On the Road with Obama and Romney - Part 1
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of American Spectator editor-in-chief Robert Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., and erroneously stated that he was the "slovenly" reporter in "ill-fitting pants" sent to cover the Romney speech described below.
The slovenly man in ill-fitting pants, in fact, was American Spectator reporter Robert Stacy McCain.
I'd been traveling on the Greyhound bus for a full 24 hours, and I'd just left a nice apartment in New Orleans that I shared with a nice girl, because it wasn't working and because I'd quite nearly run out of money. I'd spent half of my remaining $173 on a bus ticket home to Cincinnati, where I was about to show up as a grown 25-year-old with no home but the one my parents raised me in, and—lacking better options—I had accepted a frankly exploitive offer from VICE to file dispatches from a handful of states that I happen to know well (Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina) and that happen to be particularly important to the outcome of this election. To get the thing rolling VICE arranged for me to cover a Romney event at the little airport outside Dayton, Ohio. And, because I badly needed the money, I'd agreed to a sleepless night on the bus.
These are the politics of my personal discontent—which I thought might be worth sharing just because we're so frequently reminded that the challenge in this election has been to win the hopes of the discontented voters, and because we're so infrequently reminded that discontent, for all the ways we've found to count it up, has always been singular in its inward expression.
Because now it was becoming clear, at nine in the morning, that I was going to be late for the event. Three detectives from the Louisville Police Department, with two leashed Belgian Malamuts between them, were holding up the bus. Two of the detectives, with one of the dogs, had pulled our luggage out of the undercarriage and were inspecting it. One had come over to mingle with us in the smoking area, 25 yards away. He was sly: He came over with the dog and said “Hey, anyone want to pet him? He’s friendly,” but the dog wasn’t interested in being petted, and the detective seemed mostly interested in those of us who moved away when he came over. I had some pills—legally prescribed, but not prescribed to me—and I couldn’t remember what I’d done with them, and I wasn't sure whether or not drug-sniffing dogs are trained to look for pills, and I was trying to look quickly through my bag. The dog came over. I glared at the detective.
Over by the bus they were searching an old black man, on his way home to Michigan from Clarksdale, Mississippi, where—he told us smokers at a stop in Bowling Green—he’d gone to bury his younger brother, the youngest of nine. He was protesting that he held a medical marijuana card given to him by the State of Michigan, and that they couldn’t arrest him even if they did find anything in his bags. The smokers watching discussed whether or not this was true. The detectives opened his suitcase.
The Malamut stuck his nose in my crotch and I asked the detective to move him away. He asked where I was headed. I said I was going to cover the election. He looked incredulous. He directed the dog to my bag.
The problem with a politics of discontent is that pure discontent is so personal that politics can't really be expected to address it. But in this moment it occurred to me that the highest purpose of anyone running for president of this country ought to be to eliminate bullshit like this from the lives of his constituents. Not the dogs, so much, or these brutes with guns and crew cuts, because there’s no reason to expect they’re going anywhere. But none of us there would have been on the Greyhound at all, in the position of being forced to consent to this ridiculous search, if we had any other travel option. And it does seem at least possible to create a country where people are less likely to need to use this transport of last resort. Or, for that matter, where they’re less likely to shop at the retail outlets of last resort, or to rely on the emergency room, or on any of the other points of public interface of last resort where we've come to expect maltreatment and suspicion. Or even where—and this is hardly our biggest problem, just one I’m thinking about—where kids like me are less likely to fall back, as a last resort, on the security of our parents' already-diminished retirement accounts. It seemed suddenly reasonable to ask for a country where people feel like they're treated better. I suppose I'll be voting with that country in mind.
The dog passed on. They didn’t find anything on the man with the medical marijuana card, the one who’d just buried his brother. The smokers around me murmured their surprise and pleasure, and we got back on the bus.
So now there I was, half an hour late for an event at the Dayton International Airport, and if I have a thesis on this campaign it's that very few of the issues we've been told to watch have much at all to do with the discontent that's driving this campaign. This thesis would be quickly, if only partially, confirmed.
At the edge of the field closest to the road there was a fat little man in a windbreaker selling stickers, five dollars apiece. I told him that seemed a little steep, for a sticker. I asked what it said. He handed me one. It read: "Don't Re-Nig in 2012."
I'd expected to see stuff like this. You could hardly live in our political moment and not expect to. But this was the very first person I could be said to have engaged with in my new life as a political reporter. I hadn't slept the night before I left—it having been my last night with the girl in New Orleans—and I hadn't slept during my 25-hour bus ride. I wanted very badly to lie down with a cigarette and a coffee and a newspaper and collect myself, and instead this motherfucker was grinning at me in a muddy field.
