The news business has changed a lot in recent years, and that's especially true of political news. But when you ask about a book that captures what it's like to report on a presidential campaign, one decades-old classic still rules: The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse.
The rough-and-tumble account of the reporters who covered President Richard Nixon's re-election against George McGovern back in 1972 is part of a Morning Edition series on political history.
The modern-day reporters who have read it include Jonathan Martin of Politico.
"It just features a, you know, behind-the-scenes account of the boozing, the writing, the cavorting of what was then a largely male press corps," he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.
"We're talking about typewriters, we're talking about one deadline a day," he adds, a dream situation for Martin and the two other political journalists who have gathered to discuss the book: Anne Kornblut of The Washington Post and Ashley Parker of The New York Times.
Today's journalists say they now face endless deadlines, not just one. They also contend that they drink somewhat less than the guys in The Boys on the Bus.
But as Parker follows Republican Mitt Romney, she finds the book still relevant, and in fact inescapable — an NBC reporter brought along his copy. "He has basically been passing it around to all the reporters on the bus," she says, "and his only rule is that you have to, you know, write notes in the margin, annotate it, and at the end so he'll have this sort of great keepsake."
Parker says one of Romney's advance staffers read the book as well, and wrote a note in the margin calling the press corps "jackals" — "which is obviously not how we view ourselves," Parker laughs.
She adds that while there has been massive technological change since 1972, the beaten-down state of the average reporter at the end of a long campaign trail is a constant.
Kornblut of the Post remembers talk in 2008 of "girls on the bus," in that year of female candidates. "We look around now, our political staff is almost half women at this point, which obviously would have been unheard of in 1972," she says.
Back in 1972, there were a few reporters who were extraordinarily influential on the bus, like R.W. "Johnny" Apple of The New York Times. Their choices guided much of the coverage. Now, says Martin, things are more fragmented. "There are just so many outlets," he says, "you don't quite have the same pack journalism you probably did in '72."
Even though many outlets today will spend countless news cycles on the same story, Parker says, that's less to do with any one person's individual influence and more to do with the power of social media.
"Anyone with a [Twitter account] can tweet out a story and generate buzz for a story, so it doesn't matter if you're the senior correspondent or you're a blog with a scoop," she says. "And then it all sort of gets re-tweeted."
Kornblut adds that Twitter is, in a way, the new bus. "There is obviously a physical bus, and there's a bubble that we've all been in, but because you can follow the campaign ... in real time, I'm struck now, even sitting in an office, how inside the bubble I can feel without actually picking up the phone and calling my reporters."
Parker says the Romney campaign pays very close attention to Twitter. "You might read a front-page story and you don't hear from them, and they will go crazy and yell at you for individual tweets," she says. Campaign staffers told her they saw Twitter as a kind of early-warning system for upcoming stories, enabling them to craft responses as soon as possible.
"Having read the book and covering campaigns, it does make you long for a day when the press corps had intimate access to the candidates," Martin says. The boys on the bus spent every day cultivating their relationships with Nixon and McGovern.
"They got to know them on a much more personal level than I think we do," he says. "I think that's one of the worst things about covering politics now versus then."
One passage in The Boys on the Bus describes the dreariness of following a losing candidate, and Martin says that has definitely changed since 1972. "The losing candidates have less to lose; they will say more interesting things because of that," and they're usually less organized, so you can get closer to the candidate, Martin says.
"We've had enough presidential losers in the history of this country who've gone on to make a big impact in American politics, that we've learned the lesson by now that they do matter," he says. "Barry Goldwater is one. Al Smith. The list goes on and on and on."
Kornblut agrees. "There is nothing more dramatic than watching it all start to slip away," she says. "You think about what happened in, well, the Edwards campaign, the Clinton campaign. ... By comparison, the Obama campaign was pretty boring to cover at that point."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The news business changes quickly, but when you ask about a book that captures what it's like to report on a presidential campaign, a decades-old classic still rules. "The Boys on the Bus," by Timothy Crouse, chronicles reporters who covered President Richard Nixon's re-election against George McGovern in 1972. Modern-day reporters who've read it include Jonathan Martin of Politico.
JONATHAN MARTIN: And it just features, you know, a behind-the-scenes account of the boozing, the writing, the cavorting, of what was then a largely male press corps covering the White House campaign. This was in the days long before laptops. We're talking about typewriters; we're talking about one deadline a day, which the three of us here would dream of.
INSKEEP: Martin is one of three political journalists who joined the latest of our talks on political books in this election year. The others are Anne Kornblut of the Washington Post, and Ashley Parker of the New York Times. Today's journalists say they drink somewhat less than the boys on the bus but Ashley Parker, who's been covering Republican Mitt Romney, finds the book still relevant. An NBC reporter brought a copy on the 2012 bus.
ASHLEY PARKER: And he's basically been passing it around to all of the reporters on the bus. And his only rule is that you have to, you know, write notes in the margin, annotate it and at the end, sign it so he'll have this sort of great keepsake. And then one Romney advance staffer read it as well, so it's funny to see his perspective. There was a scene where all the reporters are asking one of the candidates in the book questions. And he had circled it, and he wrote "jackals, all of you" - which is, obviously, not how we view ourselves.
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INSKEEP: How much does it capture what you do today, that book from 1973?
PARKER: I'm struck by both how similar, and how different, it is. As you mentioned before, some of the technology is totally different. On the other hand, there were some descriptions I remember from the book of these journalists who by the end, or even the middle, of the campaign were kind of bloated. And their skin was gray and clammy, and they clearly hadn't exercised and eaten anything other than a fast food cheeseburger, you know, for the past three months. And that absolutely feels like our existence, in a very real way.
