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The Boys on the Bus

A strange, rocky ride from Manchester to Miami with the campaign press corps

Vietnam Vets, protest, war, George McGovern

Vietnam Vets protest the war as George McGovern enters the Cow Palace in San Francisco, California on October 13th, 1972.

Ron Pownall/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

June 1st— – five days before the California primary. A grey dawn is fighting its way through the orange curtains in the Wilshire Hyatt House Hotel, in Los Angeles, where George McGovern is encamped with his wife, his staff, and the press assigned to cover his snowballing campaign.

While reporters still snore like Hessians in a hundred beds throughout the hotel, the McGovern munchkins are at work, plying the halls, slipping the long legal-sized handouts through the cracks under the door of each room. According to one of these handouts, the Baptist Ministers’ Union of Oakland has decided after “prayerful and careful deliberation,” to endorse Senator McGovern. And there’s a detailed profile of Alameda County (“…agricultural products include sweet corn, cucumbers, and lettuce”), across which the press will be dragged today— – or is it tomorrow? Finally there is the mimeographed schedule, the orders of the day.

At 6:45 AM the phone on the bed-table goes off, and a sweet, chipper voice announces: “Good Morning, Mr. Crouse. It’s 6:45. The press bus leaves in 45 minutes from the front of the hotel.” She is up there in Room 819, the press suite, calling up the dozens of names on the press manifest, waking the agents of every great newspaper, wire service and network not only of America but of the world. In response to her calls, she is getting a shocking series of startled grunts, snarls, and obscenities.

The media heavies are rolling over, stumbling to the bathroom, and tripping over the handouts. Stooping to pick up the schedule, they read: “8:00-8:15, Arrive Roger Young Center, Breakfast with Ministers.” Suddenly, desperately, they think: “Maybe I can pick McGovern up in Burbank at 9:55 and sleep for another hour.” Then, probably at almost the same instant, several score minds flash the same guilty thought: “But maybe he will get shot at the ministers’ breakfast.” And then each mind branches off into its own private nightmare recollection: of the correspondent who was taking a piss at the Laurel Shopping Center when they shot Wallace, of the ABC cameraman who couldn’t get his Bolex to start as Bremer emptied his revolver. A hundred hands grope for the toothbrush.

It is lonely on these early mornings and often excruciatingly painful to tear oneself away from a brief, sodden spell of sleep. More painful for some than for others. The press is consuming $200 a night worth of free cheap booze up there in the press suite, and some are consuming the lion’s share. Last night it took six reporters to subdue a prominent radio correspondent who kept upsetting the portable bar, knocking bottles and ice on the floor. The radioman had the resiliency of a Rasputin— – each time he was put to bed, he would reappear to cause yet more bedlam.

And yet, at 7:15 Rasputin is there for the baggage call, milling in the hall outside the press suite with fifty-odd other reporters. The first glance at all these fellow sufferers is deeply reassuring— – they all feel the same pressures you feel, their problems are your problems. Together, they seem to have the cohesiveness of an ant colony, but when you examine the scene more closely, each reporter appears to be jitterbugging around in quest of the answer that will quell some private anxiety.

The feverish atmosphere is halfway between a high school bus trip to Washington and a gamblers’ jet junket to Las Vegas, where small-time Mafiosi are lured into betting away their restaurants. There is giddy camaraderie mixed with fear and low-grade hysteria. To file a story late, or to make glaring factual errors, is to chance losing everything— – one’s job, one’s expense account, one’s drinking buddies, one’s mad-dash existence, and the methedrine-like buzz that comes from knowing stories that the public will not know for hours and secrets that the public will never know. Therefore reporters channel their gambling instincts into late night poker games and private bets on the outcome of elections. When it comes to writing a story, they are as cautious as diamond-cutters.

They are three deep at the main table in the press suite, badgering the McGovern people for a variety of assurances. “Will I have a room in San Francisco tonight?” “Are you sure I’m booked on the whistlestop train?” “Have you seen my partner?”

It’s Thursday, and many reporters are knotting their stomachs over their Sunday pieces, which have to be filed this afternoon at the latest. They are inhaling their cigarettes with more of a vengeance, and patting themselves more distractedly to make sure they have their pens and their notebooks. In the hall, a Secret Service agent is dispensing PRESS tags for the baggage, along with string and scissors to attach them. From time to time, in the best Baden-Powell tradition, he courteously steps forward to assist a palsied journalist in the process of threading a tag.

The reporters often consult their watches or ask for the time of departure. Among this crew, there is one great phobia – —the fear of getting left behind. Fresh troops have arrived today from the Humphrey bus, which is the Russian Front of the California primary, and they have come bearing tales of horror. The Humphrey bus had left half the press corps at the Biltmore Hotel on Tuesday night; in Santa Barbara, the bus had deserted Richard Bergholz of The Los Angeles Times, and it had twice stranded George Shelton, the AP man.

