A tale of two buses
Maeve Reston, who has followed John McCain, writes an embarrassing piece that seems more like the diary entry of a recently-jilted girlfriend. You should read the whole thing, but I wanted to highlight two excerpts. First, she writes about a moment in the campaign when (referencing a statement by McCain surrogate Carly Fiorina) she asked John McCain whether birth control should be covered by insurance companies, since many cover Viagra. McCain strained for an answer, which stressed Reston out. She writes:
Liberals and late-night comedians would later revel in McCain's on-camera discomfort -- the widening of his eyes, the awkward silence while he clutched his jaw and formulated an answer. But I had come to respect McCain's frankness and his willingness to admit he didn't always have an answer. Watching the question morph into an embarrassing "gotcha moment" for cable television, my stomach churned and my cheeks grew hot.Now, unless she was invested in his campaign, his reaching for an answer shouldn't have bothered her, I would think. After all, it's not her fault that McCain couldn't think on his feet, right?
But, as she points out, Reston had been given her marching orders to go easy on McCain--because the American people might misunderstand his mavericky way of speaking--and had accidentally violated them. What's worse is that those orders came not from McCain, her editors or Republican flacks, but, she writes, from a fellow journalist.
On one of my first days covering McCain, another reporter protectively warned me that it was important to be judicious with the material I used from McCain's bus rides to keep the conversations in context.On the other end of the spectrum, we get an essay from Peter Nicholas, who admits to his own screw-up following Obama:
One day in July, I was the pool reporter at an event in Zanesville, Ohio, meaning I was responsible for writing up for the rest of the press corps Obama's visit to a ministry that was tutoring young students. Again kept at a distance, I watched as Obama chatted with the kids. One boy approached him and held out his fist. Obama drew back. "If I start that . . ." he said. From where I stood, it looked like he was refusing a request for a fist bump -- a gesture that had gotten a lot of attention after Obama fist-bumped his wife at a campaign event the month before. A Fox News host had even suggested that it was a "terrorist fist jab." If Obama was rolling out a no-fist-bump policy, that seemed worth mentioning.Unlike McCain's camp, though, which took Reston's question as an attack, when Nicholas admits his error to Obama himself, the candidate thanks him for taking responsibility for his mistake.
The pool report quickly got around.
Maureen Dowd of the New York Times cited the episode in her column. Obama complained to an aide that it hadn't happened that way. He was right. A videotape of the conversation would later show the boy was merely asking Obama to autograph his hand.
This would seem to tell you something about the two candidates. One pouts over a perfectly valid question. The other shrugs off a published falsehood.
It doesn't tell Nicholas enough, though. He whines that he doesn't really know Obama, that he wants him to "loosen up." But then he writes the following:
Of course, at Obama's level, there's no such thing as harmless chatter. There's a pattern to these moments. Obama comes to the back of the plane. Light banter ensues, usually about Obama's favorite baseball team, the White Sox. Then a reporter slowly pulls out a tape recorder and turns it on. Obama notices. Now he's more cautious. More tape recorders pop up, and pretty soon we're back to a recitation of his stump speech.So, while McCain's reporters pick and choose what they let the masses know about the candidate they follow, allowing him room to chat and make friends, the reporters on Obama's bus are quick with the recorders whenever he starts in with the small talk.
I won't argue that the reporters should let Obama talk off-the-record at length. They are, after all, there to tell us about the man, not become his buddy. But, in story after story, I hear the press complaining that they miss the old McCain. Their buddy. The jokester. Well, that guy has turned into a person who delights in taking his opponent's most casual and innocuous statements out of context and use them as cudgels or, in some cases, just intentionally misconstrue the meaning of what Obama said.
Considering the current situation Obama faces--with reporters unwilling to simply talk to him and McCain's nutty need to lie about everything he says--I don't think I'd be all that willing to get chummy with the press either. It's not, after all, their job to mind-meld with the man, but to report the facts.
It's high time for reporters to realize candidates aren't supposed to be their friends and, I would argue, being buddies with the people you cover would seem to me at least unprofessional, if not explicitly unethical. Obama seems to know this and I'd be willing to bet McCain knows it, too. I'm certain he's not sitting around moaning about his lost friends in the press corps. I would even guess that it's likely John McCain only tolerated having them so close and kissing their asses because it garnered him "swooning" coverage for a decade.
For the record: Strippers don't really like you either.
Update: Glenn pulls Reston's article apart.