A week ago I was grumping about how something wasn’t quite right in New Hampshire, and by this weekend the Politico folks had sniffed out that it was a bust, and Walter Shapiro chimed in to say it was the most boring New Hampshire Primary EVER (and I believe Walter goes all the way back to Ike’s ‘52 victory over Robert Taft), and now today my friend Dana Milbank, whose appearance at the Dunkin’ Donuts in Hollis we documented faithfully, declares that the whole campaign-trail reporting gig is a complete waste of time and borderline fraudulent.
True, it was an off year, snowless and almost passionless. And yes, one does wonder why 600 journalists on laptops need to cover a debate from a building several hundred yards away where they watch the candidates on two giant screens. But I still think the primary was something other than a disaster. And campaign coverage is better when you show up in person. Evidence that Dana is overstating the situation is Dana’s brilliant piece, Ginsu-knife-sharp, when he carved up Romney’s first event in Manchester.
Some of these events on the campaign trail you have to see in person to understand how bad, or flawed, or good, or fabulous, the candidates are. These are events with minimal staging, generally no scripts, and lots of Q&A with voters. You listen and learn.
Like the Santorum debacle with the college students. Santorum couldn’t have planned to become immersed in a debate about gay marriage. His campaign staff must have missed the agenda of the college convention, which began with a talk titled “Why We Occupy.” (Agenda handed out on scene for anyone to see.) Although some of Santorum’s statements were widely quoted, and the video clips got a lot of air time, what really jumped out was the way Santorum couldn’t, or wouldn’t, drop the gay-marriage subject, but instead turned it into a protracted debate, filled with Socratic questions, even as the crowd grew increasingly hostile. Perhaps the candidate thought this was a good time to make a stand for his principles. But it looked like a dog with a bone. My thought: This guy’s a gamer but he’s not presidential.
And this is why you show up. You show up because you get to talk to ordinary folks (Broder-like) and party hacks (ditto) and then closely observe the candidates not only when on stage but when they’re mixing it up with voters (Milbanks is McGrory’s heir — he’s the best political-theater critic in the business).
This is why I drove through the dark and over the mountains to see Huntsman in Peterborough, and then kept burning through fuel, Googlemapping all over the state — Gingrich in Concord, Gingrich in Laconia, Santorum in Brentwood, Romney in Salem, Huntsman in Portsmouth, Santorum in Concord, Santorum in Windham, Paul in Nashua, Gingrich and Santorum in Nashua, Romney in Derry, Santorum in Manchester, Santorum in Amherst, Santorum in Hollis, the debate in Manchester, the debate in Concord, Romney in Rochester. My carbon footprint was a crime against nature.
A waste of company money? Didn’t feel that way to me. I feel like I got an education, and along the way produced a story that ran Sunday and, thanks to the shoe leather reporting, had the redeeming feature of being true.
I’m filing my expense report now.