I made to punch him, and he flinched, not enough for it to have been satisfying. I'd been hoping he'd fall over. I leaned in and called him fucking disgusting, an embarrassment to the country, to the Republican Party, to Montgomery County, to the state of Ohio, to the entire white race, etc, etc. He recovered and pointed to a state trooper in the road, directing traffic into the field. "Don't get yourself in trouble, man," he said.
I said that he'd be the one in trouble, if I caught up with him later, though I must not have said it very impressively. He grinned again, and I walked on to the event.
It was raining feebly, in this part of Ohio that feels gray even when the sun's shining, and the event had been set up outside the hangar, on the airport tarmac, allowing Romney's plane to pull up directly to the event and giving the photographers, film crews, and crowd a visual of the candidates disembarking. Across the fence I could hear Mike Dewine, Ohio's attorney general, saying that, though it might be a little wet, "our spirits aren't damp." Eyes rolled.
There were two nearly identical blonde girls handling the press, both wearing fleece and earpiece radios and seeming very much like the kind of girl who can grow up in this strange region, never seriously think about leaving, and still never seriously think about visiting Cincinnati itself for any longer than it takes to watch the first seven innings of a Reds game. I didn't have credentials, exactly, but I did have a printout of an email from my editor that I'd been told to show at the press desk, which I showed to the girls, and which neither girl considered sufficient for entry. I waited at the desk and they, summoned by the earpieces, walked away. Four European wire reporters who'd already been cleared were being wanded by a state trooper, and I insinuated myself into their group. The trooper didn't notice, or didn't care so long as I wasn't armed; he wanded me along with the rest and led us all onto the tarmac behind the stage, where one of the blondes made a rendezvous with us and led everyone into a sort of corral that had been set up for press, bisecting the crowd. Romney had been in New York, speaking at Bill Clinton's foundation, and the candidates were late. The rain stopped.
In the crowd section, leaning on the fence of the press corral, was a man in a Filson jacket who looked in person so much like Jonathan Franzen that I had visions of a scoop:
"NOVELIST TRAILS ROMNEY CAMPAIGN: MOTIVES UNCLEAR"
But this man was actually Byron York, the conservative writer, occasional Fox News talker, and sort of multi-purpose representative of those post-Buckley elitist conservatives who still exist in America. Smoking and speaking quietly with York from inside the corral was a man wearing an outback hat and jeans so long he'd had to roll them up to avoid walking on the hems. This man was Robert Stacy McCain, a reporter for the American Spectator, a magazine whose diminished state might be taken as representative of the fates of those Yorkite conservatives. I came over and offered to buy a cigarette from him. York looked disgusted. McCain looked amused. He introduced himself and said he didn't need my money. I said hello to York and he refused my handshake and walked away.
Senator Rob Portman came on to speak. On August 8 the Washington Examiner had posted a prediction on its website: "Byron York: Romney will likely pick Portman for VP." When I was young Portman lived down the street from my grandmother, and it's hard not to think he wasn't chosen because his political temperament is basically indistinguishable from Romney's: he's made a career out of usually saying the right thing and not too loudly, and like Romney he seems like an otherwise reasonably decent guy who, to fit the moment, has developed an ability to tell monstrous lies. My mother voted for him once, when he was running for Congress, because she knew him and trusted him, and at the time he believed in government-funded drug treatment centers, which are something my mother cares a lot about. After the VP announcement Portman agreed to become the Romney campaign's Ohio chairman. York would later write a piece for the Washington Examiner, titled "Passed-over Portman shines in Ohio campaign."
York wandered away. McCain took down my name and said he'd google me.
Writers who don't do this sort of thing for a living, who go out and lark it for a while as political journalists, tend to come to events like this and focus on the mechanics of the event, to touch a bit on the crowd, and to write a great deal about the other journalists. Everyone does it, from Hunter Thompson to David Foster Wallace, and it's always seemed to me to be a bit of a cheap trick, on the reasoning that a smart guy with the freedom of a big word count ought to be able to come and draw political lessons from the same material the newspaper writers work with. Now I get it. There's nearly nothing else to talk about.
As so we end up saying things that an informed citizenry probably ought to already understand. To wit: It seems easy to me to forget that an event like this has almost nothing to do with the people actually attending. What they do is get the candidates space in the local papers, a snippet on the local radio stations, and give the national electronic medias an even shorter snippet for their daily campaign roundups. But there has to be a crowd, or the appearance will be judged by those medias as an embarrassing non-event, and the candidates are frequently late, so that crowd has to be entertained. Preferably entertained and fired up. But that entertainment must at all costs avoid saying anything that might appear in the local medias and eclipse whatever message the candidate and his handlers have devised for the local audience, and this latter imperative is by far more important than the one to entertain or fire up, and it takes an impressive political talent to entertain, fire up, and still avoid saying anything noteworthy. Dewine and Portman are not impressive political talents.
