'Boys on the Bus': Pack Journalism At Unsafe Speeds

Friday, August 27, 2004

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Thirty-two years ago the American people were trying to decide whether to give a controversial Republican president "four more years!" (as the Nixonites chanted) or to replace him with a relatively unknown Democrat. Emotions were high thanks to a foreign war that wasn't going well, tensions between social classes were acute, the economy was shaky. Deja vu all over again.

With one notable exception. The press was all over the 1972 campaign but little known to the electorate. The celebrity television anchorman had made his appearance in the persons of Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor and Harry Reasoner, but the newspaper and magazine reporters who covered the campaign were known only to their colleagues and the few readers who paid attention to bylines. The reports they filed may (or may not) have influenced the shape of the campaigns and the outcome of the election, but the reporters themselves -- even those who made occasional appearances on "Meet the Press" or "Face the Nation" -- were anonymous laborers in the vineyards of journalism.

Two books that grew out of the 1972 campaign changed all that. One was "All the President's Men" (1974), the account by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post of the uncovering of the Watergate scandal; the book, and even more the film adaptation of it, made its authors famous and established celebrity as a goal to which journalists might aspire. The other, "The Boys on the Bus" (1973), by Timothy Crouse, didn't enjoy quite as much eclat (though it was a bestseller) but may have had a deeper and broader effect, for it turned the eyes of the press on the press itself, and opened the way to the age of media self-absorption.

This surely was not Crouse's intention. A mere three years out of college, he managed to talk Rolling Stone magazine into letting him write about the men (and the very few women) who were covering both campaigns "on the bus," though the bus was usually an airplane, and in Richard Nixon's case it rarely left the White House grounds. The pieces got a lot of attention, and when Crouse expanded them into a book, people almost immediately understood that the landscape had changed: The press itself was now a story, and it has remained one -- for better, but mostly for worse -- ever since.

It turned out to be Crouse's only extended venture into journalism, though he did occasional freelance pieces and was Esquire's Washington columnist for a while. The son of the hugely successful Broadway producer and writer Russell Crouse (1893-1966), whose credits included "The Sound of Music," "Call Me Madam" and "Life With Father," and the brother of the respected actress Lindsay Crouse, he returned to his theatrical roots in the late 1980s by rewriting, with his friend John Weidman, his father's book for Cole Porter's "Anything Goes." Starring Patti LuPone as Reno Sweeney, the Broadway revival ran for nearly 800 performances. Now in his mid-fifties, Crouse lives in Massachusetts and continues to write.

Like just about everyone else in journalism, I gobbled up the Rolling Stone pieces seriatim and probably reviewed the book for the newspaper in North Carolina where I worked in the early 1970s, though my files (and the paper's online morgue) don't go back that far. I know for certain that I loved it. There hadn't been anything about the press even remotely like it since Gay Talese's "The Kingdom and the Power" (1969), the celebrated fly-on-the-wall portrait of the New York Times, and I delighted in the journalistic gossip Crouse dished out.

There was a lot more to it than gossip, though, and it is the larger matters upon which Crouse dwells that keep the book pertinent and fresh. Rereading the book after all those years, I found myself startled from time to time by the candor with which Crouse portrays some of his dramatis personae -- it is easy to imagine that R.W. "Johnny" Apple, Robert Novak and Haynes Johnson wince unto this day at their portraits in the book -- but that is mostly yesterday's gossip and is likely now to matter only to those most immediately involved. Journalists are scarcely as interesting as we think we are, one of the points that "The Boys on the Bus" inadvertently underscores.

Still, some of the more trivial stuff that Crouse unearthed hasn't lost its sizzle. He has a deft way of summing people up, as in this sketch of Jules Witcover, who was then (unhappily) with the Los Angeles Times and whom he mostly portrays with sympathy and respect: "He had the pale, hounded look of a small liquor store owner whose shop has just been held up for the seventh time in a year." He nails "group journalism" as practiced at Time magazine right on the head: "The correspondents filed about 750,000 words every week, and then the editors took over. The editors worked in the New York office, and their job was to throw away about 700,000 of those words. Then they rewrote about 85 percent of the remaining copy." He perfectly captures life aboard the bus, or the plane:

"The fact that [some reporters] thought that McGovern had a chance to win showed the folly of trying to call an election from 30,000 feet in the air. . . . The reporters attached to George McGovern had a very limited usefulness as political observers, by and large, for what they knew best was not the American electorate but the tiny community of the press plane, a totally abnormal world that combined the incestuousness of a New England hamlet with the giddiness of a mid-ocean gala and the physical rigors of the Long March."

