To refashion his struggling campaign, Kerry began adding a cadre of slash-and-burn Clinton hands – Joel Johnson, Joe Lockhart, Mike McCurry – plus one non-Clintonista, John Sasso. From Washington, Lockhart would shape message and Johnson would handle rapid response, while Sasso would travel with Kerry to keep him focused. They unleashed a startlingly aggressive new candidate. “With these new people onboard,” one Kerry aide says, “we’ve now put ourselves in a position where we can win. I don’t care what anybody says: Either guy can still win this election.”
On the Friday before Labor Day weekend, Kerry returned a call to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. After they chatted, Clinton asked if Kerry wanted to speak to her husband – she was with him in his Manhattan hospital room as he awaited open-heart surgery. When Kerry spoke with the former president, the two men agreed to have a strategy session by phone. That 90-minute conference call – Lockhart was on the line too – took place on Saturday night. Clinton was unwavering in his critique: Kerry had to stop talking about Vietnam and prosecute his case against Bush in as hard-hitting a manner as possible.
Thirty-six hours or so later, Kerry began his Clinton-inspired assault, saying Bush was carrying on “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” But Kerry leveled his most stinging criticism the following week in Las Vegas at the National Guard Association convention – a group Bush had addressed two days earlier only to offer up a glowing status report on the war in Iraq. Slamming Bush for misrepresenting the conditions there – “He did not tell you that with each passing day, we’re seeing more chaos, more violence, more indiscriminate killings” – Kerry said Bush was “living in a fantasy world of spin.”
In late September, I spent a week on the Kerry plane. Unlike the 2000 Bush plane, which became notorious for its party atmosphere – margaritas flowed at the end of the day and affairs among the press corps were widely rumored – the feeling on the Kerry plane is professional and businesslike. It soon became apparent that many members of Kerry’s traveling press make no attempt to hide their open dislike of the candidate. The morning after Kerry had addressed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gala on the evening of September 15th, two members of the press corps were talking on a campaign bus. “That event was stupid,” one said, referring to the previous night’s occasion – one of the largest Hispanic galas of its type. “A waste of time,” the other said.
Other reporters were just as dismissive. Kerry had gotten a series of impassioned standing ovations during his speech. But when Elisabeth Bumiller described the event in The New York Times, she said, referring to a moment when Kerry spoke an entire paragraph in flawless Spanish, “Kerry’s audience… … listened in startled silence, then broke out into cheers and applause when he made his way through [the paragraph].”
But to report on these events accurately would mean you had to say something unqualified and positive about Kerry. This is something his traveling press corps has been – and still is – loath to do. On the evening of September 21st, outside an auditorium in Orlando, where inside more than 7,500 people were screaming wildly as Kerry spoke, Candy Crowley stood next to the venue and reported on CNN that Kerry was “trying…… to rev up the crowd.” The implication was unmistakable: Kerry’s supporters in Florida were resistant, even standoffish. Just to make sure Crowley was able to get away with downplaying the event as she was, CNN never showed a wide shot of the large, cheering crowd.
As a result of the media bias against Kerry, there is an unmistakable disconnect between what you see on the trail when you travel with him and the way he is depicted in the media. On Mike McCurry’s first trips on the plane, the Thursday and Friday after Labor Day, he immediately identified the animosity that existed between Kerry and the press corps. Specifically, the traveling press were mad because Kerry had not given a press conference since August 9th, five days into the SBVT controversy. McCurry realized he needed to fix the problem at once.
So, late on Friday night, well into a flight from Denver to Boston, McCurry made his way to the rear of the plane, where network cameramen, still photographers and reporters who do not work for A-list dailies – a group that includes both reporters from the newsweeklies, such as Time, and members of the press from states sure to go to Bush, such as Texas – are seated. One reporter not so jokingly referred to this section as “steerage.” McCurry approached Nedra Pickler, an Associated Press correspondent – a sturdy, unflinching woman who takes her job deadly seriously.
“Would you be willing to participate in a group interview on deep background,” McCurry asked her, “should Kerry come back to the reporters?”
“No,” Pickler said flatly over the roar of the jet engines. “It is the position of the Associated Press that if John Kerry were to meet with reporters, the interview should be on the record.”
“But it will give you an idea,” McCurry said, “of what his thinking is at the moment about the campaign. You can attribute what he says to someone close to the campaign. Then next week we will have an on-the-record press conference. This can help you prepare for that.”
Some reporters, such as Susannah Meadows of Newsweek and myself, were happy to meet with Kerry on background – a perfectly acceptable journalistic practice. But all of the reporters had to agree, McCurry said; otherwise, no deal. This, however, is what was strange. The reporters seemed to take a perverse pleasure in standing up to Kerry, in not giving him what he wanted. “He gets more out of this than we do,” one reporter said loudly. “He’s the one in trouble.”