And who are these reporters who produce the optics? They're an astonishingly slovenly group. McCain turned out to have been one of three men, out of maybe 15 of us, whose pants were so ill-fitting that he had to roll up the legs to avoid the mud. There were uncountable pairs of square-toed loafers; cheap pinstripe suits. We could be on a used car lot in Bucharest. The Romney aids dress the same way. It wasn’t that they'd been on the trail and their wardrobes were bare and dirty, that much seemed pretty clear. They just didn’t know how to dress.
I say this, which must sound snide, just because you have to wonder about the sort of person whose job it is to produce the imagery that makes this machine run and who has so little regard for the external world that consumes the optics that they've never found it important to appear successful and attractive. It's insulting—the implication here is that participation in this game is more important than anything anyone might otherwise doing, and you can see that in the way they look at the crowd, which is quite obviously a crowd of people who are either retired or working at the Air Force base nearby and who couldn't, personally, care less about the unemployment rate. But today we were going to hear about jobs.
And their strange indifference to the people making up the crowd meant that there was gleeful pandemonium in the press corral when the Romney plane finally pulled up. I thought we would all start cheering with the crowd. Cameras went up, notebooks came out, the plane stopped, the stairs came down, and the big-time press came off first. I think I recognized Debbie Elliot, from NPR.
The candidates came last off last. Rand Paul was there, and shockingly handsome from a hundred feet away, tan like JFK and dressed in a blue blazer and a pink polo. Romney wore a NASCAR windbreaker. The crowd wasn't cheering. They were what you'd expect from a Romney crowd in an exurb of a fading industrial town—old men in ARMY caps, and middle-aged women who'd sensibly thought to bring ponchos. There were two younger women who stood leaning on the fence behind the press corral, who periodically tried to start "Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!" chants— but this is the Miami Valley. The women in ponchos around them glared and refused to participate. Paul, Portman, Ryan, and Romney assembled on stage, Portman hanging back from the other three.
Rand Paul spoke, and said nothing that would eclipse Romney or Ryan. Ryan came up. I'd forgotten that he went to school near here. He led the crowd in this exchange:
Ryan: "Ha. Works every time."
Debbie Elliot would later play a recording of this exchange on Morning Edition. Ryan took a buckeye out of his pocket. "I've got my lucky buckeye here," he said. "My buddy Rob Portman gave this buckeye to me. Rob's a good guy." It wasn't clear whether or not he remembered that Portman was standing behind him. I stopped taking notes.
And then we had Romney. McCain leapt up on the fence to get a view, and the iPhones went up, and the women behind us began a chant again, "Rom-ney, Rom-ney" and this time the crowd joined in. But the candidate stopped them. "Wait," he said: "Romney-Ryan, Romney-Ryan," he led them a couple times, and then it died out. "That's it." I would hear this exchange again driving home, on All Things Considered, and it was a deeply uncomfortable moment, a man acknowledging the limits of his appeal to a group of the most sympathetic people imaginable. The reporters picked it up, and for a moment the only movement in the press corral was of pens scratching. He looked cold and tired, and the wind pushed his hair down into his face.
He talked about jobs, about China, and, uncomfortably, about free trade. He talked about meeting Lech Walesa in Poland. "I met him, and there was only one chair in the room. And he said 'you sit and listen, I'll stand up and talk.' And this man is a hero, so I said OK." It was another uncomfortable image; the pens came out again. He mispronounced Walesa at least three times.
I thought he spoke well. I’d stopped paying attention after the Walesa anecdote, but the end was rousing. I still get a thrill when I hear a candidate say God bless America and hear Brooks and Dunn ("Only in America," which is incidentally the same song that played after Barack Obama spoke at the DNC) come on the loudspeakers.
But the thrill was oddly fleeting, for an event like this. It was a crowd that wanted him to say things a presidential candidate can't actually say, and they left deflated. Romney left to unsustained cheers. Kevin Madden, a senior advisor, came quickly over to the press corral, seeming like he was worried some of the bigger-name trail reporters would leave to find food. There was no crush around him. I hung around trying to think of something to ask. The crowd around him thinned quickly. "Excuse me," I said, "James Pogue, Vice Magazine." He looked quizzical. I couldn't think of a good question. I told him nevermind.
I walked the half-mile back to the car. There was a bearded black guy, definitely not older than 25, standing near where the guy selling stickers had been. He wore a maroon t-shirt with white lettering: "Aspiring to be in the 1%." The sticker guy was gone, and I counted that a victory.
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