Alessandra Stanley is slumped on a couch in the lobby of the Merrimack Hilton. Amidst the frenzy all around her, she looks like an oasis of repose. But her blue eyes are aggressively alert. They slip and dart like a cat’s, meeting mine just long enough to register the new face, then moving on. Baggy black pants are stuffed absentmindedly into ankle-high fur-lined boots. A coat falls off one shoulder. Her straight blond hair is stuck carelessly up in a clip. She could be a Radcliffe freshman who overslept and almost missed her 8:00 A.M. philosophy final. She could be an unmade bed. She is one of Time magazine’s political correspondents, and she is waiting for Senator Bob Dole to finish a breakfast speech to the New Hampshire Homebuilders Association. It’s February 11, and the first presidential primary is only five days away.
Campaign coverage was once the near-exclusive domain of the white male political reporter, but in the fifteen years since Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus chronicled the reporter’s life on the campaign trail, the demographics on the bus have changed. There are girls there now: women campaign aides, women Secret Service agents and lots of women reporters—so many, in fact, that some of them wonder aloud whether campaign coverage is becoming women’s work.
The thirty-two-year-old Stanley has been a reporter and a writer for Time since 1981. She traveled some with Jesse Jackson and Geraldine Ferraro back in ’84. But this is her first full-time campaign foray. She has been tailing Republicans, on and off, for the past nine months: Jack Kemp, Pete du Pont, Pat Robertson and now Dole. The variety has been her intellectual salvation. “You live in this cocoon of a campaign,” she observes, “and if you stay with any one candidate long enough, you start to see things through his eyes. Even Robertson! You need to get slapped in the face. My new campaign metaphor is the Stockholm Syndrome [whereby hostages become sympathetic to their captors].”
Metaphor is Stanley’s métier. But she passes up the traditional sports metaphor in her quest for the perfect comparison. In her quirky campaign view Jack Kemp metamorphoses from Pollyanna into Cruella de Vil; Bob Dole, from George Sanders to Captain Ahab; and Pat Robertson’s minions become “the Christians from Hell.” Stanley can be wickedly funny, and she works the back doors of a campaign with dogged charm, corralling an aide for a private little chat or angling an invitation to sit in on some intimate campaign klatch. “It’s very hard to come up with an original way of doing something,” she says. “Everybody’s always wildly looking for the perfect story, the perfect little insight that tells you everything you need to know about the campaign at that moment. I’m not a political junkie. I never used to care, barely could vote. But I think we [women] play to our strengths, or my strength, which is style.”
The current trend in coverage places the emphasis once again on the candidate rather than on the race. Television, with its polls, viewer surveys and instant impact, has assumed the role of prognosticator. But readers also want to know what the candidates are really like.
“As politics has gotten more complicated, the reporting has become more probing and analytical,” says Eleanor Clift, who’s covered four presidential campaigns for Newsweek. “There’s an effort to do more character reporting, to get behind the mask.” Ironically, television makes that job harder. When days are measured in photo opportunities, the camera becomes a barrier that obscures the candidate from the public and the press rather than a window with a view of the man. The trick is to catch and capture those fleeting moments when the person peeks through. “Women didn’t invent the new, sensitive journalism,” says Stanley. “We lucked into a trend. But a lot of women are good at it.”
The huge Dole bus is hurtling incongruously along New Hampshire’s narrow country roads from Manchester to Durham and east to North Hampton. Soon the accoutrements of twenty-five reporters litter its interior: Styrofoam coffee cups, files, notebooks, newspapers, tape recorders and the standard-issue Radio Shack computers. Stanley is bivouacked up front and I lurk in the rear, poised to soak up and jot down any jocular banter, sophomoric pranks or irreverent campaign impressions that might spontaneously erupt. But above the diesel drone the only sound is the tap-tap-tap of the Radio Shack keys. There are stories to file, tapes to transcribe. The good old boys on the bus have become the men on the bus, according to Stanley. They all come home regularly and go to bed early. “The old cliché of the hard-drinking reporter is largely gone,” says Eleanor Clift. “There’s a new breed now, with their laptop computers and their incredible appetite for work.”
The snow starts in the wee hours of the next day. By the time my 5:30 wake-up call comes, there are already eight inches on the ground, and gusting winds are billowing snow across the whitened New Hampshire landscape. Since blizzard conditions preempt most morning campaign plans, Al Haig’s 11:00 A.M. press conference at the Center of New Hampshire Holiday Inn in Manchester is mobbed. Dozens of still photographers and camera crews prowl the large conference room, aggressively staking out territory to catch his entrance. A rustle as the general arrives. The press pack crushes in around him. When they threaten to obscure Haig from view, a chorus of stationary cameramen lined up in the back of the room growls out, “Down!” with chilling menace. “This is a pig fuck,” mutters one independent cameraman.
