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Running Behind The Bus

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Today I'm breaking in my new column with a bit of back story about covering the candidates on the ground, on the trail, from the weeds and broken asphalt yards and a world away from the Greyhound buses that carry the traveling press. If I'm late to a campaign event, in a school auditorium perhaps, that's exactly where I am, trapped along with the stragglers in a no-man's land created by local law enforcement. For no one can move until the candidate, staff and traveling press have driven past and moved inside. I've had to park a half-mile distant and have rushed up lugging laptop, stuffed shoulder bag and sheaves of the local daily papers. The audience inside has been waiting at least two hours, sometimes as many as five, so the candidate, who is running late, will soon speak. When the police officer gives the okay, I dash for the TV trucks, hoping that the press entrance is nearby--usually it is, but not always. A quick show of my credentials, a slow move through security, a pat for the dog and I'm looking for a place in the press compound. Whether the media coverage that day is paltry or huge, space is always saved for the traveling press. It is sacrosanct. No particular way is made for the local journalists or for citizen journalists like me.

2008-06-03-otb_onthetrail_v2.jpg"Citizen journalists like me" is misleading, for at least so far on the trail I haven't met others covering more than one campaign in more than one state. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, I don't quite fit the surroundings. I don't have a degree in journalism. I'm not in the blogger mold, for I don't report on everything of interest I observe; sometimes I work on pieces over a long period of time. OffTheBus calls me a citizen journalist, but that moniker has always sounded too French Revolution for my taste, as if fellow OffTheBussers and I were about to storm the Bastille. Now, however, I've come to appreciate our title, since the internet is turning the hierarchical world of politics and media upside down just as surely as the Paris equivalent of Gawker did eighteenth-century France. But whatever and whoever, like Alice's Rabbit, I'm late, late LATE!

My day has begun in the middle of the night, when I start to write a post (usually but not always based on the previous day's events), which has to be in the queue at HuffPost by 9 EST so that my editor has time to make any changes and decide on a title. Titles are almost never my own. When I first began covering Election 2008 last June, I wrote meticulously, honing and refining through draft after draft. On the campaign trail, I don't have the luxury of draft time and have trained myself to throw a piece in the queue in four hours. (In Iowa, therefore, I always started at 3 AM.) Once the piece is in, I grab a coffee, hopefully; but with or without caffeine, I set off, having programmed the rental car GPS the night before.

If I've made good choices covering the campaign(s) that day, I arrive at the candidate's first stop early, several hours early. If the town or city isn't the one I slept in the night before, I take time to drive around and get a sense of place. I use at least an hour to talk to people who are waiting in line to get into the event. Once inside myself, I have time to chat with the local newspaper reporters and editors, who also get there hours in advance. From them I learn about district issues and the intersection of city and county down-ballot candidacies with the national race. Every small town and city and every big city neighborhood is unique, I've learned in the past year. Town A along the interstate is reeling under job loss; Town B twenty miles away is reinventing itself as a high-tech medical center. Town C is a paradigm of racial and class harmony; neighboring Town D is a world divided. Sometimes Town D is a place where citizens have begun to come together working on campaigns.

Hurry up and wait is often the rhythm early in the day. Eventually, the local pencil press and I are twiddling our thumbs. And woe betides those of us who haven't thought to bring our own water. Bottles are set out in waiting for the traveling press--and often a meal, too--but hands off everybody else. Usually, I try to leave the press area and talk to more people waiting to hear the candidate. But this isn't always possible, for sometimes the local event organizers are control freaks and I find that, as if I were a herd animal, I"ve been shunted into the pen and can't get out. Indeed I think of the press area as the zoo because every event uses metal barricades to separate press from public like the ones in children's petting zoos. Over time, I've become more aggressive about unhitching barrier sections and slipping out to get in one or two more interviews before a campaign minder notices me and talks me back in.

