Politicians Are Receding From View


Every four years, we are pushed farther and farther away. The candidate recedes into the distance, separated from us by rope lines, staff and attitude. This will be the 10th presidential election I have covered, and sometimes people ask me what has changed the most over the years.

We used to get close, I tell them. So close, we could talk to the candidates. So close, we could touch them. In 1980, in a mad throng of deliriously happy supporters in Serb Hall in Milwaukee, I was crushed up against Ronald Reagan so tightly that some of his make-up rubbed off on me. He grinned. That same year, George H.W. Bush would invite reporters to his motel room for “seances” in which there was beer on ice in the wastebasket, and he would joke and tell stories, and he didn’t need to say it was off the record because we all played the game in those days.

In 1984, following Gary Hart, a New Hampshire factory owner tried to keep the press out as Hart toured a crowded assembly-line floor. “Look out,” a reporter growled, pushing past the owner. “Somebody sticks a knife in the guy, we gotta be there.” I am pretty sure that reporter was from New York.

Probably wouldn’t happen today. Probably couldn’t happen today. With the explosion of media covering the candidates, with the high-risk nature of the 24/7 news cycle (any slip can mean political death), access is tightly controlled. In 2007, Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy in a video, the most controllable medium of all, in which every frame can be reviewed, re-thought and re-shot.

At every event, at every interview, at every moment, candidates today must be “staffed up,” meaning a staff person must be with them. I used to wonder why. Could a staffer slap his hand over the candidate’s mouth or grab the candidate by the throat before dangerous words came out or news was committed? But I learned that wasn’t it. Candidates behave differently with staffers around. They are more controlled, more circumspect, less candid, because the presence of staffers at their elbow is a constant reminder to keep on message. And the press buys into this game, too: We praise candidates who have the “discipline” to stay on message and criticize those who foolishly go off.

Minor or struggling candidates still provide access, of course. Without press attention, their campaigns will wither and die. But if they manage to get the nomination, the ropes go up, and the press will view them from so far away, they are the size of postage stamps. The bigger you get, the smaller you are.

It is mid-January 1976, and I am covering my first presidential campaign. I have not eaten all day because Jimmy Carter, a virtual unknown, starts his days very, very early and campaigns very, very hard. No staffer has the job of feeding the press because there is hardly ever any press.

I am with Carter because I have been shanghaied, dragooned, kidnapped. I was at a candidate forum in Davenport, Iowa, when a blond-haired, soft-talking Southerner comes up to me and asks, “Who you covering?” Fred Harris, I tell him. He laughs. “He’s not going to win. Come with us.” I tell him I can’t, that all my stuff is in Des Moines, where I will return that night. “What do you need?” the Southerner says. “Toothbrush? Razor? Hell, that’s nothing.” After the forum, I am stuffed into the back seat of a car. The Southerner, Jody Powell, who will become White House press secretary, sits next to me, and Hamilton Jordan, who will become White House chief of staff, drives. We manage to find a drugstore that is still open, and I buy a razor, shaving cream and deodorant. You can turn your underwear inside out and get an extra day out of it, I am advised.

Now it is the next day, and I am hungry. Jimmy Carter, who sits in the co-pilot seat of the tiny plane in which we are flying, is unfolding the foil from a cheeseburger. I sit behind him. He turns. “You want half?” he asks. Without waiting for an answer, he tears the cheeseburger raggedly in half and hands me a portion. I wolf it down. Anybody smart enough to feed a hungry reporter could be president, I figure.

The rest of the press corps, riding in another tiny plane, numbers but three: Robert Novak, the famous columnist; R.W. Apple, the famous New York Times reporter (whose later very astute article on Carter will help legitimize his campaign); and a reporter whose name refuses to come to my memory, except I think he was from the Boston Globe. They await their turn to rotate to Carter’s plane to sit with him. Access is not a problem.

So we fly around and fly around, and we get to Ottumwa, Iowa, and after Carter’s speech, Apple says: “I’ve seen enough. I’m going to charter a plane back to Des Moines. Anybody want to come?” We all decide to come. But somebody has to tell Powell that Carter’s entire press corps is leaving. He takes it well. “Y’all be back,” he drawls. “Y’all be back.”

He is right. In August 1976, I am in Atlanta interviewing Gerald Rafshoon, an advertising executive, who will become Carter’s White House communications director, the first ad man to hold a staff position in the White House. He is 42 and refers to himself as Carter’s “born-again Jew.” He has run a very smart ad campaign for Carter: Eschewing the 30-second TV spots that have become standard, he creates leisurely two-minute and even five-minute spots of Carter walking around his peanut fields or sitting on his patio and talking.

The test comes in Florida. Carter must beat George Wallace there to show that Carter is the Democrat who can carry the South in the general election. It will not be easy. Wallace not only won the Florida primary four years before, he won every county. But Rafshoon buys TV time during “Hee Haw” and “The Lawrence Welk Show,” and Carter beats Wallace by 4 percentage points. Now, Carter cannot be stopped. And for the Democratic Convention, Rafshoon produces a 15-minute film on Carter to be shown before Carter takes the podium to accept the nomination.

I have my 1976 column in my hand. Yes, it is on paper, and, yes, it is yellowed with age.

“As the film played in the darkened convention hall, you could hear the typewriters of a thousand print reporters go silent as they witnessed the death of journalism,” I wrote. “The film was so effective that no reporter in the hall could hope to compete with its ability to render Jimmy Carter to a mass audience. It was so good, in fact, that it made Carter’s real speech an anticlimax.”

And so it began. The electronic image, carefully controlled, surpassed the power of the candidate in the flesh. Someday candidates will not campaign in the flesh at all. It will all be electronic or whatever replaces electronic. It will be faster, cheaper and without the chance of mistakes. Will anybody care? Will anybody notice?

But before that day comes, if you are somebody in journalism, try to look past the image. Try to eke out the truth. It is there, lurking, waiting to be delivered.

And if you are somebody in politics and you see a hungry reporter, tear your lunch in half and give it up. It is very presidential.

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