Not an easy trek for 'boys on the bus'

Staff WriterFebruary 29, 2004 

Because of the national obsession with this year's Democratic primaries and caucuses, I've been been re-reading Timothy Crouse's "The Boys on the Bus," a compelling account of what life was like for the pack of political reporters who in 1972 trailed across America with the men who would be president.

There is good writing here; on Page 1: "While reporters still snored like Hessians in a hundred beds throughout the hotel, the McGovern munchkins were at work, plying the halls, slipping legal-sized handouts through the cracks under the door ... According to one of these handouts, the Baptist Ministers' Union of Oakland had decided after 'prayerful and careful deliberation' to endorse Sen. McGovern."

Also, my interest in the primaries is piqued because my son-in-law, chief political reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, is one of the "boys on the bus" this year.

When I mentioned to Raleigh friends that Adam is sometimes gone from home up to two weeks at a time, one murmured sympathetically, "That must be terrible. Away from his wife and little family all that time."

"Aw, it's not that bad," I teased. "He's not changing diapers, taking out the garbage, letting Delbert out for his nightly potty, unloading the dishwasher and the like."

You see, unlike the men on the bus in Tim Crouse's book, today's newsmen are full partners in child-rearing and household chores.

I remember when I was a young family man -- or perhaps that should be recast as a man with a young family -- my newspaper sent me off to New York for two weeks to learn how to become a better editor.

Sure, I missed my wife and two little girls. But I also loved the exchange of fresh ideas with editors from across the country. I enjoyed the quiet time in the hotel room. The good food. Not being at work at 6 a.m. The happy hour every day at 5, and the subway rides to catch a Broadway play. I enjoyed the camaraderie of men -- and a woman or two -- in love with the gratifying life of newspapering.

I remember actually saying aloud as I closed the hotel room door for the last time, "Goodbye, room. It's been great!"

As any of the men and women who during the past weeks have covered the primary caucuses and elections will tell you, comparing their nomadic and far more arduous duties on the campaign trail with my two-weeks' comfortable encampment is like comparing John Kerry's Vietnam service with President Bush's National Guard stint.

There's very little fun and precious little romance in listening to warmed-over speeches in sub-zero New Hampshire temperatures. Their yesteryear counterparts for the most part merely covered the candidates' press conferences, counted the crowd and reworked the campaign staffs' handouts. Today's political pundits have to show more hustle and put in a lot more leg work, such as chasing down and interviewing prospective voters.

My son-in-law was doing some of the latter in South Carolina when he encountered my former boss and N&O publisher Frank Daniels Jr. and his wife, Julia, pushing doorbells on behalf of Sen. John Edwards.

Calling my son-in-law early one evening in Iowa after he had attended a couple of rallies where the press outnumbered the voters, I learned he had just returned from dinner with syndicated columnist Dave Barry and Newsweek's Jonathan Alter.

"Hey, that's a broadening experience," I said, in my best fatherly-in-law tone, to which he quipped, "I think so, too. And I'm sure they appreciated it."

That was Adam's ready wit responding, not arrogance, of which he has none.

A couple of weeks ago, on his way to the Wisconsin primary, he stopped in Raleigh to take the pulse of Edwards' constituents.

Early one morning while I still snoozed, he drove through a steady, cold rain to talk to potential voters in Johnston County. Returning home late in the day, bone-tired but cheerful, he greeted me with, "I met a fan of yours today at Shirley's Restaurant in Smithfield. He said that although you're a little too far to the left to suit him and you write about birds too much, he still reads you faithfully."

"Yeah, that sounds like one of mine," I muttered. "But I'm glad to claim him."

Two days later, as the rest of the household slept, my wife rose at 5 a.m. to send Adam out with a cup of hot coffee in one hand and a Granny Smith apple so that he could catch the dawn flight to Milwaukee, where he would be greeted with far more ice and snow than the amount that reached Raleigh next day.

As I noted earlier, today's "boys on the bus" have it rougher than Crouse and his cronies, who passed the long boring pauses between speeches by playing cards, boozing and sleeping.

But I imagine that when this year's campaign ends, my son-in-law and his fellow travelers will feel much of the same emotion described by Crouse at the end of the Richard Nixon-George McGovern campaign:

"Suddenly, everybody realized it was all over, and their emotions flooded out. They wept, embraced, exchanged manful handshakes, cried on each other's shoulders or simply stood in a daze. It was like an orphanage being shut down."

For a journalist, being one of the boys on the bus surely must constitute the best and the worst of times. How I envy them.

Columnist A.C. Snow can be reached at 881-8254 or asnow@newsobserver.com.

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