Will the real Waldo McPhee please stand up?
Yes, as a matter of fact, Waldo will stand up -- or, to use the broadcast jargon he prefers, Waldo will "do a stand-up" -- just about every night the KennedyPresident campaign plane is in the air, McPhee, ace reporter for KRAP-TV Action News, a station that exists solely over the Kennedy plane's public address system, astounds his audience nightly with scoops that are genuinely stranger than truth.
When Kennedy distributed an advance text of a major address, then gave a speech that bore no relation whatever to the text, it was Waldo who first reported that "Kennedy has revealed himself as a textual deviant."
When Kennedy held a closed-door fundraiser in Newark, it was Waldo who first reported that the chairman of the event, one Salvadore (Sally Slime) Cavaradossi, was arrested for making his contribution in counterfeit bills.
When Kennedy added a quote from an unnamed poet to his standard stump speech, it was Waldo who first indentified the author: Edna St. Vincent Malaise.
Is this too bad to be true? It is. Waldo McPhee is actually Thomas Oliphant, the Boston Globe's cheif Kennedy-watcher. He invented the McPhee character to make fun of broadcast journalists and to entertain the otherd reporters who have been careering around the country on Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's campaign plane.
Waldo's nightly report is part of the Kennedy press corps act -- an expensive traveling sideshow complete with a menagerie of stuffed pets, a band of roving Visigoths, a continuing off-key chorus of 1950s golden oldies, and enough footballs, Frisbees, funny hats and noisemakers to shame a small toy store.
Three months of frenetic and unrelenting travel -- the reporters see their families so rarely they have come to call their brief stops in Washington "conjugal visits" -- have forged the 40 or so "regulars" covering Kennedy into a rambunctious and tightly knit tribe with its own language (the tribe calls itself the "Little Feet") and ritual.
This tribal feeling gives rise to the much-deplored phenomenon known as "pack journalism," in which everybody comes to agree with everybody else and all reporters dispatch essentially the same homogenized view of what's happening.
Pack journalism is alive and thriving on the Kennedy plane. For the past two months, every members of the tribe has been sending home a series of verbal snapshots showing Kennedy ass a stammering, frustrated candidate running a "faltering" -- that is the standard adjective -- campaign.
If the collective judgment turns, and there is some evidence that it is about to, it is probably safe to say that every reporter on the plane will start writing that Kennedy is doing better.
In the isolated metal envelope of Kennedy's 727, there is a little room for dissenting opinions and no place at all for original ideas. Within two hours after the word spread last week that this article was in the works -- "The Post's doing a press piece" -- an ABC crew started filming reporters for a "press piece" of its own and it was announced that a Newsweek media reporter would soon be coming aboard.
Members of the tribe inevitably feel a certain protectiveness toward Kennedy the person, thought not necessarily Kennedy the candidate. That doesn't lessen the competitive pressure within the tribe, nor does it constrain the group's willingness to criticize the candidate. But at the end of each capaign day, it is this tribe that these reporters "go home," to, not their real families or their employers.
Still, there are differences within the tribe -- distinctions of style and interest that color what readers and viewers learn about Kennedy's daily performance.
Some reporters -- such as Phil Jones of CBS, Oliphant of the Globe, and John Walcott of Newsweek -- see themselves primarily as reporters, and they work ceaselessly to dig up new pieces of information. Others -- Eleanor Randolph of the Los Angeles Times is an example -- are writers first, and tend to work harder at the telling of the story than the reporting of it.
Personal interests strongly influence what is reported. Robert Shogan of the Los Angeles Times, a Jewish leprechaun who is, at 49, the grandfather of the tribe, is a political buff who is always writing about the political impact of each day's events. In contrast, Walter Isaacson of Time magazine, the 27-year-old junior member of the corps, gives his editors in New York much more news about human interaction and personal reactions among Kennedy's family and staff.
Most of the regulars agree they are in no position to draw big conclusions about what is really happening in this election.
The matter of drawing conclusions is the source of constant tension for the Kennedy press corps -- the difference in perspective between the relatively inexperienced reporters on the plane and their publications' senior political analysts in Washington.
In the language of the tribe, a Washington-based media heavy is a "Big Foot." The name stems from a nickname for Hedrick Smith, a celebrated New York Times analyst who has an unusually large shoe size. Smith drew the collective scorn of the Kennedy press corps when he wrote an analysis of Kennedy's first week on the campaign trail after spending only the first day of that week with the candidate.
