“Not really,” the reporter said. “He covered three major markets.”
Among those who traveled regularly with the campaigns, in other words, it was taken for granted that these “events” they were covering, and on which they were in fact filing, were not merely meaningless but deliberately so: occasions on which film could be shot and no mistakes made (“They hope he won’t make any big mistakes,” the NBC correspondent covering George Bush kept saying the evening of the September 25 debate at Wake Forest University, and, an hour and a half later, “He didn’t make any big mistakes”), events designed only to provide settings for those unpaid television spots which in this case were appearing, even as we spoke, on the local news in California’s three major media markets. “On the fishing trip, there was no way for television crews to get videotapes out,” the Los Angeles Times noted a few weeks later in a piece about how “poorly designed and executed” events had interfered with coverage of a Bush campaign “environmental” swing through the Pacific Northwest. “At the lumber mill, Bush’s advance team arranged camera angles so poorly that in one set-up only his legs could get on camera.” A Bush adviser had been quoted: “There is no reason for camera angles not being provided for. We’re going to sit down and talk about these things at length.”
Any traveling campaign, then, was a set, moved at considerable expense from location to location. The employer of each reporter on the Dukakis plane the day before the California primary was billed, for a total flying time of under three hours, $1,129.51; the billing to each reporter who happened, on the morning during the Democratic convention when Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen met with Jesse Jackson, to ride along on the Dukakis bus from the Hyatt Regency to the World Congress Center, a distance of perhaps ten blocks, was $217.18. There was the hierarchy of the set: there were actors, there were directors, there were script supervisors, there were grips. There was the isolation of the set, and the arrogance, the contempt for outsiders. I recall pink-cheeked young aides on the Dukakis campaign referring to themselves, innocent of irony and therefore of history, as “the best and the brightest.” On the morning after the September 25 debate, Michael Oreskes of The New York Times gave us this memorable account of Bush aides crossing the Wake Forest campus:
The Bush campaign measured exactly how long it would take its spokesman to walk briskly from the room in which they were watching the debate to the center where reporters were filing their articles. The answer was three-and-a-half minutes—too long for Mr. Bush’s strategists, Lee Atwater, Robert Teeter and Mr. Darman. They ran the course instead as young aides cleared students and other onlookers from their path.
There was the tedium of the set: the time spent waiting for the shots to be set up, the time spent waiting for the bus to join the motorcade, the time spent waiting for telephones on which to file, the time spent waiting for the Secret Service (“the agents,” they were called on the traveling campaigns, never the Secret Service, just “the agents,” or “this detail,” or “this rotation”) to sweep the plane.
It was a routine that encouraged a certain passivity. There was the plane, or the bus, and one got on it. There was the schedule, and one followed it. There was time to file, or there was not. “We should have had a page-one story,” a Boston Globe reporter complained to the Los Angeles Times after the Bush campaign had failed to provide the advance text of a Seattle “environment” speech scheduled to end only twenty minutes before the departure of the plane for California. “There are times when you sit up and moan, ‘Where is Michael Deaver when you need him,’ ” an ABC producer said to the Times on this point.
A final victory, for the staff and the press on a traveling campaign, would mean not a new production but only a new location: the particular setups and shots of the campaign day (the walk on the beach, the meet-and-greet at the housing project) would fade imperceptibly the isolation and the arrogance and the tedium all intact, into the South Lawns, the Oval Office signings, the arrivals and departures of the administration day. There would still be the “young aides.” There would still be “onlookers” to be cleared from the path. Another location, another stand-up: “We already shot a tarmac departure,” they say on the campaign planes. “This schedule has two Rose Gardens,” they say in the White House press room. Ronald Reagan, when asked by David Frost how his life in the Oval Office had differed from his expectations of it, said this: “…I was surprised at how familiar the whole routine was—the fact that the night before I would get a schedule telling me what I’m going to do all day the next day and so forth.”
