 6 and we’ll . . .” “Don’t use it then,” Donaldson interrupts, sensing Ray’s hesitation. “Don’t start on me, Sam,” says Ray.
5:59 The spot is fed. “Re-rack, Terry.” Donaldson orders. He’s going to try to improve the spot for the 6:30 feed. For the next half hour Donaldson and Ray continue to search for new pictures and get a few. But their efforts go for nought.
6:30 Donaldson watches Ray on the phone to New York. “Why isn’t it going to air, Terry?” “There’s an audio problem,” Ray says. Donaldson’s eyes are on fire as he shouts, “Stop the feed then!”
For the second night in a row, Sam Donaldson does not get an important story on World News Tonight.
Day III: This reporter Rides the Zoo Plane and Meets the Ghost of the Gipper
Reagan campaign – New York City. Republicans have more fun. Thank God. At least they do on the Reagan campaign, and so does the press covering him. Maybe it’s the show biz influence, or all of Nancy’s Adolphos and Galanos, but the Reagan press corps is decidedly spiffier than Carter’s. They are almost intimidating on the back lawn of Gracie Mansion where they wait for the Mayor and the Governor to emerge from their tete-a-tete the morning after the Al Smith dinner. There are Big Feet galore and tough attractive female journalists in silks and tweeds. (The next day, when everybody puts their jeans back on, it is clear they got dressed up for New York.)
There is even hard news as soon as the press corps gets to LaGuardia. Reagan announces he’ll debate Carter, thought his statement is so convoluted and there are so many planes flying overhead that it takes a few minutes to figure out what he is saying, or is about to say. His press secretary Lyn Nofziger comes to the rescue Nofziger, who looks like a cross between a bulldog and barracuda, is the Reagan button-your-lip man. He was on the outs for a while because Nancy didn’t like him much, but now he goes around wearing a huge red plastic “I Love Nancy” button and appears in firm control – as when he shoves his clipboard in front of the camera to turn the questions off.
Reporters covering Reagan seem to have a bit more access to him than those covering Carter, but this is a world in which access is gauged in mini-seconds. Because Reagan has more press traveling with him, the campaign maintains two press planes: There it the “First Plane,” which carries Reagan and Nancy, his principal staff, some secret service, and almost all the regular reporters and TV people. For the rest, there is the Zoo Plane. Those on the Zoo Plane never see Nancy roll an orange down the aisle – the take-off ritual on Reagan’s “Leadership 80’ United 727 – nor are they passed chocolates by the would-be First Lady.
The Zoo plane has enjoyed a certain notoriety, but the mood is gloomy on the flight to Chicago. There has been “an incident”. A second string UPI reporter, a Zoo Plane regular, has written a story claiming that FAA regulations are routinely ignore on the plane and the stewardesses are the target of “lustful comments.” The story has not been well received by United Airlines of the flight attendant’s union, and they are planning to pull the much-beloved stewardesses off the plane. Not even Ronald Reagan’s personal phone call to the union pleading the stewardesses’ cause seems to have much impact. The UPI man is being shunned. He has violated the delicate code of ethics of the campaign’s tightly knit community. “He should leave,” a woman reporter tells her male colleague. “He’s damaged the stewardesses’ careers and he’s just made the lives of 118 people that much unhappier for the rest of the campaign.” The UPI man defends himself and says it’s only some of the vindictive Reagan staff and TV people who are giving him trouble. “Some of these people go back to Nixon,” he says knowingly.
Now, every time the Zoo Plane takes off a disembodied voice comes over the P.A. system and warns, “This flight is off the record. Let the party begin.” So the world will never know what happens on the Zoo Plane. But it can be reported that that wild and crazy stand-up comic from the New York Times op-ed page, Anthony Lewis, was seen wearing a pair of magnetized United Airlines wings on his forehead.
At Luther High School in North Chicago, where Reagan is to do a “private taping,” teenaged cheerleaders play to the cameras and the school band tries to serenade the press by blasting their fight song through the cafeteria windows as reporters dictate their stories long distance.
In one of the corridors three teenage “women” waving pompoms descend on a visitor. “Don’t you want to interview us?” one asks. “My name is Paula Dziedzic and I’m nice.” The visitor whips out her notebook. “You’re the pompom girls.” “No!”, they contradict in an indignant chorus. “We’re pompom persons!” How long have they been pompom persons? “Two years,” they answer. “The majority of the women here are for the ERA. Only two aren’t and they’re weird.”
