OK, go ahead — ask the man something…
We were driving out of Lexington and about to get on the highway for Aiken, with B.J. Boling at the wheel, when it occurred to me that I was in a situation that felt familiar, though I had not encountered it for a long time. I thought back, and it was even longer than it felt:
1980 — that was the last time I found myself riding around with a candidate for public office, or his campaign. That last time was with Howard Baker (see photo at bottom), who was also running for the GOP nomination for president, and we were in Iowa in January of that year. It was the last year that I was a reporter. Before that, most of my experience along this line had been traveling with the candidates for governor of Tennessee, 24 hours a day, in the last weeks of the 1978 general election. In those days, we did things like that — travel, live, eat with the candidates. Few journalists do it to that extent today.
B.J. had asked if I wanted to ride along with John McCain on the famous bus, and I said sure, after a glance at my calendar. It would take me away from the office for half a day, which seemed doable. He was driving me and some colleagues to Aiken, and we were riding the bus back.
The ride to Aiken had been pretty much as I expected, as had the event at the VFW hall there. Things shifted a bit when I got onto the bus.
There were, of course, two buses. One held most of the media herd, the other held the candidate and his inner circle — in this case the candidates’ wife, his press secretary, a camera crew, and several of his old buddies from Vietnam War days. There were only about eight seats in the main compartment — those big, plush captain’s chairs that turn around. But we were put in the little room at the back, with one continuous, curved seat that shaped itself around a table, perfect for private meetings — or interviews.
I had not counted on an interview. I had just interviewed John McCain. I had no new questions to ask. I
thought being "on the bus" would be a matter of passively soaking up the ambience, collecting some color, and maybe exchanging a word or two with the candidate as he walked up and down the aisle. (Truth be told, this is my main reporting technique, when out in the field — the fly on the wall. I like to go into a situation, look and listen, and then write about what I saw and heard. I don’t like interacting with the subject out in the field, because it changes the reality of what I’m there to write about. In the office, that’s cool. I expect to conduct an interview in the office. But in the field, I like to blend into the woodwork.) I figured a guy running for president had stuff to do other than talk yet again to me.
But it wasn’t like that. I was to be jammed into that little room with the main guy, with him expecting questions, and a press secretary standing in the door as a witness. I had the feeling that the press secretary would crack me on the head if I didn’t keep coming up with questions: "Bradley, don’t be such a dunce! Ask a question!" And for all I know, she might have.
Worse, if you admit to being at a loss for questions when you have a golden opportunity like this — an hour with a guy who might become president, just waiting for your questions — you draw the ire and disgust of your friends and your readers (especially your blog readers; just watch the way I get nailed for this). To increase the pressure, I had a bad record pitching to this guy. That’s why most journalists just go ahead and ask questions, any damn questions, even foolish ones, in an effort to provoke the guy to say something, anything that you can write about.
So I asked questions. In fact, I probably asked the most questions, despite two reporters being in there with us, because that’s my habit in interview mode: I’m accustomed to directing the conversation when I preside over editorial board meetings, acting as a sort of host. One must keep the guest entertained. So I tried, lamely.
At one point I was tempted — and I’m very embarrassed to admit this — to ask him the Spin Cycle Question of the Day, which that day happened to be the "controversy" over whether he was an Episcopalian or a Baptist. But the veterans at the front of the bus had specifically razzed me in advance on that — You’re not going to ask him about that Baptist stuff, are you? — and that helped keep me in line. The thing is, I hate the Buzz Question of the Day; it’s one of the most idiotic things about modern political reporting. In fact, I avoid such things so assiduously that I didn’t even know about "the Baptist stuff" until they mentioned it and I looked it up on my Treo. (Even as I was looking it up, poor Jim Davenport was having to ask him about it. That’s the curse of being the AP guy on the spot — you have to ask the Question of the Day while your local colleagues are able to cover the actual event. I’ve written about this before.)
But in my desperation not to ask him some variant of a question I had asked him before, I almost stooped to ask about that one, and for once I had sympathy for the desperation of the traveling press corps, who grab desperately at any new wrinkle, however inane or irrelevant.
Fortunately, I was NOT in the traveling corp. I was Local Media, which means I was not expected to be hip to the latest. I could ask about anything in my ignorance, and it would be forgiven. At one point the candidate misunderstood me and thought I had asked a question that — coming from me and directed at John McCain — would have been particularly idiotic. I asked him whether he thought the U.S. had made a mistake in not going in and toppling Saddam in 1991. He thought I had asked whether we had made a mistake to go in and topple Saddam in 2003. (It was noisy, as you can see on the video.) So he started patiently offering his boilerplate defense of that, before I corrected him and gave him another chance at it.
Several thoughts ran through my head: Does he think I would ask that, when I have written in defense of our going into Iraq so many times? But he doesn’t know that… but he is aware that I’m the guy from The State, and he always seems to remember my name, and … oh, man! I hope he doesn’t think that I’m doing the reporter thing of getting him to say what I want to say, so I can quote it — editorialists don’t have to do that; we just say what we think…
In any case, it was disorienting, and I didn’t do a very good job. So I think I went away with John McCain thinking I’m an idiot who can’t come to an interview with some good questions. And I guess he’s right. But at least he probably didn’t expect any better. After all, I’m just Local Media.
Aw, geez, I just remembered — I went blank almost exactly that same way (worse, even, since I was a rookie then) during an interview op with Howard Baker on his campaign plane over frozen Iowa, the last time I was in this situation. I should just leave the campaign trail to the reporters.
But I probably won’t.