“You have to scream and you have to keep screaming because the last screamer is the one who gets heard,” says Diane Terrell, 32, an associate producer with ABC News and one of a handful of black women covering the campaign. Terrell runs with Senator Paul Simon, who, blizzard be damned, has decided to hit downtown Manchester for a little grippin’ and grinnin’ this afternoon. The press entourage is defrosting in the lobby of a local insurance firm, and Terrell is in desperate need of a tissue. The snowfield that covers her thick, dark hair has begun to melt, and already two inky rivulets of mascara are locked in a race down her cheek.
“I’m not a political junkie. I’m more interested in how character unfolds than in how you win Alabama.”
“I hate [pack journalism] so much it got to where I just wouldn’t ask questions,” Terrell continues. “Then the day after the Iowa caucuses, we were on a plane to New Hampshire. Simon’s aides had set up several interview sessions on the plane, and I was grouped with two guys who were very aggressive. I was being polite,” she says. “I figured I’d let them ask their questions and then it would be my turn. Then Terry Michael says, on tape, ‘Wait, we have to let Diane ask a question.’ I knew the people in New York would hear him intervene for me. I was profoundly embarrassed. That made me get out there and interrupt them like they were interrupting me.”
Terrell represents the newest of the new breed of journalist on the campaign trail. She is one of the corps of young associate producers, tape researchers and assorted underlings—mostly women—that the major networks dispatched early on to body-watch candidates. These are the Broadcast News types of the 1988 presidential campaign. Armed with notebooks and Filofaxes but without camera crews, their mission is to log every moment of their respective campaigns so that if a candidate should start speaking in tongues they can pick up the videotape from one of the local network affiliates. Unlike their newspaper and newsmagazine counterparts who have the luxury of hopscotching among the thirteen original campaigns, they are campaign hostages. Terrell joined Simon full time on January 3. Six weeks had passed without a day off.
Before Terrell was recruited for the campaign team—an assignment she wanted badly—she worked on ABC’s World News This Morning. But as it turns out, drawing Simon was less than ideal. Simon’s was a chronically undercapitalized operation that didn’t operate very well. And there was much about life on the campaign trail that clashed head-on with Terrell’s serious, thoughtful nature.
She and CBS News producer Susan Reed were the first two press representatives to travel full time, or try to, with Simon. As their candidate crisscrossed the country, Terrell and Reed were bumped repeatedly from the small campaign planes. For the better part of January they improvised wildly, forced at the last minute to scramble up commercial-flight reservations that they prayed would reunite them with the roving campaign. “We had to rely on each other,” says Terrell. “I booked the flights, she booked the hotels. But Susan and I were in direct competition with each other, and inevitably that network mentality prevailed.”
The dynamics, and the logistics, improved as Simon’s press corps grew, but the enforced togetherness presented its own set of problems. “I tend to be a very private person,” says Terrell, “and sometimes I just had to put on my Walkman and look out the window. You’re constantly surrounded by white males. There was no one to sit down with, put up your feet and say, ‘This is a bitch, isn’t it?’ ”
The Simon campaign picked up some momentum going into Iowa. But the candidate’s surge was short-lived. “The week before Iowa there was a giddy excitement,” recalls Terrell, “a feeling of being part of something. We laughed a lot. But more and more after Iowa it became clear that our candidate wasn’t going anywhere. And when he didn’t go anywhere, we weren’t news.” But in fact the experience provided a professional stepping-stone for Terrell. After Simon pulled out, ABC transferred her to the World News Tonight team.
The expectation that a career carrot may be dangling at the end of the campaign stick is a powerful incentive. But it’s a long, long stick. You work sixteen-hour days, seven days a week because, as Stanley says, “these guys are running for president. They’re not gonna say, ‘Hey, let’s take the day off and go bowling.’ ” You eat lousy food. If you pack a lot, you lug a lot, so you pack light and wear the same rumpled clothes day after day. The most notable exception to the rumpled look is Newsweek’s Margaret Warner, whose tasteful jacket-and-skirt ensembles set off by perfectly coordinated accessories prompted Jesse Jackson to comment on her “sartorial violence.”
You don’t exercise. “I take a swimsuit with me everywhere,” says Stanley, “in the faint, tragic hope that someday I’ll actually go in a pool.” She’s been in once. As soon as the ’84 campaign ended, Warner and CBS News’ Susan Spencer hit a Mexican health spa to get back into shape.
