Somewhere in New Hampshire, a couple dozen or so journalists are suffering the consequences of another all-nighter on the John Edwards press bus.
If it’s anything like the one the campaign ran in Iowa, just six days ago, the journalists are tired. They are sick of the food—just snacks, really—and desperate for a moment to sit at a table, plug in the laptop, and file a story.
I know this because I joined the traveling press corps for a good chunk of Edwards’ thirty-six-hour “Marathon for the Middle Class” across Iowa. It was to be a feat of great endurance, where Edwards would show how hard he was willing to work, not just to convince every last Iowan, but by extension, as Our Next President.
And I wanted to be there, to tell the story of what it’s like to track a presidential contender through the dead of night, from the Mississippi to the Missouri.
My presence was not appreciated.
Once my angle was known, the candidate’s press staff exchanged a round of nervous Blackberry messages. For most part, they decided to let me be, but insisted that everything they said in person or over the bus’s P.A.—anodyne greetings, trip information, idle jokes—be strictly off the record, as the rest of the press corps had previously agreed. At the end of the trip, the bus’s top staffer refused to give me his last name.
Many of the journalists weren’t much more sympathetic. One called me a “spider.” Twice. In heated discussions, they argued that I’d unfairly dropped in without advance notice, that I wasn’t giving them a chance to avoid being “part of the story,” that they didn’t meet the Supreme Court’s definition of public figures, and that they didn’t like seeing their names in print. (“Except at the top of your story?” I asked one.)
We worked out an uneasy compromise, which I’ll honor. I could use atmospheric quotes so long as I was vague about their precise source—I could only attach a name or outlet if cleared on an individual basis.
When I later crossed paths with Mitt Romney’s press corps, and told them that I’d be writing a slice of life story about them, no one seemed worried. Romney, of course, has long been viewed as a major national contender, and these journalists were all firmly mid-career. Granted, I didn’t follow them for over twenty-seven hours, but for whatever reason, they didn’t consider a twenty-four-year-old reporter from CJR—or the attendant possibility that my article would be linked from Gawker or Romenesko—much of a threat.
While Edwards was a major Iowa contender, his bus was not the same sort of plum assignment. And while I didn’t do a complete canvas, the average age of reporters aboard from Newsweek, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, The Stranger (a Seattle alt-weekly), CBS, and the New York Daily News was about twenty-seven. These were young folks, out to make their name without screwing up in the spotlight.
In any case, they didn’t have much to worry about. For the most part, they were scarily diligent, trundling off the bus in the dead of night to watch and record Edwards’ every word.
That was exactly what the campaign wanted. Everyone on the bus recognized that this was a gimmick. While local TV turned out for several bookend events, at the middle stops—scheduled for midnight, 2:15, and 5:15 in the morning—the national retinue was the only game in town (that would be Atlantic, Centerville, and Ottumwa, respectively.)
“It’s not for them,” said one writer, remarking on the crowds. “It’s for us.”
The candidate made no “news” throughout the trip, and at these small, late-night (or early-morning) events, his speeches were brief enough that they could have been TV spots—a bus member clocked one at under three minutes. “It’s so short as to almost be meaningless,” said one newspaper reporter. Someone joked that the presentations were so rote that the corps could make up cards and play stump speech bingo.