Gov. George & the Media Dragon
By Howard Kurtz
"The goons pushed me off," Molin said of the security guards who muscled her while she was shooting the candidate hugging and hand-shaking his way through a pumped-up crowd over the blare of Stevie Wonder music.
As the Texas governor made his inaugural swing across Iowa, the sheer size of the media contingent essentially defined the day, clanking behind the governor with laptops and cell phones and cameras and turning the pageantry and speechifying into a commodity called news.
If there is such a thing as a fast-breathing, Hydra-headed media beast, it was on the loose here in the first-caucus state. The beast lumbers from story to story, trampling everything in its path. It gorges itself on the O.J. story, on the Monica story, on the Kosovo story, at least until readers and viewers lose interest. The beast is now voraciously hunting for its next meal, and George W. looks exceedingly juicy--so tempting that Time and Newsweek plastered him on the covers of today's issues at this amazingly early stage of the race.
Bush has been deemed the odds-on favorite to become the next president, at least according to the polls worshiped by the beast. He's practically a president-in-waiting. Plus, he's got a famous last name. Even better, he's fresh meat, in the sense that he's been holed up in Austin and few Americans know much about him. "The Anointed One," he's been dubbed. But journalists take a certain glee in un-anointing people.
"Some people are going to write that his campaign is a disaster off this weekend, and some people are going to write it's a triumph, and that's just plain silly," said New Yorker reporter Joe Klein, one of the more than 100 media folks on the plane that Bush dubbed "Great Expectations." "We are a postmodern tribe, and this is our tribal ritual."
On a trip like this, which continues today in New Hampshire, what Bush actually says is far less important than how it's played. How it's packaged. Whether his soaring stock lives up to expectations set by those who buy and sell political futures.
Bush, of course, created this World Series-in-June atmosphere by sticking to the governor's mansion for months, rather than venturing out for a policy speech or two. The son of the former president understands this, likening himself to a startup company suddenly trying to break into the Fortune 500.
His team excels at providing pretty pictures, which is why press secretary Karen Hughes talked her boss into appearing at a waterside photo op yesterday with his parents at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine--so as "not to let 100 reporters sit and stew," she said.
Campaign aides also understand the importance of feeding the beast, and no fewer than six held conference calls with reporters to map out the trip's logistics. The subtext of any screw-up, they know, is: How can they deal with Saddam or Milosevic if they can't even provide enough phone lines for us to file on?
Saturday began at 5:45 a.m. in the lobby of Austin's Hyatt, where bleary-eyed reporters grumbled about the lack of coffee. "They've had five months to prepare for three days of work," said Time's Jay Carney. "If they can't choreograph this one, they've got problems."
The journalists were already strapped in when Bush and his wife, Laura, climbed onto the TWA charter at 7:23. It was instantly clear that the carefully scripted campaign was determined to provide its own color. "In the event of an emergency, those of you who have written positive stories will be escorted by Karen Hughes to the nearest emergency exit," the candidate said over the public address system.
Once aloft, Bush emerged in blue shirt sleeves, red tie and an oversize "George W. Bush" belt buckle to work the aisle, dodging carts of omelets and French toast as he schmoozed with every reporter. (This was declared off the record, but it can be divulged there was talk about baseball and golf.)
At the Cedar Rapids airport, the media were clearly the message. A correspondent for KCRG-TV interviewed CNN's Candy Crowley.
The media crowd was herded onto buses. During the ride, Newsweek's Howard Fineman was making last-minute revisions to his Bush piece, then vying for the cover. "Quite frankly, my story is in terrible shape," he said.
When the entourage arrived at a huge, barnlike structure (where the cholesterol festival continued with greasy bratwurst), press liaison David Beckwith delivered a box of advance speech texts. These were manna from Heaven for tense newspaper reporters tapping away on wooden tables in the face of early Sunday deadlines. The text was uplifting but vague, although the third paragraph said "Important Insert." Word quickly spread that Bush would drop the "exploratory committee" pretense and say he was running for president, of which the traveling press corps had no doubt.
"I think it's very smart of him to announce, because it's a lead," said ABC's Cokie Roberts, one of three network correspondents granted brief "walk-along" interviews with Bush. "I don't think I have ever, in all my years in politics, seen such a buildup." Campaign aide Christopher Hull quickly asked Roberts to sign his name tag.
When Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) introduced Bush on a hay-strewn stage, a garagelike door opened behind him, showing gleaming red tractors in a vast cornfield. "Cue Iowa," Roberts said of the made-for-TV shot.
Mark Barabak of the Los Angeles Times soon got a call on his cell phone, telling him that Joe Andrew, the fresh-faced national chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was outside. Andrew told him Bush's agenda sounded a lot like Newt Gingrich's, "just printed on pastel paper," and that the campaign resembled "the Titanic." Moments later, an ABC crew found Andrew talking about, yes, pastel paper and the Titanic.
