The first meal of the day was really more of a snack.
It was 7:30 a.m. at Andrews Air Force Base, and 16 members of the White House press corps were boarding a charter plane that would take us on a three-day campaign swing to Reno, Nev.; San Francisco; Portland, Ore.; Seattle; and New Orleans. Laid across the arm rests of Row 4 were trays piled high with sliced fresh fruit, a pyramid of milk cartons, juice and yogurt. Across the aisle, the bad carbs: bagels, muffins, jelly-filled doughnuts. Single-serving tubs of cream cheese and butter — every morsel billed to our employers through the White House Travel Office.
I’ve learned that you have to move quickly to partake of this first offering of food, because the flight attendants pack it away in the overhead bins almost as soon as we find our seats. I’ve also learned that it’s okay to miss a meal on these trips, because there will always be another. And another.
Sure enough, the second meal of the day arrived about 20 minutes into our five-hour flight to Nevada.
“Would you care for breakfast today?” the flight attendant leaned in to ask. “We’ve got three choices: a sausage frittata with turkey bacon and hash browns, French toast or a bagel with lox.”
My companion across the aisle, Jeff Goldman of CBS News, opted for the lox — a great heaping pile of it, with two bagels, enough to feed four. I chose the eggs but skipped the potatoes.
I needed to pace myself.
“We’re going to finish what we started,” President Obama likes to say toward the end of his speeches. Maybe so, Mr. President. But on the campaign trail, always leave food on your plate.
Food on the road is something of an obsession for traveling journalists. We talk endlessly about how much food we’re served, when our next meal will come, how surprisingly delicious the Mexican spread was two stops back. Flight attendants walk past with trays of cake, cookies, chips and candy or wrapped sandwiches for us to take off the plane. In New Orleans, it was beignets on the bus to the House of Blues, where the president attended a fundraiser.
All of us are haunted by the prospect of gaining 20 pounds before November. I’ve packed on five in a single swing before, and Margaret Talev of Bloomberg News told me she gained 20 pounds in 2008 (and allowed me to say so in this story only on the condition that I also note that she’d lost 20 since January).
We talk about the horror that our cellphone calorie counters would reveal if we were honest about keeping track. But again and again, we are drawn to the buffet spreads, snack baskets and cheese platters to make it through these grinding days, which veer between stress and boredom as we rush to file, Tweet and post Instagram photos, then idle for hours during security sweeps and private fundraisers closed to the media.
“I don’t know if I’m hungry again. Or anymore,” mused Mike Memoli of the Chicago Tribune to no one in particular as he eyed the grilled-chicken-and-wild-rice buffet at the back of another holding room at another convention center. This one was in Portland, Ore., where Obama would address about 900 supporters.
“I had breakfast,” Memoli said. “I had two cookies. I have to think about it in my head. How much have I eaten? Do I have any right to be hungry?”
His voice faded away. And then he walked over to the chafing dishes to take a closer look.
The third meal of the day came around 11 a.m., when the flight attendants asked if anyone cared for a sandwich. I was stretched out sleeping on Row 5 of a largely empty Boeing 737 — the result of rising at 4:30 a.m. to start a day that would end at a hotel in San Francisco 18 hours later.
I stirred long enough to hear the offerings: turkey on marble rye, roast beef on wheat, chicken salad or vegetable wrap, chips. But I played dead, heeding the advice of my more-experienced fellow travelers: Skip every other meal. Other rules are bandied about: Don’t eat what you wouldn’t serve at home; don’t eat when you’re not hungry; always bring your workout clothes, even if there won’t be time. No matter the rule, or your willpower to stick to it, you’ll still eat too much.
“I had no problem losing my baby weight,” confided one veteran of past campaigns. “The John McCain weight was much harder.”
Lest anyone think the taxpayers are on the hook for all this bounty: No. Our news organizations pay the bill for the charter plane, the food, sometimes even the event space we use. The White House travel managers make the arrangements for us, negotiating with charter companies, local caterers and restaurants. They are mindful of cost in these lean economic times. But they continue to provide plenty of food to accommodate several dozen journalists operating on different deadlines and not always able to eat at the same time.
“We do what we can to make traveling a little easier for the press,” said White House spokesman Nick Papas.
(Reporters following Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney also get inundated with grub, although there’s some grumbling about being all too familiar with the sight of a stack of sandwiches from Jimmy John’s waiting on their press bus. One of the franchise owners, Tim Wulf, is a Romney supporter.)
Campaign operatives have a motive for keeping reporters sated, as Chris Lehane, press secretary for Al Gore during the Democrat’s 2000 presidential campaign, readily acknowledged.
“A well-fed press corps is generally a happy press corps,” said Lehane, now a consultant.
Just ask the scribes who staged a revolt during the 1988 presidential campaign of Democrat Jesse Jackson. The reporters were going hours and sometimes a whole day without a meal. They submitted a petition to the candidate that, according to an Associated Press story published at the time, accused “the candidate who rails against ‘economic violence’” of committing “nutritional violence” against the media. Even when Jackson did feed the reporters, it was often cold fried chicken, while the smell of warm barbecue or other savory meals wafted back from the front of the plane.
By contrast, there is something of a good-natured arms race among the White House advance teams who fan across the country to arrange the care and feeding of the traveling press corps. They shoot for quality as well as fun, in Reno offering up In-N-Out burgers (a favorite of one of the staff members) and a memorable Mexican spread from a local restaurant, Los Compadres.
“Don’t ever say I didn’t do anything for you guys,” said a White House advance person after wheeling a cart into our filing center loaded with boxes of Voodoo Doughnuts, a Portland institution offering such jaw-aching varieties as maple-glazed with bacon, Froot Loops, Tang and Oreo Cookie.
It might as well have been a car wreck barreling past, because we were horrified but couldn’t peel our eyes away. I somehow resisted the urge to gobble one, but Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn succumbed and said the maple-bacon was magnificent.
“I think the entire press corps should be ashamed,” declared Helene Cooper of the New York Times after the Voodoo feeding frenzy had subsided. “God didn’t make doughnuts to put snickerdoodles and bacon on them.”
Our fourth meal of the day awaited our arrival at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, where the president was scheduled to address the 113th national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Giant heated chafing dishes lined a banquet table along one wall of a large filing center.
At one end, there were refried beans smothered in melted cheese; a platter of rice; a bucket of steaming hot tortillas; chicken and bell pepper fajitas, guacamole, shredded cheese, sour cream; and a giant bowl of salad. At the other end, there was a warm pasta dish and vegetable medley. Later, an enormous platter of fudge brownies appeared. I ate Mexican, and I returned for thirds of the salad as a way to avoid the brownies.
Back on the plane, the fifth meal was another “snack.” Row 4 was again laden with trays, but this time they overflowed with vegetable crudites, glistening piles of mango and kiwi, crackers and cubes of Brie, pepper jack and Swiss cheese. In the jargon of the press corps, it was the “charter cheese” course. We loaded our plates fast, found our seats and watched the crew stow the trays overhead.
The sixth meal of the day followed quickly, as this was a short hop to San Francisco. “Today we have salmon and salad or a vegetarian warm pasta,” the flight attendant announced as she strolled down the aisle. Another followed with a stack of clear-plastic boxes. “Side salad, anyone? Ranch or Italian?” And finally, a smiling woman with tongs and round platter piled with brownies, M&M cookies and giant slabs of chocolate cake. It’s amazing what you can fit into a 40-minute flight.
“No, thanks,” I said to all of it.
I had good reason to show restraint. A seventh meal awaited: dinner with friends in San Francisco.