The fact that Smith presumably drew some of his information from their stories, and that his analysis was correct, did little to assuage the traveling reporters who were offended that an "outsider", who had not spent as much time with Kennedy as they had, could make that judgement.
Since then, many more "Big Feet" have spent time with Kennedy -- sometimes only enough time to hear a single speech -- and the "Little Feet" on the plane have watched with pleasure as the analysts have struggled with the task of capturing an erratic, constantly changing candidates on the basis of a single sighting.
The Big Foot-Little Foot tension crystallizes a basic problem in political journalism.The Big Feet in Washington warn their reporters on the plane that it is almost impossible to maintain a sense of perspective after virtually living with a candidate day in and day out. The Little Feet reply that it is almost impossible to draw fair generalizations without constant surveilance. Both sides are right.
Another differences between "Little Feet" and "Big Feet" is that the senior political analysts have a professional memory of Kennedy's older brothers that inevitably influences their reporting on the last brother.
But the people on the plane are younger. Most were in junior high or high school when John F. Kennedy was president; they were college students, soldiers or cub reporters in West Whistlestop when Robert Kennedy was a national political figure.
The Kennedy press corps, made up of a dozen print reporters, nine network correspondents and producers and 20 television crew members, is a predominantly white, male group that represents every region of the country. Some of the crew members and all the reporters and producers are college graduates, with a disproportionate representation from the Ivy League.
Few knew each other when the campaign began, but an incredible camaraderie has developed. This partly a function of shared pride -- everyone is pleased to have the Kennedy assignment -- and partly proof anew that misery loves company, because the tribe has had to endure, in addition to long absence from family, an unending catalogue of bad flights, bad food, exhausting schedules and boring political rhetoric.
They have heard so much of the latter that they have created an award, the Dennis DeConcini Memorial Trophy, for the worst speech heard each day. The honor is named for the Democratic Arizona senator who gave a dreadful introduction of Kennedy at a fund-raiser in Phoenix. Other winners have included Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) and Ed (Lou Grant) Asner, who stood up at a fund-raiser in Los Angeles and told 30 jokes, not one of which was funny.
The sense of belongings on the plane is so inclusive that even two groups that normally form distinct cliques -- reporters and camera crews -- have become friends.
At the start of the campaign, the reporters derisively named the crew members, a muscular class who carry heavy pieces of equipment and brook no obstacles in their path, the "Visigoths." Now the two camps get along fine -- except when a reporter steps in front of a Visigoth's viewfinder.
Except of ABC correspondent Cassie Mackin, the press corps' only celebrity, the Visigoths are the best-paid people on the plane. In the broadcast industry, overtime is called "golden time," and a week or so of 20-hour days can turn into pure gold for the camera crews. A cameraman once dropped his pay check in the plane, and before the check was returned the amount was duly noted: $4,300 for a week's work.
But the reporters, with essentially unlimited expense accounts, know how to use money, too. The guiding rule is "it's only money -- not mine." Thus when the tribe finds itself stopping for a few evening hours in some city, somebody is likely to rent a hotel room so that everyone can watch the nightly news on television.
High above Cedar Rapids, Iowa, last week, someone on the plane observed wistfully that he could really go for a frozen banana diaiquiri. At the next stop, somebody else got in a cab and bought 15 pounds of bananas, five pounds of sugar, two gallons of rum and a blender. All that night the daiquiris flowed.
With each new week the tribe has grown more raucous, and silliness has become standard operating procedure. Nobody, including Kennedy, is surprised to see the candidate being interviewed by a reporter wearing a winged hat bearing the words "Intergalactic Press." Nobody seems taken aback when the press corps marches through some city chanting Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham" or bellowing the rock classic "Get A Job." Nobody asks why a group of professional journalists carries a three-foot-tall stuffed chimpanzee, complete with notebook and press credentials, to campaign rallies.
The atmosphere was described most neatly, appropriately enough, by Norman Lear, the television situation comedy producer who rode the plane for three days in December.
About a week after he left, Lear saw the Kennedy press corps again at a rally in Hollywood. He dashed over to greet the reporters. "Gosh, you guys," he said. "I really missed you! It was just like leaving summer camp and thinking about the kids who got to stay two more weeks."