American reporters “like” covering a presidential campaign (it gets them out on the road, it has balloons, it has music, it is viewed as a big story, one that leads to the respect of one’s peers, to the Sunday shows, to lecture fees and often to Washington), which is one reason why there has developed among those who do it so arresting an enthusiasm for overlooking the contradictions inherent in reporting that which occurs only in order to be reported. They are willing, in exchange for “access,” to transmit the images their sources wish transmitted. They are even willing, in exchange for certain colorful details around which a “reconstruction” can be built (the “kitchen table” at which the Dukakis campaign conferred on the night Lloyd Bentsen was added to the Democratic ticket, the “slips of paper” on which key members of the Bush campaign, aboard Air Force Two on their way to New Orleans, wrote down their own guesses for vice-president), to present these images not as a story the campaign wants told but as fact. This was Time, reporting from New Orleans:
Bush never wavered in support of the man he had lifted so high. “How’s Danny doing?” he asked several times. But the Vice President never felt the compulsion to question Quayle face to face [after Quayle ran into difficulties]. The awkward investigation was left to Baker. Around noon, Quayle grew restive about answering further questions. “Let’s go,” he urged, but Baker pressed to know more. By early afternoon, the mood began to brighten in the Bush bunker. There were no new revelations: the media hurricane had for the moment blown out to sea.
This was Sandy Grady, reporting from Atlanta:
Ten minutes before he was to face the biggest audience of his life, Mike Dukakis got a hug from his 84-year-old mother, Euterpe, who chided him, “You’d better be good, Michael.” Dukakis grinned and said, “I’ll do my best, Ma.”
“Appeal to the media by exposing the [Bush campaign’s] heavy-handed spindoctoring,” William Safire advised the Dukakis campaign on September 8. “We hate to be seen being manipulated.”
“Periodically,” The New York Times reported last March, “Martin Plissner, the political editor of CBS News, and Susan Morrison, a television producer and former political aide, organize gatherings of the politically connected at their home in Washington. At such parties, they organize secret ballots asking the assembled experts who will win…. By November 1, 1987, the results of Mr. Dole’s organizing failures were apparent in a new Plissner-Morrison poll….” The symbiosis here was complete, and the only outsider was the increasingly hypothetical voter, who was seen as responsive not to actual issues but to their adroit presentation: “At the moment the Republican message is simpler and more clear than ours,” the Democratic chairman for California, Peter Kelly, said to the Los Angeles Times on August 31, complaining, on the matter of what was called the Pledge of Allegiance issue, not that it was a false issue but that Bush had seized the initiative, or “the symbolism.”
“BUSH GAINING IN BATTLE OF TV IMAGES,” The Washington Post headlined a page-one story on September 10, and quoted Jeff Greenfield, now an ABC News political reporter: “George Bush is almost always outdoors, coatless, sometimes with his sleeves rolled up, and looks ebullient and Happy Warrior-ish. Mike Dukakis is almost always indoors, with his jacket on, and almost always behind a lectern.” The Bush campaign, according to that week’s issue of Newsweek, was, because it had the superior gift for getting film shot in “dramatic settings—like Boston Harbor,” winning “the all-important battle of the backdrops.” A CBS producer covering the Dukakis campaign was quoted, complaining about an occasion when Governor Dukakis, speaking to students on a California beach, had faced the students instead of the camera. “The only reason Dukakis was out there on the ocean was to get his picture taken,” the producer had said. “So you might as well see his face.” Pictures, Newsweek had concluded, “often speak louder than words.”
This “battle of the backdrops” story appeared on page 24 of the issue dated September 12, 1988. On pages 22 and 23 of the same issue there appeared, as illustrations for the lead National Affairs story (“Getting Down and Dirty: As the mudslinging campaign moves into full gear, Bush stays on the offensive—and Dukakis calls back his main street-fighting man”), two half-page color photographs, one of each candidate, which seemed to address the very concerns expressed on page 24 and in The Post. The photograph of Vice-President Bush showed him indoors, with his jacket on, and behind a lectern. That of Governor Dukakis showed him outdoors, coatless, with his sleeves rolled up, looking ebullient, about to throw a baseball on an airport tarmac: something had been learned from Jeff Greenfield, or something had been told to Jeff Greenfield. “We talk to the press, and things take on a life of their own,” Mark Siegel, a Democratic political consultant, said recently to Elizabeth Drew.
About this baseball on the tarmac. On the day that Michael Dukakis appeared at the high school in Woodland Hills and at the rally in San Diego and in the school-yard in San Jose, there was, although it did not appear on the schedule, a fourth event, what was referred to among the television crews as a “tarmac arrival with ball tossing.” This event had taken place in late morning, on the tarmac at the San Diego airport, just after the chartered 737 had rolled to a stop and the candidate had emerged. There had been a moment of hesitation. Then baseball mitts had been produced, and Jack Weeks, the traveling press secretary, had tossed a ball to the candidate. The candidate had tossed the ball back. The rest of us had stood in the sun and given this our full attention, undeflected even by the arrival of an Alaska 767: some forty adults standing on a tarmac watching a diminutive figure in shirtsleeves and a red tie toss a ball to his press secretary.