The Boys and Girls on the Bus

Editor’s note: Campaign Desk’s Zachary Roth joined the campaign reporters accompanying Vice President Cheney on a bus tour of northeast Pennsylvania this past Wednesday. For one who spends his days criticizing these folks’ finished work, the trip was an eye-opener into the self-enclosed and self-referential bubble within which campaign reporters are forced both by the conventions of politics and the conventions of journalism to ply their trade. Along the way, the constraints and frustrations of the traveling press corps as it tags along with a lesser candidate on a lesser trip through a lesser territory became evident. Here is his report.

By Zachary Roth

I was at Scranton-Wilkes-Barre Airport, in northeast Pennsylvania, at 8:30 Wednesday morning. After a police dog had sniffed our bags — and one cameraman wiped doggie saliva off his camera lens — we took our places on or behind a truck riser, while we waited for the vice president’s flight to land. A network cameraman was finishing his breakfast of Cheetos and Sprite. A candy bar poked from the top of his shirt pocket.

The press corps was a mix of local and national reporters: the Scranton Times had a reporter and photographer (though after covering the airport landing, they left), as did the Harrisburg Patriot-News, the major paper from the state capitol. Reuters also sent a reporter, and AP dispatched a Harrisburg-based staffer. All the networks sent camera crews, and CNN had two reporters along as well. The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, and USA Today all sent reporters, though the New York Times did not.

In quick order, the plane landed, Cheney got off, the cameras snapped, Cheney got on his bus, and we got on ours, part of a convoy of cars, SUVs, and buses that snaked its way through the Pennsylvania hills. At the first event, at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, billed as a “town hall meeting,” Cheney, after being introduced by his daughter Liz, (who appeared with her own three daughters) sat with his wife Lynn on stools and answered questions from the crowd, which was seated on all four sides.

The reporters were assigned to a roped-off area, where they sat with laptops and notepads, and typed or wrote almost continuously throughout the event. Most of their notes were quick scribbling of verbatim quotes. Some turned on tape recorders.

Afterwards, the reporters were disappointed. “No news”, said one. “Not even a smidgen,” agreed Karen Travers of ABC. “And after yesterday’s excitement …” she said, referring to the vice president’s declaration on Tuesday that he personally opposed President Bush’s proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

Back on the bus, David Morgan of Reuters immediately used his cell phone to call a professor and ask for his take on Cheney’s gay marriage comments. Meanwhile Marc Levy of the AP was talking to his editor, summarizing the gist of Cheney’s comments: that we need a new national security strategy to confront the challenges of a new era, and to replace the cold war strategy of containment.

Levy read quotes from Cheney down the phone to his editor, including the following: “John Kerry said as much in his convention speech, that he wanted to go back to the way things used to be, and that America would resort to military force only when attacked.” In reality, Cheney was being disingenuous: Kerry has not said this, and his foreign policy advisers have specifically kept the door open for the use of pre-emptive attacks. But in talking to his editor, Levy didn’t offer any hint that Cheney had it wrong, and his editor didn’t raise that issue either. (Indeed, not once all day did I hear a reporter attempt to assess the accuracy of anything Cheney said. They were concerned only with accurately transcribing his words and actions, and with assessing the strategic purpose of the trip. Fact-checking the vice president’s assertions didn’t appear to be on the agenda.) The quote about military force appears in Levy’s write-up of Cheney’s day, which ran in papers Thursday.

An atmosphere of collegiality prevailed amongst the reporters on the bus. When Levy, still on the phone with his editor, didn’t know the name of the former Lieutenant-Governor who had introduced Cheney in Wilkes-Barre, Pete DeCoursey of the Harrisburg Patriot-News — eager to burnish his credentials as the Pennsylvania political expert — told him it was Bill Scranton. A short while later, when Morgan, of Reuters, mentioned that he needed to speak to Terry Madonna, an oft-quoted political science professor at Pennyslvania’s Franklin and Marshall College, DeCoursey recited Madonna’s work and cell numbers off the top of his head. “There’s a very big race between me and Terry Madonna for biggest media whore in Pennsylvania,” DeCoursey explained.