You listen to the same speech five or six or even ten times a day, along with the twenty or so competitors who have now become your constant companions. Your life is controlled by a tribe of type-A advance men who are driven by dreams of becoming under secretaries of something in the next administration. Your personal life becomes a faded memory. You catch a cold. You catch it again. You sleep too little. You drink a bit too much. You agonize about missing deadlines or missing baggage calls or, God forbid, missing the point. Maybe you don’t drink enough. You mark time by states. (How long have you been with Dukakis? Since Michigan.) You get compulsive: If you see a phone, you use it. If you see food, you eat it. If you see a bathroom, you go. You never get in the way of a moving camera crew. And you never, ever get left behind. But despite the anxiety and the tedium and the POW lifestyle, it is still an incredible rush to chronicle the electing of an American president. For some it can even be fun.
Jill Valenstein, a political coordinator for CBS, arrived in Austin, Texas, at 3:00 A.M. on January 4. “I was so terrified,” she remembers. “I had no idea how to meet up with a campaign. I had never heard of a baggage call.” But Senator Albert Gore’s press van was leaving at 8:00 A.M., and Valenstein knew she had to be on it. She wandered down to the hotel lobby a few minutes early and spotted three guys reading newspapers. “They had to be reporters,” she says. “So I lowered my voice and said, ‘Hi, I’m Jill Valenstein from CBS.’ And the first guy says, ‘Warren Weaver, New York Times.’ God, The New York Times! I figure they’re probably thinking, What is this high school student doing here? But by that first van ride, I had a place in that campaign.” In fact, during the four months she spent with Gore, the twenty-seven-year-old Valenstein became as much a fixture on the campaign as Gore himself.
It is April 16, three days before the New York primary. As Valenstein boards the Gore jet in Rochester she greets the middle-aged flight attendant with a breezy “Hi-i-i-i Rosemarie.” Valenstein is small and cute, with big brown eyes that brim with mirth and moxie. She is feeling uncharacteristically glum today, though. Gore’s campaign is in its death throes. The press corps plans to meet later for a dinner that Valenstein insists on calling the Last Supper. Rosemarie hands Valenstein a Perrier. She stocks them just for her. “I can’t even drink anymore,” mourns Valenstein. “Once you pass twenty-five, it’s a whole different thing.”
To prepare herself, Valenstein had eagerly absorbed everything from campaign minutiae, such as Al and Tipper’s wedding song (“All You Need Is Love”), to weightier issues, like the importance of the tracking poll in predicting the undecided vote. So completely did Valenstein immerse herself in the details and spirit of campaigning that her only week off, most of which was spent in bed with the flu, became torturous and disorienting. “There was all this news happening, and I wasn’t there,” she says. “I had this addiction to it. It was really bizarre. I missed it so much. You also develop this weird sensation about having your time to yourself. I was trying to go shopping one day, and I just couldn’t make up my mind where to go.”
Maybe it was Gore’s laid-back campaign that made the trail such fun for Valenstein. Gore’s “Escape from Iowa Tour” pretty much skipped the winter in Iowa and New Hampshire to focus on the sunny South. But, as Eleanor Clift observes, cliques always form on the campaign trail, and if you’re not part of one, it feels like “being on a class trip without a partner.” So maybe the key to Valenstein’s good time was the fact that she’d found a friend.
ABC News’ Philadelphia bureau chief and producer Caria De Landri arrived in mid-January. De Landri was Valenstein’s perfect pal: a little older (thirty-one), a little wiser and just as nuts. Says Valenstein, “We bonded immediately.” A livestock show somewhere in rural Mississippi. Valenstein: “We were standing outside the ring, and we were laughing at this giant pig. And like, he knew we were laughing at him so he came over and pissed right at our feet. I ran away. It was gross.”
Buffalo, New York. After a Gore speech, the pair hijacked the bus for a detour to nearby Niagara Falls.
Boise, Idaho. Valenstein: “There was this Benetton shop next door to the campaign event that was having a 50-percent-off sale. We said, ‘Screw this event. Let’s go shopping.’ ”
“I wonder about how somewhere in the sky there is a plane full of people with their Radio Shacks out, living in this little bubble, completely cut off from the rest of the world.”
The camaraderie that develops among the traveling press corps can be intense, like at college or boot camp. Everything becomes communal: humor, information, desperation, toothpaste. The camera crews, or “techies,” are the party boys. They generally supply the beer (though they may be the only ones drinking it) and most of the comic relief—like plane skiing, for instance, a sport reportedly developed by network camera crews aboard a Gary Hart flight in ’84. You remove two plastic safety cards from the seat pocket in front of you and then, ignoring every known FAA regulation, head forward for takeoff. As the plane angles up, you stand on the cards and ski down the center aisle.
