Where Is Johnny?

By Liz Cox Barrett

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.

The Democrats named in Archibold’s story blame Edwards’ lack of a “national profile” on a failure of strategy: Edwards has not been utilized properly, is not attacking enough. The Edwards campaign blames the press itself, particularly its preference for controversy and attack. (Mark Kornblau, who heads Edwards’ traveling press staff, complained to Campaign Desk: “At this point, things are often not judged as news unless they are highly confrontational and borderline offensive. That’s why Vice President Cheney has been in the news so often.”) In turn, the press blames lack of access to Edwards himself — a candidate is less likely to crack the front page if he’s not even available to field questions.

“[Edwards] doesn’t do press conferences,” Archibold said. “Since Labor Day he’s come back once to our area of the plane, to give a cake to a departing reporter.” (The airline attendants on the Edwards plane said they’d never seen the candidate go back to the press section). “Sometimes after an event [Edwards] gives statements,” Archibold said, echoing the complaints of several other reporters on the campaign plane, “and we fire questions at him, and he walks away.”

According to Archibold, there are some “heavy hitters” who have been granted quality time with Edwards lately. He pointed to NPR’s Nina Totenberg who interviewed Edwards last week for her own “where has Edwards been”-themed piece. Asked if the New York Times and the Washington Post — both represented on the Edwards plane — were not “heavy hitters,” Archibold offered that it is more about the seniority of the reporter than the news organization: the Times’ Nagourney would be more likely to get access than Archibold; the Washington Post’s Dan Balz would get access before Matthew Mosk, who has recently rotated on to the Edwards plane for the Post. (Mosk told Campaign Desk he was struck by how “skeletal” the press contingent was when he joined last week. On Tuesday, half of the very expensive seats in the press section of the Edwards plane were vacant.)

What would have to happen in Pittsburgh for Edwards to make the next day’s front page? Archibold explained: “Major shifts in campaign message are likely to come from Kerry, not Edwards. The VP candidates, by nature, are JV. It’s harder for them [and hence for Archibold] to crack the front page.” And then, affirming both Kornblau’s point and that of the various Democrats Archibold had quoted fretting about Edwards, Archibold said: “Cheney has been able to [get on the front page] by saying some pretty controversial stuff.”

Archibold’s “Louder Voice” story bred copycats. NPR, as noted above, ran its own “Where’s Johnny?” segment last week. As the Edwards press buses rolled toward West Virginia on Wednesday, the Dallas Morning News’ Colleen Nelson checked in with her editor to provide an update on her own in-the-works version of “Is Edwards being used effectively?” And, she told her editor excitedly, “The rumor on the bus is there might be some sort of press availability or ‘on-the-record’ something today. If [Edwards] does talk to us I should write about that because it would be unusual.” (Turns out, no such “press avail” took place).

Kornblau, the head of Edwards’ traveling press staff, insists press access to the candidate is “pretty good.” On a tarmac in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, Kornblau described to Campaign Desk how “every now and then [the traveling press] will have an off-the-record dinner with Edwards.” As he spoke, a Fox News Channel producer came into earshot and raised her eyebrows. Kornblau quickly added, “And by ‘every now and then’ I mean once,” which the Fox producer confirmed with a nod. “But if [the press] ask[s] for time with [Edwards,] 70 to 80 percent of the time they get it,” Kornblau said. The Fox News producer again raised her eyebrows, and Kornblau added, “Unless it’s Bill O’Reilly requesting, then it’s 50-50.”

If the traveling press isn’t getting one-on-one time with the candidate, they do get daily — often two or three times daily — exposure to the candidate’s standard stump speech. At a rally in Newark, New Jersey on Tuesday, a CNN producer mouthed along in perfect synchronicity with Edwards — “What we believe [pause], what ahhh believe” — as if reading from the same mental script. Bonney Kapp, a New York City-based reporter for CBS News who has been traveling with John Edwards since his first solo appearance on July 14, had no trouble identifying the phrases that have worn most thin with her. “When [Edwards] talks about racial inequality,” Kapp explained, “he often asks the crowd, [Kapp turned on an overdone southern drawl] ‘Where should [race] be debated/discussed? Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.’” Also grating, she confessed, is Edwards’ favorite spiel about misleading drug company ads and (accent turned on again) ” ‘how they would have you believe that you and your spouse will be skipping through the fields …’ ” And of course, Kapp added, “hope is on the way” is by now also crazy-making. “You just sort of turn your tape recorder off.” Kapp carries with her a pocket map of the United States, coloring in with an orange highlighter each state she and Edwards have visited. By Tuesday afternoon, New Jersey turned orange on Kapp’s map, leaving white only the state of Mississippi, a swath of the upper Midwest around North Dakota, and a few smaller states here and there.

Edwards impersonations abound on the press bus. Given Edwards’ propensity to refer vaguely to “news reports,” on Tuesday morning, several reporters — after rehashing the previous night’s karaoke bar exploits in New York City — began pointing to stories in the New York Times that Edwards would likely mention that day on the stump. A story on Starbucks raising its prices generated a handful of Edwards imitations. “You can’t afford health care, you can’t make ends meet, you can’t even pay for your coffee anymore,” drawled one reporter. “When John Kerry is president, Starbucks will be cheaper again,” someone else added.

With less than forty days to go, many in the traveling press have grown weary of Edwards’ stump speech, weary of attending rallies and events at which they can find no “news,” weary of covering the vice presidential pick on the challenger’s ticket who ranks fourth out of four candidates in terms of innate “newsworthiness.” On a day that took reporters from rainy New York City to rainy Pittsburgh to rainy Newark, New Jersey, twice someone on the bus bemoaned the fact that Hawaii is not a swing state.

In Pittsburgh, a journalist from outside the campaign trail “bubble” ducked on to the bus to have a brief word with Mark Kornblau. She briefly surveyed the slumped, rain-soaked traveling press corps, and tartly declared that she had heard that “the inverse of the Stockholm syndrome” was “taking hold.”

Then, quickly as she came, she was gone — free, unlike those left behind, from the confines of the bus.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.