That passage is both witty and funny, but it also is true. More clearly than anyone before him, Crouse understood that journalists travel in packs. This is as true, let me hasten to say, of journalists who write book reviews as of journalists who cover political campaigns, perhaps even more so, since the pressures on the former to parrot the conventional literary wisdom are intense. But right at the outset Crouse identifies the "womblike conditions" of the bus and/or plane as giving rise to "the notorious phenomenon called 'pack journalism,' " and goes on: "They all fed off the same pool report, the same daily handout, the same speech by the candidate; the whole pack was isolated in the same mobile village. After a while, they began to believe the same rumors, subscribe to the same theories, and write the same stories."

At a precociously early age, Crouse understood some essential but little-known truths about journalists and journalism: that journalists are deathly afraid of being "wrong" and thus tend to stay within parameters set by the pack; that journalists want "to be on the Winner's Bus" because "a campaign reporter's career is linked to the fortunes of his candidate" and they don't "like to dwell on signs that their Winner [is] losing, any more than a soup manufacturer likes to admit that there is botulism in the vichyssoise"; that "journalism is probably the slowest-moving, most tradition-bound profession in America," refusing "to budge until it is shoved into the future by some irresistible external force." With regard to this last he cites the reluctance of the rest of the press to follow the Watergate trail pursued by Woodward and Bernstein until the courts got into the action; a few years later he could have cited the reluctance of the press to acknowledge the existence, much less the threat and opportunity, of the Internet.

Crouse doesn't write in a snide, condescending or superior manner. He liked most of the people he wrote about, found much that interested and impressed him in the people he didn't like, and sympathized with all of them as they tried to do good work under difficult, draining circumstances. He acknowledges that "any self-respecting journalist would sooner endorse incest than come out in favor of pack journalism" and that as long ago as 1972 "the men on the bus had more authority and independence than ever before, and many of them were searching for new ways to report on the freakish, insular existence of the press bus, and for ways to break away from the pack."

Still, he makes some damning points that are as true today as they were 32 years ago. "If there was a consensus," he writes, "it was simply because all the national political reporters lived in Washington, saw the same people, used the same sources, belonged to the same background groups, and swore by the same omens. They arrived at their answers just as independently as a class of honest seventh-graders using the same geometry text -- they did not have to cheat off each other to come up with the same answer." If anything, that is even more the case now, as the "inside-the-Beltway mentality" has ballooned into both a truism and the truth.

Crouse is especially tough on the White House press corps, "a strange mixture of professional witnesses, decree-promulgators, cheerleaders, hard-diggers, goldbricks and gadflies." He quotes Russell Baker, who served time there, as calling it an "airless kind of work" because "the White House was like a Stuart court, Baker thought, and all the correspondents lingered like courtiers in the antechambers." The White House is the ultimate Winner's Bus, with predictable consequences:

"Some reporters thrived in this suffocating palace atmosphere. They began to think of themselves as part of the White House, and they proudly identified themselves as being 'from the White House press' instead of mentioning the paper they worked for. They forgot that they were handout artists and convinced themselves that they were somehow associates of a man who was shaping epochal events. . . . The faces of these men [in old photos on the pressroom wall] were infused with a funny expression, a pathetic aura of pride, a sense that they were taking part in the colossal moments of history. Now most of those moments were forgotten, and no one remembered a word that any of these men had written."

"Men" is the word, all right. Women were rarities, at the White House and even more so on the bus. Crouse argues that "some of the toughest pieces on the 1972 Nixon campaign" were done by women because "having never been allowed to join in the cozy, clubby world of the men, they had developed an uncompromising detachment and a bold independence of thought which often put the men to shame." Perhaps that was true then, but women are in the club now -- and blacks and Hispanics and gays and everyone else -- and guess what? The pack is bigger than ever -- at this year's Democratic convention the media outnumbered the delegates 3 to 1 -- but it's still a pack.

"The Boys on the Bus" is available in a Random House trade paperback ($14.95).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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