04 February 2008

30 minutes on the "Straight Talk Express" - A personal essay

OK, so I didn't actually get on the bus itself.

But I did have the opportunity to jump aboard the John McCain juggernaut for a brief time Sunday afternoon at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

It was the first time since 1980 that I'd attended a presidential candidate's appearance as a member of the working press.

The last time I was working as a radio reporter for an all-news station in Cleveland. I covered George H.W. as he tried to play catch-up in his race with Ronald Reagan - spouting the words "voodoo economics" as he went.

Of course when George H.W. actually did win the White House, he
employed those very same economic principles - though by then they had grown to be known as "supply-side economics."

Four years prior to that - as a reporter for my college radio station - I remember covering a peanut-farming governor from Georgia, full of energy and enthusiasm, as he campaigned to beat the incumbent Gerald Ford.

By 1980, the optimistic governor was a dispirited president, feeling the weight of the Iranian hostage crisis on his shoulders.

I recall being at one of the debates that year, in Cleveland. The one that set Jimmy Carter's re-election bid tumbling when he went on about how he had asked his young daughter Amy what he should do about nuclear proliferation.

It was one of those moments - like the Dean Scream - which may very well have killed a presidential bid, or re-election bid in this case.

As I arrived at Sacred Heart Sunday I wondered just how much things had changed in the campaign-coverage biz over 28 years.

The short answer is - hardly at all.

Back in 1976, protesters were a mainstay on the streets near the venue where the candidate would speak. In '76 and '80, the protests were "no-more-nukes" protests (weapons as well as energy plants).

The protesters were there again yesterday. A bit older, and mostly more well-dressed. This time the Iraq war was their target.

Inside the school's Pitt Center gymnasium, things looked much as they did back in the day as well.

McCain supporters, sprinkled with curious onlookers, packed the bleachers and much of the basketball court.

There were the familiar risers, with a couple dozen TV cameramen and still photographers fiddling with equipment. In front of them was a press table, loaded with local reporters who would soon be crowded out by their national counterparts who travel with the camapaign and push their weight around at every stop.

Nothing new there.

On stage were McCain's trusted political allies, most notably Connecticut's newly independent senator, Joe Lieberman. Or Sen. Joe Mentum as he is known to those who know the inside joke.

The one-time Democrat would talk about unity in the country, and how McCain - the biggest hawk on the most divisive issue in the country - could bring us all together.

Former Texas senator Phil Gramm was there. It's Gramm who is filling in the knowledge gaps for McCain on the economy - a subject the candidate recently, if not too wisely, admitted he doesn't know that much about.

Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina was there as well, along with local Republican Rep. Chris Shays.

The faces have changed, but it was done the same way back in the 70s, and a whole lot longer ago than that I would think. A good chance for the local pols to be seen with "the big guy."

The NPR guy at the press table near me had a big old clunky tape recorder with a large microphone, very much like the one I lugged around daily so many years ago.

The school's pep band played all the political standards as the crowd awaited McCain's arrival.

There was one onlooker at the event that made the whole thing a bit out of the ordinary.

Actor Robert Vaughn - some forty years removed from his role as Napoleon Solo in the mid-60s spy drama The Man From U.N.C.L.E. - came to see McCain.

Vaughn said he is concerned about "Islamic jihad" and wanted to hear McCain's plans to tackle it.

I suppose that should be no surprise coming from Napoleon Solo, the man who made his living battling
Thrush - a shadowy group of international evil-doers.

About 20 minutes after his scheduled arrival time - fashionably late for the campaign trail - McCain grabbed the mic.

He spoke for 20 or 25 minutes, ticking off each and every one of the same talking points he's ticked off a thousands times along the way.

Perhaps it was weariness that comes with the hectic campaign schedule, but, despite having recited the same old themes and repeated the same tired jokes he had uttered many times before, McCain lost his train of thought at least three or four times.

There was the requisite heckler, who caused McCain to pause briefly but who was soon shown the door as the candidate continued with his message.

McCain's loudest cheers came near the end of his speech, when he insisted he'd never pull out of Iraq without a victory and would never "surrender" in the so-called war on terror.

While the trappings were the same, and the process was the same I came away feeling that something was different than when I had done this very thing for the first time more than 30 years ago.

The words were delivered with same enthusiasm. Promises were made and the talk of a brighter future was just as it was 30 years ago.

But I felt no excitement like I did back then.

I no longer hear with open, hopeful ears.

The politicians and the process haven't changed much in 30 years.

I guess I have.

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