At 12:07, NBC's David Bloom stood on a riser for a live report on MSNBC, which would soon carry a debate on Bush's possible running mate. Bloom said Bush had tried to "cozy up to the journalists who might spend the next 17 months covering him. He wants to be seen as a good ol' boy. He's got his cowboy boots on." The shot ended. "You guys see that bug crawling around on my neck the whole time?" Bloom asked.
At the wooden tables, Ron Fournier of the Associated Press, whose story most editors would see first, was using the speech to update his lead. He had first dictated from the tarmac: "George W. Bush, the untested presidential front-runner, plunged into the 2000 campaign today. . . ." Now Bush was no longer untested; he simply "plunged" in "his bid to usher in a new era of Republican politics."
Back at the airport, where a cavernous hangar was being used as a press filing center, Muriel Dobbin of McClatchy Newspapers was frantic; her laptop had eaten her story.
Hughes was carrying a list of local interviews for Bush (10 minutes each with the Cedar Rapids Gazette, KGAN and KWWL, and the Quad City Times on the plane). At the bottom she detailed for Bush the probable areas of press interest: "Straw poll," "Getting a late start," "Democratic attacks--not enough experience, untested."
An unscripted moment took place at 3:05. Fox's Carl Cameron spotted Elizabeth Dole's small plane--she had petted a pig at the Iowa Pork Expo--and stuck his head inside, catching the barefoot candidate briefly nonplused. Cameron asked about the coincidence of Dole being on the same tarmac as Bush. "The airports are going to get a lot more crowded. I think it's great, don't you?" Dole said before retreating inside the plane as other reporters surged toward the cockpit door.
When the Bush plane took off, Bloom called his Washington producer, Andy Grove, to discuss which footage was available for his "NBC Nightly News" piece. "You see anything I ought to write to?" he asked. "People were crowding around him like a rock star. What's the best opening shot?"
Rather than be overly critical of Bush, Bloom explained after the call, "Today my job is to let him introduce himself to the American people."
In Des Moines, where a group of supporters awaited Bush at the Marriott, WOI-TV's Patrick Bell was cuing his station on when to begin live coverage for the 5 o'clock news. "He's up, he's up," Bell said suddenly. As Bush began to speak, Cameron delivered a live report a few yards away, saying the governor "continues to run hard" and was "trying to illustrate his dominance in this race."
Behind Cameron, Bush was saying he supports federal subsidies for corn-based ethanol, a huge issue in this farm state. Newsweek's Fineman rushed up to the governor while he was shaking hands.
"Do you mind if I ask you one--" Fineman began.
"Yes I do mind," Bush said.
"Why are you supporting ethanol subsidies?" Fineman demanded. "Isn't it a violation of your free-market principles?"
Bush said testily that he liked the alternative fuel's clean-air benefits, then turned away. Fineman was soon on the cell phone to his Newsweek editor, suggesting a kicker for the story: "And he wasn't above telling the locals exactly what they wanted to hear."
The day's picture-friendly agenda, which included no news conference, had been marred by an actual issue. But most East Coast deadlines had passed, prompting reporters to wonder whether Bush had endeavored to bury his ethanol stance on a Saturday night.
By the time the buses arrived at the Pork Industries Building for a fund-raising barbecue for Republican Rep. Greg Ganske, the reporters were sweaty and dog-tired--though not too tired to devour the thick slabs of center-cut pork chops, beans and slaw at the press tables.
When the country music quieted down and Bush spoke at 8:40, the journalists heard the same warm-up jokes (his daughter had informed him that "you're not as cool as they think you are") and the same introduction of his wife ("the best decision I ever made"). Some were fiddling with their stories, others surfing the Web, one reading the Drudge Report. None was paying rapt attention. They faced one more Great Expectations flight and would not arrive at Kennebunkport until 2 a.m.
From the outside, covering a presidential campaign looks pretty glamorous: front-page bylines, crisp TV stand-ups, mellifluous radio reports. The reality is a bit more exasperating, as one look at Elizabeth Arnold made clear.
"My company had great expectations for me and I failed every test," said the dogged National Public Radio reporter.
Racing for an America West flight Friday in Phoenix, Arnold was directed to the wrong gate, didn't find the right one until the plane was pushing back and officials refused to hold it. Desperate to get to Austin, she flew to Las Vegas, hopped a connection to Dallas, got in at 4 a.m., drove a rental car 200 miles to Austin with the speedometer pushing 80--and just missed the Bush plane taking off.
Frustrated and sleepless, Arnold muttered, "I wish I could blow up America West." Someone heard her and notified the police, who promptly detained her.
After convincing authorities that she was not a terrorist, Arnold flew back to Dallas, where there were further delays, and finally got to Des Moines. She didn't have her bags, and more important, she had lost her microphone. Undeterred, she borrowed another reporter's mike and filed her NPR report. Then she started venting to her colleagues.
"Here I am, an experienced reporter, I've done this a million times," Arnold said. "And I blew it."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company