Reagan, whose nickname among the press is the O & W – oldest & wisest—has more “private time” in his schedule than Carter, time when everyone assumes he’s sleeping – so his campaign is more relaxed. But the grueling pace takes its toll nonetheless. Late in the day, at Chicago’s Regency O’Hare, Reagan’s favorite photographer, 36-year old Michael Evans of Sygma, is taking his own break. Evan’s who primarily shoots for Time, has gained 30 pounds and spent $1500 in medical bills in the last few months as a result of constant colds and flu, toting 25 to 30 pounds of cameras all day, and the pressure of competing with the other photographers on the campaign. He has been with Reagan on and off since 1975 and completely identifies with him. “I was terribly depressed during George Bush’s Big Mo,” Evans says. “I thought my store of four years was going down the drain. My whole world is the candidate, the staff, and 18 people in the press pool. I have no sense of the other journalists here. You know, this isn’t the easiest story in the world for a photographer to cover. But every once in a while something different happens. Like the other day the governor got a 50 pound dead salmon in Oregon. I’m in constant fear of spacing out. I used to be good at crossword puzzles. I can’t do them anymore.”
The stewardesses are gone when the press returns to the Zoo Plane to fly to a homecoming “Pep Rally” at Reagan’s old school, Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois. In their place are two young blond male stewards. Dinner consists of two very long limp weenies and there are many vile jokes.
“Dutch” Reagan’s homecoming to Eureka, a small liberal arts school founded by the Christian Church, could not have been made up by Thornton Wilder. Up on the podium of the jam-packed gym, Reagan’s 86- year-old football coach, Ralph (Mac) McKinzie sets the tone. “ I knew him as Dutch,” McKinzie tells the likes of David Broder, Anthony Lewis and Frank Reynolds, “and from now on I will refer to him as Dutch.” Several times while he speaks the white-haired old man gets carried away and his right arm starts thumping uncontrollably on the podium. “Geez,” says a radio man, “How do I get rid of the thump? He’s screwing up my audio.”
But the coach still has his wits about him.
Mac McKinzie presents Reagan and Nancy with maroon football jerseys, number 80. “I’m not sure what the 80 stands for. It’s not his football number but I figured these’d be pretty good things to own when you jog around the Rose Garden.” Genuinely moved, Reagan slips on the jersey without messing one strand of his pompadour. The crowd loves it. Pointing to the football team and turning towards Reagan, the old coach says, “I hope they go out there tomorrow and win one for the Gipper!” The crowd erupts again. A little girls in the front row holds up a sign: “Hollywood: I need a job.” Nancy kisses the football players.
Reagan, playing to his audience, once again dons the role of The Gipper. “As far as I’m concerned,” he says, “everything good that has happened to me – everything started here on this campus in those four years that are still such a part of my life.” And turning to the football team, he adds, “Go out there and remember one thing. A team that won’t be beat can’t be beat!” Over the roar of the crowd comes the announcer’s voice: “Let Dutch hear you! That was a wow of a wingding!”
The Big Feet think it’s wonderful. “Let’s put McKinzie on the ticket,” says David Broder. Outside, Reagan gets ready to light the big bonfire. “This looks like a movie set,” Chris Wallace enthuses as waves of an offkey rendition of the school song ring out over the P.A. system. Reagan leans forward to put a torch to the pyre, and the announcer beams, “Watch it, Dutch. Don’t singe your eyeballs!” The next day Eureka loses to Concordia 14-7.
DAY IV: This Reporter Realizes What It’s All About: Moving The Needle of History.
Reagan campaign, Normal Illinois – It’s hard to figure out whether Nancy and Ron look most like Margaret and Jim from Father Knows Best or June and Ward from Leave it to Beaver. (The secret service calls the “Rawhide and Rainbow.”) They are right behind the press in the picturebook Illinois State homecoming parade, standing in a big red convertible, waving red pennants, Nancy sporting a big mum corsage. They always get the props right – no caffeine nerves here. Every time Reagan sees a sign in the crowd for Carter, Anderson, or the ERA – one says “Reagan is not Normal,” another “Bonzo go back to college” – he just laughs, waves, and gives the thumbs up signal. “Does not computer, does not compute,” says a radio reporter, shaking his head.
There are two “press floats,” big dump trucks filled with TV crews and some print people, and bystanders treat time like they are part of the parade. They are. The crowd waves to them and they wave back. Africans traveling with the State Department are madly photographing the press floats the way we’d snap Masais about ready to do their tribal dance. A woman calls to Nancy, “Gonna win?” She shrugs. “I hope.”