Morgan gave his editor his assessment of the Bush campaign’s goal for the day: “Seems like it was Cheney softening his image. He’s traveling with his wife and daughters, and his grand-daughters.” Later in the day, Richard Simon of the Los Angeles Times gave the same opinion to his editor, in more sarcastic terms: “It’s all part of the Cheney effort to show he’s a human being.” DeCoursey, for one, thought that was a tall order: “He always looks like he’s cheating at cards,” he said of the veep.

When I let on to some reporters that I was there to cover them, rather than the vice president, a few were taken aback at the thought of the tables being turned. “Is everything we say on the record?” asked Reuters’ Morgan anxiously.

By this point it was almost noon, and reporters were starting to pick at the snacks — chips, fruit, cookies, and soda, provided (at cost) by the Bush campaign. “We eat a lot,” said Travers of ABC.

The next event was unscheduled: an impromptu rally in the central square of the town of Hazelton, in which Cheney, flanked by his family and the town’s Republican mayor, repeated the themes of the Wilkes-Barre appearance. But at one point, as the crowd launched into a “Four More Years” chant, a woman at the back, standing with her two small children, yelled out, “4 million jobs!” in response — an apparent (and exaggerated) swipe at the Bush administration’s record on unemployment. She was immediately surrounded by reporters, most of whom — the print ones at least — had been showing little interest in the proceedings taking place on stage. Susan Page of USA Today led the pack, asking the woman to expand on her opposition to the president. After Page thanked her and left, the woman said to her children, with satisfaction, “Come on, let’s go. I’m going to be in USA Today.”

After the third event — a rally in a packed high school gym in Pottsville, in which Cheney gave a speech which sounded the same notes as his earlier appearances, and which received a rapturous response from the Republican faithful — reporters were led to a filing center equipped with assigned seats, internet connections, cold-cuts and salad. They had a little under an hour to eat and file before getting back on the bus. Most of the print reporters grabbed some food, then sat down to type and eat simultaneously. Simon of the Los Angeles Times was having technical difficulties: He muttered curses under his breath, but was polite to the person on the other end of the phone who helped him get online.

The next stop — again impromptu — was at a roadside farmer’s market in tiny Catawissa. (The campaign’s press aide spelled out the town’s name for reporters with only one “s,” but the AP’s intrepid Levy, armed with a map, later informed his colleagues of the correct spelling.)

The campaign, concerned about too many reporters getting in the way of the veep’s rural photo op, declared this a “pool” event, meaning only certain reporters would be able to follow Cheney around as he chatted with the farmer and bought fruit and vegetables. They would then report back to the rest of the group. Page of USA Today, volunteered on behalf of the print reporters, and no one seemed to object.

Though only a few reporters got within spitting distance of Cheney, almost everyone got off the bus. Most of the photographers aimed their cameras toward a field where Liz Cheney and her three young daughters were holding out alfalfa hay for the cows to eat. “The most enthusiastic crowd all day,” quipped the Los Angeles Times’ Simon of the cows. But when Cheney came over to help out, the cows took one look at him and ran away, much to the amusement of the press corps.

Back on the bus, reporters gathered around Page as she gave her pool report, detailing exactly how many of each type of fruit the veep had bought (nine apples, two green peppers, and 12 ears of corn, if you’re interested.) Some reporters had trouble keeping up, and asked Page to repeat the vital vegetable statistics. No one seemed to treat the information as anything other than extremely important. One reporter later told me that the vegetable data, though perhaps not of any immediate utility, could provide useful background for longer features on Cheney.

Page went on to report to the group that Cheney had paid for the purchase with a ten-dollar bill, which the farmer accepted and did not break. (A reporter asked Page whether Cheney had pulled the bill from a wallet. No, she replied, it had come from a loose roll in the vice-presidential pocket. This was noted.) Page said she had asked the farmer whether the $10 had covered the purchase, and that the farmer had said it didn’t, but that giving Cheney a discount “was an honor.” Lest the assembled reporters get the wrong idea, Page insisted: “I’m not trying to make the story that Cheney underpaid.” The reporters imagined out loud the headlines that such a storyline might produce: “Cheney Stiffs Farmer!” or, “Cheney: Cheap.”

