Editor’s note: For two days this week, Campaign Desk’s Liz Cox Barrett joined Senator John Edwards’ traveling press corps as they accompanied the vice presidential candidate by plane and bus from New York City to Pittsburgh to New Jersey to West Virginia to Washington, D.C. Here is her first report.
Spirits were mixed among members of the John Edwards traveling press corps who stood waiting Wednesday for a down elevator in the Sheraton Newark Airport Hotel in Newark, New Jersey. For one thing, it was 9 a.m, a barbarous hour in the minds of most reporters. For another, it was raining. For a third, they were in Newark, and the night’s accommodations had been a far cry from the St. Regis Hotel in New York City where the Edwards press had bunked down two nights prior and had at their disposal (like other guests) the services of their own personal butlers. On the bright side, Edwards had just wrapped an interview with Don Imus. And Imus is known to do what the candidate’s daily campaign trail stump seldom does: generate potential story fodder. (Not much this time).
Bob Woodruff, an ABC anchor and correspondent, had temporarily rejoined the Edwards traveling press that morning. “How’s access?” Woodruff asked the group assembled in the elevator bank, which included Tim Funk of Knight Ridder and the Charlotte Observer’s Washington bureau, and Randal Archibold of the New York Times. “Not good,” someone replied. Archibold described how he’d been granted just eight minutes of Edwards’ time since Labor Day — and that was only after the campaign learned that Archibold was working on a premise (that Edwards “has no national profile”) that it wanted to try to rebut. “Very different from the primaries,” Woodruff mused, “when it was, ‘Senator, can I have an hour of your time?’”
Zack, a member of the Edwards campaign’s New Jersey-based advance staff, was charged with herding the group from the hotel to the LaGuardia Airport-bound press buses. He yanked out his cell phone and pretended to dial the candidate. “Hello, Senator?” he said, poker-faced. “The press would like you to be more accessible.” Nobody laughed but Zack.
The story that Randal Archibold — Campaign Desk’s assigned seat mate on the Edwards campaign plane — referred to in the Newark hotel elevator bank ran on page A1 of the Times on September 16, with a joint byline (Archibold and Adam Nagourney). In it, the duo quoted — by name, to Campaign Desk’s surprise and delight — a sprinkling of well-known Democrats complaining that Edwards was not being deployed to the maximum effect. En route from LaGuardia to Pittsburgh for an Edwards rally on Tuesday, Archibold described how this story came about.
“The political buzz, even pre-Labor Day, was why don’t you hear about Edwards much?” Archibold explained. (When asked exactly who was “buzzing,” he said both the Edwards traveling press and “the Washington punditry.”) Some prominent Democrats, Archibold said, “were concerned that Edwards was a resource not being best used, were concerned about losing [the election] and” — Archibold paused, to underscore that this was the unusual part — “willing to go on record.” Prominent Democrats like Sen. Joe Biden, Donna Brazile, and Tony Coehlo. Archibold’s story was originally slated for the weekend of September 18, but was moved up to September 16 after John Kerry went on “Imus in the Morning” on September 15 and Imus asked him, “Where’s John Edwards?” After that, Archibold said, the story couldn’t wait (lest other news outlets jump in and beat the Times to the punch, as Imus already had).
“[The Edwards people] took issue with my story,” Archibold continued, “because it made it seem like they’re not campaigning hard enough. But that wasn’t the point.” Why has Edwards disappeared? “was a perception that existed, as much as [the campaign] didn’t want to believe it,” he said. “It’s not [the campaign’s] favorite story line.”
The headline on Archibold’s piece read, “Democrats Seek Louder Voice From Edwards.” If the Times grasped the irony in the premise, it didn’t let on. After all, here was the country’s premier newspaper — which, as much as anyone, controls the visibility of candidates by deciding what merits coverage and what does not — running a story about prominent Democrats wondering out loud about why exactly Edwards had become invisible.