INSKEEP: Anne Kornblut, what was your experience on the campaign trail?
ANNE KORNBLUT: Well, it's interesting because I covered 2000 with you, and then 2004 and 2008. And in 2008, when we had a female candidate on both tickets, there was a lot of talk about girls on the bus instead of boys on the bus. And I think we all did notice a higher percentage of women reporters gravitating toward the Clinton campaign. And then we all reunited on the Palin campaign several months later. But I think in general, that's true. I don't think it was just because there were two female candidates. We look around now; our political staff is almost half women at this point - which, obviously, would have been unheard of in 1972.
INSKEEP: There's another thing that strikes me about this book, and it's the way that there are a few reporters who are identified, who seem to influence other reporters. In 1972, I think the leading guy was R.W. Apple - Johnny Apple, of the New York Times.
MARTIN: Walter Mears, too, of the AP. There was a saying about, what's the lead, Walter? - which was sort of the stock phrase that these guys would say on the campaign trail. And that was to Walter Mears. What is the news out of this event? What's the lead of the story? Look, I think that there are still those individuals on the campaign trail, certainly. But I think there is much more fragmentation now in the political news media. And these are just - so many outlets that you don't quite have the same pack journalism that you probably did in '72.
INSKEEP: Oh, wait a minute, let me just challenge that. You guys tell me if I'm wrong. I think if I follow the coverage, there are many, many outlets who all will obsess over the same, irrelevant story at the same time.
MARTIN: Oh, that's fair. Oh sure.
PARKER: But that's less of, you know, turning to one person who's sort of the pack leader. And I think part of that is a result of Twitter, which is that anyone with a handle can tweet out a story, and generate buzz for a story. So it doesn't matter if you're the senior correspondent, or you're a blog with a scoop. And then it all sort of gets retweeted.
INSKEEP: If you just see lots and lots of tweets about something, you feel compelled to jump on that story?
KORNBLUT: I think we at least feel compelled to look into it, if nothing else. In a way, Twitter is the new bus. I mean, there is, obviously, a physical bus, and there's a bubble that we've all been in. But because you can follow the campaign, I'm struck now...
MARTIN: In real time.
KORNBLUT: ...in real time - I'm struck now, even sitting in an office, how inside the bubble I can feel without actually picking up the phone and calling my reporters.
PARKER: Also, one reflection of Twitter is - I can only speak for the Romney campaign, but I think they do this most closely - is how closely the Romney people monitor Twitter. You might read a front-page story and you don't hear from them, and they will go crazy and yell at you for individual tweets. We asked them about this. And they said the reason is, they can sort of see a story - where it's headed before the first word has even been written. So if a bunch of people tweet about no women being at a Romney event, or a lot of women being at a Romney event, they know that's the storyline. And they can start pushing back before the story even comes.
MARTIN: Yeah. Ashley wrote a very smart story about this. They are consumed by the conversation on Twitter. And you'll hear frequently from campaign staff who themselves aren't on Twitter but who, you know, follow along to see what the press corps is saying. The best example of this was the day Romney gave that speech in Detroit at Ford Field, the empty football stadium.
INSKEEP: Oh, that's right, yeah. Giant, giant venue and hardly anybody there - or so it seemed, yes.
MARTIN: And then he said that his wife drove a couple of Cadillacs. So you had those two sort of stagecraft-related gaffes and - you know, even before the stories were filed, the Romney staff knew where the stories were going, and they were just on fire. I...
INSKEEP: Go ahead, Jonathan.
MARTIN: No, I was going to say, I - you know, having read the book and covering campaigns, it does make you long for a day when the press corps had intimate access to the candidates. These reporters, every day, cultivated relationships; had an exchange with the candidate, with the candidate's wife. They got to know them at a much more personal level than I think we do. I think that's one of the worst parts about covering politics now versus then.
INSKEEP: Let me read you a passage - or a little bit, anyway - of this book, "Boys on the Bus." I'm curious how much of this is still true, because Timothy Crouse writes about following someone who's not on his way to the nomination. I mean, we could imagine the people who've been follow Newt Gingrich, or something like that, in recent weeks: "There is nothing drearier than following a loser all the way to his grave."
MARTIN: Oh, I disagree with that.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: I think that the losing candidates have less to lose. They will say more interesting things because of that. The losing candidates oftentimes have less organization, meaning that there is less protection around the candidate, him or herself, so you can get better access to them. And I think we've had enough presidential losers in the history of this country who have gone to make a big impact in American politics, that we have learned the lesson by now that they do matter, and that history is full of examples where losers ultimately have had a huge impact on the landscape. Barry Goldwater is, obviously, one. Al Smith - the list goes on and on and on.
KORNBLUT: I totally agree with Jonathan. There is nothing more dramatic than watching it all start to slip away. I think in every recent campaign, the real drama has actually occurred on those campaigns. You think about what happened in, well, the Edwards campaign, the Clinton campaign. The Obama campaign...
KORNBLUT: McCain-Palin, exactly. I think, you know, by comparison, the Obama campaign was pretty boring to cover at that point.
INSKEEP: Ashley Parker,of the New York Times; Anne Kornblut, of the Washington Post; Jonathan Martin, of Politico; thanks to all of you.
PARKER: Thank you.
KORNBLUT: Thank you.
INSKEEP: And the book is "The Boys on the Bus," by Timothy Crouse.
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INSKEEP: We are talking about political books in this campaign season. Last week, we had books on Lincoln, whom candidates often name-check. Soon, we'll have books on a common buzz phrase: Chicago-style politics.
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INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.