Richard Reeves

Ode to the Road

LOS ANGELES -- Doyle, how could you?

Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times, one of the best political reporters around, wrote a column last Thursday, beginning with this lead:

"We in the mainstream media harbor a dirty little secret: Most of us are rooting for Rick Santorum. It's nothing personal, although Santorum is a reasonably appealing guy. And it's not ideological; most of us aren't yearning for Bible-based social conservatism to become the law of the land. It's worse than that. We're just hoping to see the gaudy spectacle of this primary campaign continue as long as possible.

"If Santorum can't win -- and sober analysts, weighing the demographics of the remaining states, warn that his prospects are slim -- there's still a chance for the contest to continue. The combination of Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul might still somehow block Mitt Romney, the once-again front-runner, from amassing the 1,144 delegates he needs to win the nomination on the first ballot. That's what I'm hoping for."

Right-wingers and other fools believe that the "mainstream" media are devoted to electing lefties to public office so we can turn the United States into Sweden. In fact, all the mainstreamers, professionally, don't give a tinker's damn about who wins this election or that. What we want is the campaign to go on forever; the option is going home, usually to Washington, and taking care of that leaky roof.

We are interested in keeping the thing going. In what could be the motto of people like me is the reaction of a Boston Globe reporter named Dick Stewart during Sen. Edmund Muskie's trip around the world to burnish his foreign policy credentials as he pursued the 1972 Democratic nomination. As we were landing at Washington's National Airport, Dick was sitting next me on the campaign plane. He looked at the tarmac we were about to land on and said, "O Magic Carpet, never land!"

It has landed, of course, and campaign coverage is not quite what it used to be, but the ghosts flitter in the air. In Times Talk, the internal newspaper of my alma mater, The New York Times, Ashley Parker, the reporter traveling with Mitt Romney, wrote:

"Campaigns are long, frustrating, exhausting slogs, but if you were to ask any reporter on the bus if there's anything they'd rather be doing, the answer would be a resounding no ... it's a lot of fun."

As long as it keeps going. Which was McManus' point. I suppose sportswriters want seven-game World Series, rather than go back home after four games.

This is how Parker describes the campaign trail in 2012, not 1972:

"(C)overing a presidential candidate, much like being a presidential candidate, is a series of highs and lows, often all at once, more frustration and elation than you ever imagined possible, all in a single day. Day, after day, after day. After day.

"A typical day on the trail goes something like this: Baggage call at 6:45 a.m., so Secret Service dogs can sweep your gear to make sure it's 'clean' and not a security threat. Pile onto the press bus to drive to an early morning rally at a fence-post manufacturing company in Ohio. Back on the bus after the rally, where you try to file a quick story to The Caucus blog, while making calls to sources for that larger feature you've been putting off. Arrive at the next event, a town hall several hours south of where you began. Cover the town hall, and pile back on the bus (where takeout lunch from a nearby Applebee's awaits) to drive to the airport, where Mr. Romney's charter flight is ready to whisk you away to North Dakota. Wheels down and -- you guessed it -- back on the bus to drive to Mr. Romney's final rally of the day, in a high school gym. Finish up a story for the next day's paper before deadline, and head to the hotel around 8 or 9 p.m. And then, of course, hit the hotel bar or a local restaurant for dinner, ideally with a source or two."

Leaving out the fun of traveling with the companionship of people you admire and like, the ignorance of people on the desks back in New York, and the affairs and sometimes treachery by ambitious reporters, it's a very, very tough job. One last point (draw your own conclusions): If the candidate you cover wins it all, you are probably going to be a White House correspondent.

If he or she loses, you may go down with them. Luck of the draw. And I miss it -- a lot.

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