Every weeknight, overnight, a handful of people wade through reams of political reportage, boiling it down to a 20-page briefing that can be digested easily in less than half an hour. They report as much on what is said about the campaign as on what is said within the campaign -- both recognizing and intensifying the blurring of the distinction.
The Presidential Campaign Hotline, a five-month-old enterprise, is the ultimate combination of old-fashioned political buffery and newfangled information publishing: the global smoke-filled room.
Each morning at 10, 300-odd subscribers can "download" the Hotline onto a computer. For a fee of $250 or $350 a month, the readers -- among them campaigns, news organizations, foreign embassies, lobbyists and consultants -- will learn everything there is to know about what others say about politics, learn it faster and from more sources than was ever before possible.
It is the perfect fix for political junkies -- including reporters, who are starting to take a mention in the Hotline as a point of pride. But it has also been accused of encouraging a focus on the race to the exclusion of the horse, and increasing the tendency toward "pack" coverage of politics. "In effect," Mickey Kaus wrote in Newsweek, "Hotline expands dramatically the Washington-New York echo chamber of respectable opinions and reverberating rumors."
But watching the staff put together the Hotline is more like wandering into the middle of an early Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movie. This font of instant wisdom is mostly the work of people under age 25, and until their middle-aged bosses show up at around 6 a.m., the office seems to whisper, Hey, let's put out a bipartisan electronic digest of the nation's salient political news! We can rope off the whole neighborhood!
The Hotline suite, on the second floor of a brick "professional park" in McLean, cultivates the air of the political campaign: ratty orange carpeting made uglier by wear, editorial cartoons tacked to all the walls, the lived-in air of an office in 24-hour gear.
Reduced to its component parts, the Hotline amounts to little more than a television set, three videocassette recorders, six personal computers, a telefax machine, some high-priced computer talent and some low-priced editorial talent. And here, very early Thursday morning, the Hotliners assembled their first full day of reportage following the New Hampshire primary.
First in is Karl Eisenhower, 21, an editorial assistant who harvests the television news from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. In addition to monitoring newscasts on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and PBS, he scoops up random political japes from David Letterman and Johnny Carson.
By 2 a.m., when the next group gets in, Eisenhower has taken down six pages of notes listing which shows gave how much coverage to whom, and whose guests said what nasty things about which rivals.
"We look for what they're covering, how they're saying it, what words they're using, because so many people have it as their main news source," says Eisenhower. "We pretty much ignore the news content of the stories." This was a good night, what with George Bush's campaign chairman Lee Atwater telling two separate shows that his mother had called to comment adversely on Bob Dole's manners, and Dole's campaign chairman Bill Brock responding that Atwater should grow up.
Eisenhower types his haul. The resulting "TV WRAP UP" will, as always, close the three pages of "highlights" at the beginning of the Hotline; it is the only item to run at such length in that section.
Next to arrive are Mary Kate Grant, 24, and her coeditor, Will Saletan, 23. Until last fall Grant was a junior staffer for the woman who booked guests on "This Week with David Brinkley." Saletan, who just graduated from Swarthmore, has been an intern at The New Republic and Washingtonian magazine.
For the next four hours Grant and Saletan will call the shots. Before 9 a.m., they will write about 90 percent of the Hotline.
At the long table that dominates the suite, they paw through stories sent in via Telefax or computer by "participating" subscribers. (The Hotline depends on distant newspapers and magazines to help out, and confers $100-a-month discounts on some 65 contributors.) Stars rise and fall with the seasons. Two weeks ago, The Des Moines Register's political ace David Yepsen got the Hotline for free. Today, Eisenhower explains to a reporter, "They're still sending us stuff -- not that we're using it anymore."
Sorting the news, analysis and commentary from scribes in Atlanta, Miami, Seattle and Dallas, the editors organize it into rough categories. "Here's two pieces on the GOP civil war," goes a typical Saletan summary, "and one column on whether Dole is getting mean again."
They are stumped, briefly, by a plethora of stories filed by reporters dutifully covering the actual whereabouts of candidates -- as opposed to themes or opinions or polls or feuds or media buys. With Super Tuesday coming up on March 8, the neat plot line yielded by Iowa and New Hampshire is about to fray into a dozen strands.
"We should think about this," says Saletan, "because there's gonna be a lot of stories about candidates running everywhere. Maybe we should have a category for that."
Grant, a Republican, and Saletan, a Democrat, agree that they want to do something with Hunter S. Thompson's wild and woolly report from New Hampshire in the San Francisco Examiner, for fun if nothing else.
By 3:15 they have winnowed the day's themes down to nine or 10 initial "stories," knowing that the number and the subjects are likely to change. Topics include an assessment of the races in Minnesota and South Dakota; a look at Dukakis' new, tough rhetoric on foreign policy; a story they refer to as "Don't Fear the Reaper," about Bruce Babbitt's scheduled withdrawal from the race and the predicaments of Pierre S. du Pont IV, Rep. Jack Kemp and Sen. Paul Simon; the tale of Pat Robertson's renewed assertions -- this time to the Cuban exile community in Miami -- that Soviet missiles are stationed in Cuba.
They begin to write, alluding in each item to as many sources as possible.