On the stump at Dixie Trucker’s Home truck stop McLean, Illinois, Reagan attacks Carter’s economic policies from the back of a huge semi-rig. This is the second stop of eight, part of a 164 mile bus tour through central and southern Illinois from Peoria to St. Louis, a perfect album of small town America with all the red, white and blue trimmings made for TV. Yet because it takes place on a Saturday it will never get the network exposure it would have had on a weekday. “It’s OK though,” says a TV cameraman, “we just keep piling up these images for local TV.”
“It makes no sense to suggest the guy who got us in all this trouble get us out of it,” Reagan tells the crowd. “Could you please move your sign,” an NBC cameraman asks a woman. “If you don’t, millions of Americans won’t be able to see the governor.”
Now Reagan is at Lincoln’s tomb. It’s a great photo opportunity. The tradition here is to rub the nose of a huge bronze bust of Lincoln for luck. Posing for the cameras, Reagan patiently goes through the ritual. Then he lifts Nancy so she can reach up and rub the nose, too. Whirr, click. Reagan goes into the tomb and when he comes back out Something Terrible happens. He starts to answer a pool reporter’s questions about a hostage deal. Scribble, scribble, whirr whirr. But wait! It’s not in the script. Naughty Reagan has deviated and Lyn Nofziger runs over, freaked, nearly tackling the report in the process. He has let his candidate get away from him! “Thank you very much, thank you,” Nofziger says. It’s over.
Back on the bus James Brady, Reagan’s director of public affairs and senior policy and issues adviser, discourses on why access to the governor is so controlled. “We have our own agenda,” says Brady. “We don’t’ want a story to break before we’re ready to communicate it to the market.” Brady looks like one of those bears in the old Hamms Beer commercials – if you can picture one wearing Guccis and a yellow crew-neck with an embroidered duck. “You always have to think of two things, reach and frequency,” Brady explains. “We speak through you. If one person with only limited circulation breaks a story, no one else writes about it because it’s not news. You do it [control the access] based on your communication plan to the American people.”
Brady is responsible for briefing Reagan on the issues. He describes the candidate as both “verbal and visual.” “I verbally brief Reagan but I send in the written stuff first. Right, short memos. I figure three hours of preparation for every fifteen minutes I talk to him. What pushes the adrenalin?” he asks rhetorically. “You can move the needle.” (Brady always says “you” when he means “I”.) You have a sense of being a part of history whether you win or lose – you are electing the Leader of the Free World. It’s the ultimate challenge because on the other side you get your intellectual and tactical equals. It’s too important to be a game but it’s the ultimate game – lifesmanship monopoly.”
From the back of the bus, Gary Schuster of the Detroit News calls the the Reagan staffers in the front. “Did you hear about the editorial in the San Jose Mercury News? It suggested you put a Sierra Club volunteer in a room with a tree and Reagan in a room with a running car and see who dies first.”
At the coal mine, Reagan disappears for an hour longer than scheduled. At first the explanations are teasing. “He saw dark at the end of the tunnel, got in his jammies, and went to sleep,” says Douglas Kneeland of The New York Times. Then, because its’s half of why all this media is here in the first place, the predictions become dire. Pulses quicken. Did he collapse in the mine? This is, after all, a Body Watch. Brady leaves the bus. More speculation. White panel trucks speed down the road to the mine. Oh my God, it might be The Big Story. Then Reagan’s motorcade suddenly reappears without explanation.
By 7:45 p.m., twelve hours after the bus took off, a speck of the silvery St. Louis arch appears. The rally at the edge of the Mississippi is a beautifully executed audio-visual event. Bands play, balloons fly, fireworks light up the sky. Afterwards all the Reagan advance men congratulate one another. “Good show,” they keep saying, “good show.” Even Nofziger manages a smile.
Back on the Zoo Plane, the announcement is made that come Monday the stewardesses will be back as “public relations representatives.” A dozen duck whistles – TV technicians’ status gear – blare on cue, and the technicians pass out butterscotch sundaes.
“”In a way,” Douglas Kneeland of The New York Times says, “we’re not covering real events, we’re covering a candidate doing things for TV. If we care to pay and ride along and watch all this it’s all right, but it’s not being done for our benefit. Print takes a back seat. The purpose of a campaign used to be to go out and talk to as many voters as possible. Now that’s outdated. We’ve often joked that we could all save ourselves this traveling around if they’d just go out to Nebraska somewhere and put up an elaborate set. Here’s the small town, here’s the grain elevator, here’s the skyscraper. Then just bring the people in.”
The irony, of course, is that most of the reporters see all these months of campaigning, these endless hours and millions of dollars spent, as superfluous in light of the debate. “When the debate comes off,” said Detroit New’s Gary Schuster, “all this is meaningless. It will become a one week campaign.”