In fairness to the local volunteers, their concern is not shutting down the press but crowd control. It's a massive undertaking, even in a small venue, to get every spectator through the security modern political events require and settled into seats before the candidate arrives. The process is further complicated by the fact that Americans truly are not in the physical condition that standing several hours in line demands, and so every event has its medical emergencies. At one town hall meeting in North Carolina, a local reporter and I were talking when a gentleman who had been leaning on the barricade between our press table and himself suddenly dropped. Fortuitously, an emergency room technician, who had come in his scrubs straight from the hospital to the meeting, had been standing several feet away. As the technician and the EMTs (on hand for almost every event now) worked to stabilize the man, a dozen spectators who had been sitting at the back of the gymnasium joined hands to shield the poor man, his beautiful corduroy suit now sliced open, from the curiosity of the crowd. Meanwhile the traveling press, prevented from entering, had to mill about in the hallway.

The arrival of the traveling press, ragged and often dazed but moving at a fast clip, signals that the event is about to begin. These are the national media--journalists, photographers and videographers--whose news outlets have paid for them to travel with the candidate. A sign of the times is that the ratio of picture to pencil is usually at least two to one. Another sign of change is that Carrie Budoff Brown of Politico is often among them, as are the fixtures like Candy Crowley and Lee Cowan of cable news. (A window into what it's like to be a part of the traveling press this campaign cycle is the March 28-April 2 blog of Dave Pidgeon of The Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, which paid for Pidgeon to travel with Barack Obama on his bus tour through Pennsylvania.) Political campaigns wax and wane like lunar cycles; at moments of culmination like the end of a primary, the international press and our own famous faces--Richard Wolffe, Maureen Dowd, Mark Shields, Tim Russert, to name a few--helicopter in. Then the zoo energy rises.

Most days, however, there is an inverse relationship between the attention and excitement level of the public and the pencil press. Ironically, the candidate's appearance is a moment of downtime for press, a chance to catch up on email and read the competition online or to work on pieces, keeping half-an-ear cocked for something new out of the mouth of the candidate. The local journalists may be scribbling furiously, and they usually are, but the national media have heard it all before. Indeed it's time to take a break when you wake up in the night reciting the candidate's stump speech to yourself. By the middle of the Democratic nomination race, I knew Senator Obama's rhetorical habits so well that I reflexively anticipated the exact moments he would pick up tempo or raise his voice. Senator Clinton used to be as predictable, but one reason she was fascinating at the end of the race was that she began to shake it up.

After the first event, I have hard choices. If I follow the candidate through the rest of the day, I am late to every subsequent event because there is no way I can travel as fast as a candidate and entourage. Even though, according to my husband, I drive like Mr. Toad, I can't keep up with a police-escorted motorcade, even one accompanied by lumbering buses, because these folks don't have to stop for traffic lights. And sometimes the candidate will be flying while I'm driving between towns that, on the ground, are only a couple of hours apart. Therefore, I have to choose among events to skip--but which one? What if I choose the one at which that rare something of interest occurs? But dogging the candidate's every public word and move is impossible. This logistical difficulty is more acute in the national election, where Senators McCain and Obama will soon be executing multi-state strategies simultaneously rather than single-state strategies serially.

Mostly, I make choices based on the need to arrive at campaign events early. Talking to as many folks as possible is what I do, and I can't meet people if I'm late. Tardiness to a big event also means that I'm not going to find a place to park. Often parking illegally, I've said to myself that this is the day I'll be towed. Even though the candidates typically held no more than four campaign events a day during the Democratic race, a last speech could end after 10 PM. There is no indication that the national race will be any different. When I get to the motel (or bed in the home of friends and family, if I'm lucky), I have just enough time to organize my notes and transcribe from audio the candidate's words I'm going to use in my piece. I try to turn out the light by midnight with an opening sentence in my head. I sketch the piece in my sleep. Then it's up at 3 or 4 to write the post and throw it in the queue at HuffPost before rushing out the door to start all over again. Many days a meal is whatever grabables the Shell provides while I gas up the car. I dashed about Iowa for two days, the week before the caucuses, on half a cup of coffee and two candy bars. Election 2008 has been a wild ride so far, and I'm tuning up for the next leg of the race. Seriously, it has been an honor and a privilege to take to the road for Off the Bus.

To read more about the logistics, issues and choices in covering the campaigns, go to my new blog, where this piece continues at www.mayhillfowler.net/natteringon.