At 3 and 4 a.m., two more editorial assistants arrive. Chris Nathan, a wizened 26, enters all the "Campaign Reports" filed by presidential campaigns onto a computer disk. This is widely thought to be one of Hotline's most interesting innovations: By offering each candidate the chance to run 200 unedited words, the publishers have in effect created an electronic bulletin board for press secretaries -- a place to alert the whole political community to a change in agenda or emphasis, or to respond to a negative story the same day it runs.
With some sadness, Grant and Saletan discuss Babbitt's demise: Babbitt press secretary Mike McCurry was the acknowledged star of the Campaign Reports section, sending in witty, amiable reports from the bunker. ("GOOD NEWS WHEN YOU LEAST EXPECT IT," ran one item the day after Babbitt's grim showing in the Iowa caucuses. "Governor Babbitt received a letter last week from a Mr. Ed McMahon of Hollywood, California. And right on the front of the envelope, in big red letters, were these encouraging words: 'B. BABBITT, YOU MAY ALREADY BE A WINNER.' "
In the middle of this fond remembrance, the Wilmington News Journal transmits a story saying -- more firmly than any earlier reports -- that du Pont will withdraw at 2 p.m.
Grant's tart eulogy is, "Well, at least we won't have to worry about that any more."
At 4 a.m., Nathan leaves for another harvest: a trip to a local distributor for actual copies of The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Times, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Wall Street Journal, the Baltimore Sun and The Evening Sun. When he returns an hour later, he and 23-year-old Catherine Berger, the 4 a.m. editorial assistant, spend an hour clipping anything and everything remotely political -- including "Doonesbury."
Close to 6 a.m., the two editors sift through the pile of clips, paying special attention to columnists -- at least some of them. Standing over the table, Saletan suddenly makes a noise of disgust.
"Agh. Another great Germond-Witcover column." He points to the headline: "National Primary Looms," and consigns it to a pile he terms "nebulous analysis."
Like parents about to return from a long weekend, the bosses have begun calling in, getting brisk rundowns on the top stories and the pace of the editors' work.
There is brief grumbling when Grant tells Saletan that publisher Doug Bailey wants to write the Babbitt withdrawal piece himself. The speech has been given to Hotline in advance -- an exclusive -- and the upshot will be a first: Not only will the speech be reported by Hotline at the precise time Babbitt is delivering it; Bailey will even forecast the press coverage of this foretold event, writing, "Press commentary is expected to be laudatory. . ."
Now, the grown-ups are trooping in. First Bailey, a GOP political consultant (of the firm Bailey-Deardourff) who is one of four founder-publishers. Bailey has Dick Tracy's face and a wristwatch to match, and he is tickled to death by the whole process.
"After 25 years of working in politics for a candidate," he says, "you have no idea how wonderful it is to be in the midst of a campaign without having to deal with a candidate." The next to arrive is managing editor Larry Tomayko. The longtime aide to former Republican senator Richard Schweiker is the clean-desk man of this operation.
He is followed by Ron Rosenblith, another publisher. Rosenblith, who most recently worked for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, balances out Republican Bailey, just as Grant and Saletan balance one another.
While Rosenblith and Bailey retire to the bedlam of their facing desks in an office at the back, Tomayko assumes command in the office with the best view of the field.
He calls out to Grant. "There's a report that Chancellor called Dole the "Aya-Dole-ah."
She shoots back confidently, "That's old news. Chancellor didn't say it himself; he says Dole's staff -- his Senate staff -- calls him that."
Grant, Tomayko and Saletan discuss the story list, adding a story about noncandidates Sam Nunn and Mario Cuomo, killing -- for time reasons -- a planned wrap-up of "nebulous analysis" stories.
Bailey suddenly becomes concerned that Kemp is absent from the morning's report. His solution is to separate Kemp and Simon from the Babbitt and du Pont withdrawals, moderating the doubts about the longevity of the two former campaigns.
Catherine Berger, in the meantime, has assembled some items about Senate races -- a category that Hotline sees as a huge growth area but has not really focused on. Of eight items on the budget at 6:30, three come straight from press releases, and several are from the "Senator X Blows Own Horn" school of news.
By now the sun is showing pinkly at the windows.
The pace lifts. Staffers are typing corrections as they leave Tomayko's OUT box; editing down Bailey's interview with a Southern pollster (the day's dose of "Insider" commentary); monitoring the morning TV shows. It is the job of Tryon Wells, the resident computer expert, to assemble the bits and pieces from assorted disks into the format that will convert the Hotline into its organized 20 pages.
There is only one odd note in the office, and it becomes clear as Bailey, at about 8:30, turns from his writing task to arranging the highlights: He is cutting the highlights into strips from a printed copy, stapling them in order to sheets from a legal pad.
He and Rosenblith, the chiefs of this operation, have been writing in longhand.
It thus falls to one of the younger staffers -- Catherine Berger -- to walk the finally assembled disk across the suite, from one PC to another, at a few minutes before 10. When she presses the "Enter" button, the Hotline is fed to the ether: 53,559 characters, 512 at a time.
Bailey chairs a brief meeting that is both post-mortem and preview. More stories from individual Super Tuesday states, please; efforts should be made to pry more information about media buys out of candidates' staffs; they should talk about what debates are coming up, and how to cover them.
Grant notes that Dole isn't going to participate in a GOP debate scheduled for Friday night. This is news to everyone else. Why not? How does she know?
For the first time, Grant looks flustered. She finally laughs. "I dunno," she says, gesturing helplessly around the paper-strewn room. "I read it somewhere."