Vest, the most mobile and functional of the three How’s Your News? reporters, tends to land the most interviews. An immensely personable twenty-something from Maryland, Vest was born with Williams’ syndrome, or “cocktail party disorder,” a rare condition that makes you extremely outgoing. He is a human icebreaker. At the conventions, he is constantly introducing and reintroducing himself to strangers. “If you’re at a restaurant with him, by the end of the meal he knows everybody’s name,” says Ollman. In a 75-minute span on the convention floor one afternoon, he interviews, among other people, Karl Rove, John McCain, Kelly O’Donnell, reporter/rabbi David Nesenoff, and New York Times columnist David Brooks. “Did you meet anyone famous?” Vest asks a mildly puzzled Brooks, who responds that he saw Rudy Giuliani “over there” about 15 minutes ago. “We should go over there,” says Vest, immediately losing interest in the columnist.
But the interactions are just as telling. “You can tell a lot about a person on how they talk to our reporters,” says Bradford. “It’s a window into their character.” This is especially evident during the interviews conducted by Bobby Bird, a 57-year-old man with Down’s syndrome and a hole in his heart. (“When we’re running around, I’m always afraid that he’s gonna die,” says O’Brien.) Bird has been with How’s Your News? from the start. He speaks in his own gibberish language, foreign yet oddly familiar, as if familiar syllables and phonemes got shaken up and reattached in new, unparsable configurations. “Before Bobby’s mother died, she claimed that doctors were working on a computer that was gonna translate everything that came out of his mouth,” says O’Brien. It didn’t happen, but Bird doesn’t appear to mind. “They were going to teach him how to speak, but he didn’t want to,” says Ollman. “This works for him. Right, Bobby?” “Bourrah!” affirms a nodding Bird.
Being interviewed by him is a singularly disorienting experience; interviewees tend to blink, or blush, or assume they’re being pranked. “You were there when we talked to George Stephanopoulos, right?” Bradford says. On the second-to-last day of the RNC, Bird intercepted Stephanopoulos as he was heading out of the convention center and conducted a brief, exceedingly awkward interview in which the normally unflappable politico spent most of the time furrowing his brow and looking around, as if waiting for Ashton Kutcher to emerge from behind a planter. “Stephanopoulos gave me this look, sort of ‘What are you doing here?’” Bradford recalls.
The answer, of course, is that Bird is doing exactly the same thing the other reporters are doing. But at least Bird’s getting interesting reactions. Says Bradford: “The interviews that Bobby’s doing are as revealing as anyone else.”
It’s the last day of the Republican National Convention, and the floor of the Tampa Bay Times Forum is thick with reporters, volunteers, and delegates killing time while they wait for something to happen. In several hours, presidential nominee Mitt Romney will descend and tell the nation why he deserves their votes. “They built a whole new stage for Mitt Romney tonight,” says a reporter doing a stand-up for a local news station. He pauses and restarts. “They built a whole new stage for Mitt Romney tonight,” he says again.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, Mitt Romney appears on that whole new stage, to pose for pictures with some convention staffers, and the calm becomes hysteria. Running to put themselves in prime picture-taking and question-yelling distance, reporters cluster at Romney’s presumed exit route, jumping on chairs, almost breaking them. Sure enough, when Romney leaves the stage to chants of “Rom-ney! Rom-ney!,” he leaves via the route lined with reporters; and as the assembled journalists and cameramen snap flashes and shout questions, the candidate stops to talk to one man.“Bourrah, arra, ha-cha, bourrah,” says Bobby Bird.
Mitt Romney beams. “It’s a big night tonight! Thank you,” he says, shaking Bird’s hand before leaving the floor. As he departs, the room exhales, and soon reporters are complaining about the photos and sound bites they didn’t get. “He stopped. Right there. And talked to this guy,” grumbles one photographer, indicating Bird, who slaps him on the back.
“Bourrah!” says Bird.
“Jeremy is gonna be jealous. He and Bobby are in this sort of competition, and this is really gonna bum him out,” says Arthur Bradford on the bus ride back to the convention center. But if Vest is upset, he doesn’t show it, and he meets Bird at the door with cheers and adulation. “Woo! Yeah, Bobby! Bobby! We did it,” exclaims Vest. “You did Mitt Romney! Oh, yeah!”
“You just nailed it,” says Jen Ollman. “You saw your target, you aimed, fired, and you just nailed it.”