A reporter later told me that a sort of unofficial competition exists between the scribes as to who can provide the most detailed and comprehensive pool reports. It would be hard to deny that Page did well on that score.

The vice president’s final planned event was yet another rally, this time in a college gymnasium in Bloomsburg, where he again received an enthusiastic response. I observed to CNN’s Ed Henry that Cheney had given almost word for word the same speech he had given in Pottsville. Henry, who had been alternately typing and talking on his BlackBerry, agreed, his smile suggesting frustration at the repeat performance, and the lack of news it offered. Kirsten Scharnberg of the Chicago Tribune offered her take: “They’re trying out his speech before the convention.”

There had been rumors all day that we might end the trip with a detour to Wiliamsport, where “Big Time” and his family would take in a game at the Little League World Series. After a vice presidential pit-stop at McDonald’s — Scharnberg, the pool reporter this time, informed the group that Cheney had ordered a salad — we arrived at the game after 7:00.

The press corps, having realized this wasn’t going to be a day on which Cheney “committed news,” as they put it, was growing bored and distracted. The camera operators took some shots of the players warming up on the field, but after a few minutes, we had seen all we were going to see. No one even pretended to be interested in the game, even when one player hit a grand slam. Nina Easton of the Boston Globe used the time to pick DeCoursey’s brain on the intricacies of Pennsylvania politics.

As we stood desultorily around on a hill above the bleachers, Little League World Series representatives brought out sports bags as gifts to the media. DeCoursey joked that I couldn’t criticize the group’s ethics for accepting freebies, since I was taking one myself. Easton took two, citing two sports fans at home, though she wondered aloud whether her 14-year old would be too old to think the bags were cool.

We were given a press release offering background on the history of presidential visits to the Little League World Series. George W. Bush, it informed us, became the first sitting president to attend a game in 2001, though both LBJ, in 1960, and George H.W. Bush, in 1980, had come while campaigning for the vice presidency. The PR rep said he’d be available if reporters had any questions about the World Series. There were no takers.

I fell into conversation with Dusan Neumann, a reporter/commentator/cameraman/producer for the BBC World Service. (“It’s cheaper if they just get one guy to do it,” he said ruefully.)

Neumann, who grew up in Prague and who used a fake passport to defect to the U.S. in 1980, noted that the BBC proper doesn’t seem interested in the election, since it’s already apparently decided that it wants Kerry to win. By contrast, the press — and the public — in eastern Europe, view Bush more favorably, because the memory of totalitarianism is sufficiently recent that anyone who topples a dictator earns admiration.

As for the American news media, Neumann isn’t impressed. Like many observers, especially foreign ones, he can’t understand the obsession with trivia, and believes the press does a poor job at informing the public about the pressing issues of the day. He told me how he planned to begin his next written piece:

“Whilst U.S. Marines, cavalry, Air Force and Iraq’s security forces were tightening a noose around al-Sadr Mahdi militia and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was hustled to Najaf, the cream of the national press core was counting apples, tomatoes, green peppers and ears of corn.”

We didn’t leave Williamsport until after 9:30. Chris Knight, a photographer with the Patriot-News, was having technical problems trying to send photos back to the office from his laptop. Eventually, he gave up, and turned the screen of the computer to face his Patriot-News colleague DeCoursey, Levy of the AP, and myself. By rotating all the pictures he had taken that day - around 30, mostly of Cheney and his family on stage — onto the screen in sequence, and setting the audio to the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” he created a passably entertaining ad hoc campaign movie.

The four of us watched the rotating stream of photographs, showing events we had already witnessed once for ourselves that day, as the bus made its meandering way back to the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre Airport, where our day had begun. It was 11:00 p.m.

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.