Every four years, I get this strange restlessness.
I watch my old friends and colleagues in Washington pack their bags and head out in the vast, sprawling sea of high-stakes silliness known as the presidential campaign.
I covered the campaign only once – in 2000, when John McCain and George W. Bush (and a whole bunch of other people now forgotten) slugged it out for the GOP nomination, and then Bush 2 did battle with Democrat Al Gore.
Up to that point, it was probably the weirdest race anyone could remember (Hanging chads? Nobody had heard that phrase before Election Day. Now we can’t forget).
But this year tops it. With every weird twist and turn of the 2016 race, my heart tugs just a little, wishing I could pull out my old ready bag and hit the road.
On a certain level, I’ll admit, that’s a bit of false nostalgia.
The dirty secret of covering the presidential campaign is that it is exhausting, dispiriting, and really kind of awful, at least while you’re living it.
For one, you’re a prisoner of the candidate in many ways. Because a candidate’s schedule is so tight and so prone to change, it is nearly impossible for reporters to keep up by making independent travel arrangements. Nor can the campaigns afford to wait around for a bunch of media or staff to show up from different directions.
Therefore, reporters and staff travel as a herd, all arrangements made by the campaign (though the bills are paid by the media organizations on a prorated basis to avoid a conflict of interest). You get up when they get up; you fly when they fly; you eat what they eat; and you stay where they stay.
If you’re lucky, you get on a campaign where the candidate likes to keep a leisurely schedule and stay in nice places. The McCain campaign was like that – we tended to get in early, get up late, and stay in places like the Copley Plaza in Boston and the Waldorf Astoria in New York.
It wasn’t until the McCain campaign collapsed and I started doing turns on the Bush campaign that I realized why our colleagues on other campaign hated the McCain press corps so much: Bush was up early, to bed late, and set a very frugal standard, staying at modest road-side motels and providing very basic food (turkey sandwiches became a grim joke).
I hear the Al Gore campaign was even worse, but fortunately never had to experience it.
But leaving aside the punishing day-in-day-out travel arrangements, the actual reporting conditions were less than ideal. Sure, you were travelling with the candidate, but trying to get access to the Big Guy, even then, was difficult at best, particularly if your press pass didn’t include the words “New York Times” or “Washington Post” (And mine didn’t: while I spoke to Bush on occasion, he never agreed to a formal interview). So most reporters were reduced to interviewing the same familiar cast of campaign strategists and staffers over and over.
We would listen to the candidate’s stump speech four, five, six times a day. It got to the point when we knew every laugh line, every dramatic pause, each ostensibly improvised line, and we’d all begin packing up our bags to leave many paragraphs before the audience realized the speech was reaching its conclusion. We’d study each rendition of the speech with religious intensity, trying to tease out whether the smallest change represented a major policy or strategy change, or if the candidate was just tired and forgot his lines again.
Shifts on the campaign could run days, even weeks at a time. Some reporters, particularly those without family commitments back home, would go months at a time on the road – you could see them begin to decompensate as the campaign progressed. Petty squabbles erupted between reporters; paranoid feuds developed between reporters and campaign staff that could result in swift punishment – exile to the back of the bus, or an assigned seat near the bathroom on the official plane.
It was not uncommon for reporters who had nothing in common to fall in bed with one another, or even with campaign staff – a phenomenon popularly known as a “locationship.”
So why would anyone want to do such a punishing, mind-numbing, and often futile thing? I asked myself that many times through the course of the 2000 campaign. I mostly wanted to be back home with my wife and then-1-year-old son.
But in retrospect, it was an experience that I would not trade.
Being in the room the night of the New Hampshire primary to see that even John McCain himself was astounded by the scope of his victory.
Being in the room weeks later to see the deep disappointment on his face as he conceded defeat in South Carolina. Riding with Dick Cheney’s motorcade on his first day as vice-presidential nominee. Feeling the silliness and giddiness of rallies – supporters, protesters, eager young staffers, exhausted candidates drawing energy from the crowd. And then, of course, the tense anticipation of Election Night itself, as everyone awaits the results of the only poll that matters.
These are events that are at once both ridiculous and profound. They confirmed my faith that, no matter how imperfect our system may be, it is still a remarkable ritual of self-government.
That’s why when I see my old friends headed off on the campaign trail, a part of me still goes with them.