To the men whose duty had called them to slog along at the side of the Hump, the switch to the McGovern Bus brought miraculous relief. “You gotta go see the Hump’s press room, just to see what disaster looks like,” a reporter urged me. The Humphrey press room, a bunker-like affair in the bowels of the Beverly Hilton, contained three tables covered with white tablecloths, no typewriters, no chairs, no bar, no food, one phone (with outside lines available only to registered guests), and no reporters. The McGovern press suite, on the other hand, contained 12 typewriters, eight phones, a Xerox Telecopier, a free bar, free cigarettes, free munchies, and a skeleton crew of three staffers. It was not only Rumor Central, but also a miniature road version of Thomas Cook and Son. As the new arrivals to the McGovern bus quickly found out, the McGovern staff ran the kind of guided tour that people pay great sums of money to get carted around on. They booked reservations on planes, trains, and hotels; gave and received messages; and handled Secret Service accreditation with a fierce, Teutonic efficiency. And handed out reams of free information. On any given day, the table in the middle of the press suite was laden with at least a dozen fat piles of handouts, and the door was papered with pool reports.

Pack Journalism

It is just these womblike conditions that give rise to a condition known as “pack journalism,” a condition that causes much of American political journalism to be shallow, obvious, pointless and boring beyond description. Many reporters travel with a single candidate throughout an entire election year. Trapped on one bus, they eat, drink, gamble and trade information with the same bunch of colleagues week after week, and soon all their stories begin to sound the same. All the stories come from the same handout, the same pool report, or the same speech by the candidate, and the “pack” dynamic insures that almost all the reporters will take the same approach to the story. It is hard to locate any reporter who will not vehemently denounce pack journalism, but the political journalists who resist its temptations are few.

One muggy afternoon in Los Angeles, I went to consult with Karl Fleming, a former political reporter and bureau chief for Newsweek who was rumored to be a formidable critic of pack journalism. One of the reasons he quit Newsweek was that he got fed up riding around on campaign extravaganzas.

“I got so frustrated during the Nixon campaign,” he grinned, “that I went to Ron Ziegler one day— – we were flying some-goddam-where— – and said, ‘Ron, I come to you as a representative of the press corps to ask you this question.’ I said, The question is: What does Nixon do upon the occasion of his semiannual erection?’ Ziegler never cracked a goddam smile. Then I said: ‘The consensus is that he smuggles it to Tijuana.'”

Fleming leaned back in his chair and laughed hard.

“Gee,” I said, “you must have been fucked after that.”

“It doesn’t make any difference if you’re fucked or you’re not fucked,” said Fleming. “You delude yourself into thinking: ‘Well, if I get on the bad side of these guys, then I’m not gonna get all that good stuff.’ But pretty soon the realization hits that there isn’t any good stuff and there isn’t gonna be any good stuff. Nobody’s getting anything that you’re not getting, and if they do it’s just more of the same bullshit.”

I told Fleming that I was puzzled as to why so many newspapers felt they needed to have correspondents aboard the press bus; a couple of wire service guys and a camera crew should be able to cover a candidate’s comings, goings and official statements more than thoroughly

“Papers that have enough money are not content to have merely the AP reports,” he said. “They want to have their own person in Washington because it means prestige for the paper and because, in a curious way, it gives the editors a feeling of belonging to the club, too. I’ll guarantee you that three-fourths of the goddam stuff – —the good stuff— – that the Washington Press Corps reporters turn up never gets into print at all. The reason it is collected is because it is transmitted back to the editor, to the publisher, to the ‘in’ executive cliques on these newspapers and networks and newsmagazines. It’s sent in confidential, FYI memos or just over the phone. You give the publisher information that his business associates or his friends at the country club don’t have; you’re performing a very valuable function for him and that, by God, is why you get paid.

“But while these papers want to have a guy there getting all the inside stuff, they don’t want reporters who are ballsy enough and different enough to make any kind of trouble. It would worry the shit out of them if their Washington reporter happened to come up with a page one story that was different from what the other guys were getting. And the first goddam thing that happens is, they pick up the phone and call this guy and say, ‘Hey, if this is such a hot story, how come AP or the Washington Post doesn’t have it?’ And the reporter’s in big fuckin’ trouble. The editors don’t want scoops. Their abiding interest is making sure that nobody else has got anything that they don’t have— – not getting something that nobody else has.

“So eventually a very subtle kind of thing takes over and the reporter says to himself, ‘All I gotta do to satisfy my editor and publisher is just get what the other guys are getting, so why should I bust my ass?’ And over a period of a few years he joins the club. Now most of these guys are honest, decent reporters who do the best job they can in this kind of atmosphere. The best reporters are the ones who sit around and talk about what assholes their editors and publishers are and that still happens, thank God, with a great amount of frequency, even at the high levels of the Washington press corps.

“All the same, any troublemaking reporter who walks into a press conference and asks a really mean snotty question which is going to make the candidate and his people really angry is gonna be treated like a goddam pariah. ‘Cause these guys in this club, they don’t want any troublemakers stirring up the waters, which means they might have to dig for something that’s not coming down out of the daily handout, or coming in from the daily pool report about what went on. They’d rather sit around the press room at the hotel every night, drinking booze and playing poker.”

