November 3, 2008

All Aboard the Straight Talk Express

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It seems strange to discuss now, as the McCain campaign declares war on the “elite liberal media” and as the press swoons over a new darling, but there was a time not too long ago when John McCain called that same media establishment “my base.” They just called him “John.”
Jill Zuckman, campaign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, is one of the few media veterans from McCain’s 2000 campaign. She remembers riding with the candidate around New Hampshire in his trademark Straight Talk Express when the Arizona senator had no more name recognition than Orrin Hatch, Lamar Alexander or any of the other also-rans who challenged frontrunner George W. Bush for the Republican nomination.
“It was this ramshackle broken-down bus,” she recalled. “It would be Cindy and the kids up front, the press in the back. All his senior people were on the bus with him every day. Nobody could get any work done because everybody was hanging out on the bus. For us, it was a novelty. You could come out and really grill him. No candidate did it like this. Back in 2000, before digital recorders, you would literally run out of tape. There were not enough hours in the day to talk to him, listen to him, tape him, and then go back and transcribe. No other candidates subjected themselves to anything like this. Other candidates, they’d go have an event, they’d get in a car with an aide and make phone calls to donors or whatever they do. They might have one interview with a local reporter in their car, that’s it. But they’d never have the entire press corps ride around with them all over the state and sit with them.”
The Straight Talk Express became intimately associated with John McCain, a metaphor of sorts for the unusually candid candidate. For the superstitious former POW, the bus became something of a good-luck charm — less so for the original bus driver, who was later murdered — and McCain rode it to a 16-point New Hampshire victory over George W. Bush. McCain’s luck, of course, ran out in South Carolina, where a loss effectively dashed his hopes, but Zuckman and others retain fond memories of that campaign even as they make new ones covering this one.
“It was a fun campaign,” she said. “It was fun to get to talk to the candidate like that, and it was such uncharted territory because no one had ever done it before that everybody wrote these ‘Oh my God, can you believe he’s doing this?’ stories. There were lots of donuts, too. McCain was constantly joking that we’d all have to go to rehab for our sugar-donut addictions. Or he’d joke that all of us were on work release. Though McCain himself will tell you, ‘Everybody’s so nostalgic for 2000, but I have news for you: we lost.’”
When McCain announced his 2008 bid for the White House, it was assumed to be only a matter of time before his campaign brought back the Straight Talk Express. They did bring it back, but this time it was … different.
“They were spending $9000 a day on this very sleek bus with flat-screen TVs,” said Zuckman. “This was the 2008 model of the Straight Talk Express. It was the kind of thing a country music star would be riding on. It was extremely luxurious. Then the campaign ran out of money in the summer, and he was literally carrying his own suitcase on Southwest flying from DC to Manchester, meeting someone who would pick him up and drive him around in a car. When they could afford it again, they got a bus that cost them $900 a day instead of $9000.”
And that is the bus McCain rode back from the political dead to the GOP nomination.
Most observers agree that the Arizona senator’s tight-knit relationship with the press changed not long after Candidate McCain became Republican nominee McCain. Toward the end of June, the campaign unveiled “Straight Talk Air” — the airborne version of the bus, or at least that was the idea. Instead of First Class, Business Class, and Coach, there would be a small section for the candidate and his advisors up front, a large press section in the back, and a “Straight Talk” section in the middle.
“They told us at the beginning that they had set up the plane to be just like the bus, that we’d have Straight-Talk sessions just like we did on the bus,” recalled one reporter who wishes to remain anonymous. “We’ve used it exactly
once. I think the powers that be decided that the media was more useful as a target than as a megaphone. I’ve covered several campaigns before, at all levels. Never have I walked into an event with the press corps and had people point to us and boo the way these crowds have lately. I mean, sometimes they throw things at us. I blame the advisers more than I blame McCain, but it’s just sad to see a candidate who used to be so informal, so free-wheeling, let his handlers get to him like that.”
Without their former access to the candidate, reporters find other ways to pass time on Straight Talk Air when they’re not typing away to make deadline. As the plane sits on the tarmac waiting for the candidate, a few of the men gather around a laptop-turned-television to watch Game Two of the American League Championship Series.
Meanwhile, Michael Shear of The Washington Post, Elizabeth Bumiller of The New York Times, and a few others sit beside another laptop, this one with an interactive electoral map, and try to figure out if a McCain electoral victory is even still plausible.
“Tell me how he wins. I don’t see how he gets to 270.”
“Okay, let’s give him Nevada, Ohio, Florida and Virginia. That gets him to 265.”
“I’ll eat my hat if he wins Virginia.”
“Hmmm, how about Pennsylvania? That’s 21 electoral votes.”
“SurveyUSA has him down 15 in Pennsylvania.”
“Then why the hell do we keep going there?”
The plane is plastered with bumper stickers and pictures of the press corps going about their daily routine — several showing reporters taking turns at airplane-aisle bowling. Beside the curtain that separates the press section from the rest of the plane stand two life-size cardboard cutouts of John McCain and Sarah Palin. As the top of cardboard McCain comes unstuck and lurches forward, MSNBC’s Kelly O’Donnell walks by and presses it to the wall, rubbing it with her palm a few times as if for good luck.
When not campaigning with McCain, Palin travels the country on her own plane with her family —“First Dude” Todd, daughters Bristol, Willow and Piper, and newborn Trig (son Track just deployed to Iraq).
“That Piper is cute as a button!” said one reporter. “I love how they dispatch her to charm the press corps.”
“Oh, God, please don’t tell me I’m not going to be covering the Piper Palin presidential campaign in 40 years.”
“How ‘bout Levi?” volunteered another, referring to Bristol’s babydaddy — ahem — fiance.
“Oh, definitely Levi. Levi 2036!”
With Election Day fast approaching and Obama leading some polls by double digits, McCain is once again seen as a political dead man walking. While some in the press corps have hesitated to write McCain off again prematurely, there is increasing resignation among them to the idea of a McCain defeat — and with that comes a certain nostalgia for a candidate they have gotten to know better than any other.
“He’s very funny, very clever,” said Zuckman on the press bus en route to the third debate. “He loves history. He loves foreign affairs and military issues. I mean, we’d get on the bus in the morning, he’d have his coffee, and he’d say, ‘Okay, what’s going on in Pakistan?’ and he’d talk to us about Pakistan for two hours. And then he’d talk about Iraq for a while. Whatever was the hot issue. If you’re sitting in the back of the bus with him, you’re literally shoulder- to-shoulder with him, leg-to-leg with him, everybody’s scrunched in there. So if there’s somebody he doesn’t know, he’d introduce himself to that person.”
“This is making me sad, hearing you talk about this,” interjected Laura Meckler of The Wall Street Journal.
“Jesus, it’s like we’re talking about a dead person,” said a voice in the background.
“He razzed everybody,” said Michael Shear of The Washington Post. “He gave everybody shit. I mean, there was always something that one person or another would do that he’d make fun of”
“Sasha, did McCain make fun of you for anything?” asked Zuckman, turning to Boston Globe reporter Sasha Issenberg.
“Just the usual,” said Issenberg. “‘Jerk.’ ‘Wiseass.’ ‘Are you drunk?’”
“He’s never razzed me,” said Zuckman. “With me he reminisces. He’d be like, ‘Jill, you remember on the Dole campaign …’ and then we’d have the Dole campaign conversation. We had these kinds of conversations with him every day for hours at a time. This is my fourth presidential campaign, and I can tell you that you don’t get to do that with any other presidential candidate.”