It was the nicest baggage call that anyone in the White House campaign press corps could remember in years -- 10:45 a.m. A chance to sleep, perchance to dream. Suddenly, in pre-dawn darkness Sunday, the ayatollah became a wake-up service. More than 100 traveling press bivouacked in Chicago's O'Hare Hyatt Regency groaned, rolled over and groped for phones that jarred them awake at 4:50 a.m.
"The president's going back to Washington," informed a staff aide. "Get downstairs as soon as you can." A few members of the press mumbled something about having their passports with them -- the possible release of the hostages being, as ever, a part of the brinksmanship of this election. Some merely said, "What time is it?" Most just grunted "huh?"
Moments later came the second wake-up call: Be downstairs by 6:30. Passports would not be needed. The president was flying back to Washington to consult with senior foreign policy advisers over conditions set by the Iranian parliament for the release of the 52 American hostages.
The press, lulled into a false sense of normalcy at the prospect of a decent night's sleep, were now cheated, hollow-eyed ghouls, stumbling into the lobby. They had flown more than 1,000 miles in Texas alone on Saturday -- Houston to Brownsville to the Alamo in San Antonio to Abilene -- made a pit stop in Milwaukee for another rally, listened to the same Carter speech exhorting the Democrats to vote Democratic about seven times.
As Carter goes down to the final hours, campaigning has taken on some of the characteristics of the Bataan death march. In undistinguished hotels that smell of the ghosts of a thousand Willy Lomans, there are midnight arrivals -- and departures six hours later. It is endless madness: racing through crowds for press buses, shouting stories into phones on tarmacs while bands short on talent but long on enthusiasm blare "Hail to the Chief," careening back on planes, shedding sweaters for 77 degrees in Texas, piling them back on for 36 degrees in Milwaukee.If you've seen one hangar you've seen 'em all, and believe me, they've seen 'em all.
And so the magical reward of sleeping in until, 10:45 was a vision to be savored, at last, at the nearest watering hole. One hung-over reporter who followed that route had two-hours' sleep.
"The wake-up call," she said, "came barely after 'last call.'"
Curtis Wilkie's handlebar mustache drooped, and The Boston Globe White House correspondent still seemed in shock as he recalled, "I couldn't find the phone. I was groping on the wrong side of the bed for the longest time. Fortunately they persevered until I found the damn thing." Nearby in the lobby, Jim Dickenson of The Washington Star reached tremblingly for coffee. "The 'October Surprise' is on us. I feel like Charlie Brown with the football. 'Sure you can sleep until 10 a.m.' -- then wham."
Now, at the checkout counter, a cashier was greeting them with a cheerful slogan of 1980s technology: "The computer is down." Endless wait for the computer to activate itself in order to check out. More waiting for laundry to be returned. It was the first chance for such service in days. Then fainting at the price for the overnight rush job: $45 per customer for five shirts, assorted skivvies and socks -- which now would be simply carried home rather than used on the road.
The night before, Hamilton Jordan had quietly flown into Chicago and had left in the dawn's early light with the president. Now Tim Smith, Carter/Mondale chief counsel, stood numbed and unshaven outside the press filing room, knocking down a radio story that suggested that, although the official word was that no deal had been made with the Iranians, there was unexplained mysterious exuberance among the senior staff. Such exuberance was nowhere to be found at that hour in the hotel or on the silent bus ride to the airport.
As reporters, cameramen and photographers boarded the plane -- which, after all that scurrying, ultimately didn't take off until 8:30 a.m. -- they were beginning to content themselves with not-so-small pleasures. If the president did not return to the campaign on Monday, they just might be deprived of a return visit to Philadelphia's Best Western, dubbed Worst Western. They just might be deprived of the transcontinental marathon on Monday. The schedule, before the hasty return to Washington, called for Carter and camp followers to criss-cross the country from Washington to California and Oregon and back to Plains. Given the changes in time, the night would be spent flying through the air.
But then the voice of press aide Rex Granum came over the plane loudspeaker, telling everyone not to leave the briefing area at Andrews Air Force Base until there was word on whether they were going back out on the campaign again. Touch down at Andrews. No word now on resuming the campaign until late afternoon. Phone calls to unsuspecting spouses: Hey, I'm home. Hey, I don't know for how long.
Many went directly to the White House and joined the mob already assembled for the White House routine of sitting and waiting for the big story. They watched the Redskins game as their workday stretched 10 hours, 12 hours. Still no word on the hostage negotiations, on when or if Carter would resume campaigning on the eve of the election. Only late yesterday afternoon did the White House announce that campaigning would resume today.
Only one more baggage call to go.