The First Stop

Around 8:15, the buses pulled up in front of a plain brick building that looked like a school. The press trooped down a little alley and into the back of Grand Ballroom of the Roger Young Center. The scene resembled Bingo Night in a South Dakota parish hall— – hundreds of middle-aged people sitting at long rectangular tables. They were watching George McGovern, who was speaking from the stage. The press, at the back of the room, was filling up on free Danish pastry, orange juice and coffee. Automatically, they pulled out their notebooks and wrote something down, even though George was saying nothing new. They leaned sleepily against the wall or slumped into vacant chairs.

George ended his speech and the Secret Service men began to wedge him through the crush of ministers and old ladies who wanted to shake his hand. By the time George made it to the little alley which was the only route of escape from the building, three camera crews had set up an ambush. This was the only “photo opportunity,” as it is called, that the TV people would have all morning. Except in dire emergencies, all TV film has to be taken before noon, so that it can be processed and transmitted to New York. Consequently, the TV people are the only reporters who are not asleep on their feet in the morning. TV correspondents never join the wee-hour poker games and seldom drink; they live like airline pilots. Connie Chung, the pretty Chinese CBS correspondent, occupied the room next to mine at the Hyatt House and she was always asleep by midnight. So here she was this morning, bright and alert, sticking a mike in McGovern’s face and asking him something about black ministers. The print reporters stood around and watched, just in case McGovern should say something interesting. Finally McGovern excused himself and everybody ran for the bus.

8:20-8:50 AM En Route/Motorcade
8:50-9:30 AM Taping— ‘Newsmakers’ CBS-TV, 6121 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood
9:30-9:55 AM En Route/Motorcade
9:55-10:30 AM Taping—’News Conference’ NBC-TV, 3000 West Alameda Ave., Burbank
10:30-10:50 AM Press filing
10:50-Noon En Route/Motorcade Noon-l:00 PM Senior Citizens’ Lunch and Rally Bixby Park Band Shell, Long Beach
1:00-1:15 PM Press filing.

The reporters began to wake up as they walked into the chilly Studio 22 at CBS. There was a bank of telephones, hastily hooked up on a large work table in the middle of the studio, and six or seven reporters made credit card calls to bureau chiefs and home offices. Dick Stout of Newsweek found out he had to file a long story and couldn’t go to San Francisco later in the day. Steve Gerstel phoned in his day’s schedule to UPI. Connie Chung dictated a few salient quotes from McGovern’s breakfast speech to CBS Radio.

A loudspeaker announced that the interview was about to begin, so the reporters sat down on the folded chairs that were clustered around a monitor. They didn’t like having to get their news secondhand from TV, but they did enjoy being able to talk back to McGovern without his hearing them. As the program started, several reporters turned on cassette recorders. A local newscaster led off by accusing McGovern of using a slick media campaign.

“Well, I think the documentary on my life is very well done,” McGovern answered ingenuously. The press roared with laughter. Suddenly the screen of the monitor went blank— – the video tape had broken. The press started to grumble.

“Are they gonna change that first question and make it a toughie?” asked Martin Nolan of the Boston Globe. “If not, I’m gonna go wait on the bus.” Nolan had the unshaven, slackjawed, nuts-to-you-too look of a bartender in a sailor’s cafe. He was one of the biggest wiseacres on the bus, and also one of the most literate writers.

The videotape was repaired and the program began again. The interviewer asked McGovern the same first question, but Nolan stayed anyway. Like the others, Nolan had sat through hundreds of press conferences fighting a nearly irrepressible desire to heckle. Now was the big chance and everyone took it.

“Who are your heroes?” the newscaster asked McGovern.

“General Patton!” shouted Jim Naughton of the Times.

“Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln,” said McGovern.

“What do you think of the death penalty?” asked the newscaster.

“I’m against the death penalty.” There was a long pause. “That is my judgment,” McGovern said, and lapsed into a heavy, terminal silence. The press laughed at the candidate’s unease.

By the time the interview was over, the press was in a good mood. As they filed back onto the buses, the normal configurations began to form: wire service reporters and TV cameramen in the front, where they could get out fast; reporters for the dailies in the middle seats, hard at work; McGovern staffers in the rear seats, going over plans and chatting. Dick Stout and Jim Naughton held their tape recorders to their ears, like transistor junkies, and culled the best quotes from the TV interview to write in their notebooks. Lou Dombrowski of the Chicago Tribune, who looked like a hulking Maf padrone, typed his Sunday story on the portable Olympia on his lap. The reporters working for afternoon newspapers would have to file soon, and they were looking over the handouts and their notes for something to write about.

So it went. There was another interview in another chilly studio, this time at NBC. The reporters this time sat in the same room with McGovern and the interviewer, so there was no laughter, only silent note-taking. After the interview there were phones and typewriters in another room, courtesy of the network. Only a few men used them. Then to Bixby Park for a dull speech to old people and a McGovern-subsidized lunch of tiny, rubbery chicken parts. Another filing facility, this one in a dank little dressing room in back of the Bixby Park bandshell. While George droned on ab