For the most part, everyone is professional. Everyone is focused by one man’s ambition and by his or her own. But the atmosphere can get charged, heady, erotic. Sex is in the air. After a few days there is something strangely virile about all those crazy cameramen in their blue jeans, backpedaling through hip-deep snowdrifts and trampling any man, woman, child or household pet who crosses their path. “Sure, you ask around,” says one woman reporter. “You know, girl to girl, ‘Hey, you getting any on your plane?’ and the answer is, ‘Nooooo.’ ”
“There’s some degree of chaste flirtation, but people aren’t having mad affairs,” says Stanley, who squeezed in her wedding the weekend after the New York primary. “Everyone’s too preoccupied getting rich and famous.” There have been a few famous campaign romances. Margaret Warner met her current spouse on the Mondale campaign in ’84, as did Susan Spencer. But ’88 has been a slow year.
An April drizzle is falling on Manhattan as I look for the Jesse Jackson rally in Chinatown: 70 Mulberry Street, according to my crumpled event schedule. There’s a man standing on a stoop under a restaurant awning, hairy forearms crossed imperiously over his paunch. He’s stocky, balding, Italian probably, the proprietor maybe. Which way’s Number 70? I ask. Which way is the Jesse Jackson rally? He points south. And that’s when he says it: “I hope dey blow his brains out.” That’s why Jackson wears his navy-blue bulletproof raincoat at all outdoor rallies. That’s why his Secret Service packs Uzi submachine guns.
For two days the press corps and the Secret Service follow Jackson through the streets of Manhattan and on upstate to Buffalo and Rochester while I stalk Maureen Dowd. Dressed in her street clothes—jeans and Reeboks—she routinely disappears into the mass of spectators who fill Jackson’s events with their chants and their dreams. I finally corner her on Jackson’s walk across the Williamsburg Bridge.
Dowd is a reluctant interview. She regularly turns down requests to appear on television as a pundit. She avoids holding forth in her writing as well. “I think it’s important to have the reader participate,” she says, “to let the reader make his own decisions, not bang him over the head. So the point is to let people [whom you interview] talk.”
Dowd turns a handsome phrase. But what sets her apart is her ability to view an event with fifty other reporters and walk away with a completely original take. The best example by far is her 1984 story about campaign etiquette. Dowd was working in Manhattan on The New York Times’s Metro desk when Walter Mondale made history by picking Queens congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. “I had no intention of covering it differently,” says Dowd. “But at the [Democratic] Convention the tendency was to treat Ferraro as though she was just one of the guys. I proposed a story about all the differences in body language, etiquette and the historical aspects.” The Times mulled the suggestion over for a couple of days before finally giving Dowd the nod.
San Francisco, July 17, 1984. “From the first,” her story began, “there had to be a policy on kissing.”
In this campaign year it was Dowd who first reported how Senator Joe Biden had borrowed heftily from a speech by British Labour leader Neil Kinnock, a revelation that eventually led to Biden’s withdrawal from the race. But the most compelling figure in 1988 for Dowd—and the source of some of her best stories—was Gary Hart. “I’m not a political junkie,” she insists. “I’m more interested in how character unfolds than in how you win Alabama. All the reporters wrote [Hart] off. But I loved being with him to see how the consequences of his actions played out, to watch the epilogue of his own political tragedy. There are very few situations outside of Shakespeare where you find people revealing themselves in three acts. [A campaign] is one of those rare forums where people have to reveal themselves. There’s a lot of tedium. But then there are these incredible moments where you get to see the rhetoric and reality collide.”
The first time I ran into Joan Vennochi was in early March, at a Dukakis rally in Seattle. It was late in the evening of a typically long day. Vennochi had made the mistake of wearing heels, and her feet were killing her. For most of the eight months that she had spent following Dukakis for The Boston Globe, Vennochi was the lone girl on the bus. She insists that there was nothing unique in that. “If anything works for or against you on a campaign,” she says, “it’s the pecking order of the publications.” Still, being the only woman “reared its head occasionally,” like the time a factory owner, bristling at her interrogation, snapped, “You’re just like my wife, always putting words in my mouth.”
Vennochi dropped off the bus and back into her life for good after Super Tuesday. Not an easy decision, given the fact that even then Dukakis was a good bet to win the Democratic nomination. But unlike many of her female colleagues on the campaign, Vennochi, who’s thirty-five, is married. Her husband of eleven years is a school principal in Massachusetts. Even though he’s incredibly supportive, Vennochi says, “[Travel] is especially difficult if your spouse is not involved in journalism. I’m calling from San Francisco at 11:00 A.M., and he has this vision of trolley cars. Meanwhile, he’s dealing with some kid who just attached himself to a radiator.” She has been writing noncandidate political profiles for the Globe’s Living/Arts section. But every now and then Vennochi catches herself. “I wonder about how somewhere in the sky there is a plane full of people with their Radio Shacks out, living in this little bubble, completely cut off from the rest of the world.”
Listening to her reminded me of something one of the boys on the Dukakis bus said to me my first day out on the trail. “It’s like a drug,” he explained. “The only thing worse than doing it is not doing it.” And maybe the best thing about it is that it only happens every four years.
[Photo Credit: Peter Richmond]