MONTICELLO, IA.---As the sun was rising over the snow covered Iowa farmland, dotted with rolled bales of hay or straw (Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times kindly briefed me on the difference), the bus carrying reporters covering presidential candidate Barack Obama was headed towards Friday’s first campaign stop.
This is the first of a series of reports letting you ride along with me on the Obama bus tour that started on Thursday after the Democratic debate near Des Moines and wraps up there on Tuesday. You’ll meet among other people a Secret Service representative on the bus with us I am code-naming Falcon Bulldog, since I have promised to protect his identity. This is the backstage stuff; click elsewhere for my serious campaign columns.
You may have heard the term “boys on the bus.” It comes from the 1973 classic “Boys on the Bus,” by Timothy Crouse, who added a phrase to the American political lexicon; In 2007—as it has been for years—it is the boys and girls on the bus.
Bus driver Billy Williams described the Prevost we’re riding in as the “Cadillac” of buses. Our starting mileage was 435,716 in this workhorse. I would have been happier in a Chevy with on-board electric power. A constant worry in this line of work is a battery rundown.
The bus has reporters, producers and still and video shooters from a numbers of outlets: yours from the Chicago Sun-Times; John McCormick, Chicago Tribune; Zeleny, New York Times; Mark Barabak, Los Angeles Times; documentarian Amy Rice; Scout, the photographer; CNN, Newsweek books, Reuters photo and CBS, plus the embeds who go everywhere with Obama with their cameras: Bonney Kapp, FOX; Sunlen Miller, ABC and Aswini Anburajan, NBC.
Riding along are Tommy Vietor and Jen Psaki, advance ace Samantha Tubman and saint Liz Reiter, who handles every trip detail, including stashing Purell and Advil on board.
Vietor is the Iowa press secretary who earlier last year moved from Obama’s senate operation in Washington to join the campaign. Psaki has come out from the Chicago headquarters and she briefed us on the day ahead when the bus pulled out today. I’ve run into Tubman all across the country.
Reiter oversees trip logistics. By the way—we—our employers-- pay for everything.
While this is not a free ride, it is one where one cannot be late.
When we started this morning, leaving a Comfort Inn in Maquoketa, Bulldog gave us a pretty stern warning that we would need to hustle in order not to get off schedule. Reporters tend to dawdle at stops. “If you can just move with a purpose,” Bulldog said. This is not, he noted New York where you can “grab a cab” to catch up.
Now about that Comfort Inn. When I have a chance, I want to write about all the hotels I’ve been staying at and put together a lot of other travel tips, especially on being organized going through security lines schlepping a lot of electronics.
At this Comfort Inn, as another I’ve stayed, has pillow top mattresses that equal those in high-end chains. The minus last night was that there was residual smoke in the hallways. But my room was fine and the women at the front desk could not have been nicer.
We arrived at the Comfort Inn early—near 10 p.m. We had already eaten dinner on the bus. Reiter ordered Panera meals and we stopped somewhere (a mall with a giant hockey rink—never saw that before) and a bunch of us, led by Reiter, dashed in to pick up the order.
At the hotel, I chipped in $5 for people making a beer run. I changed into sweats and did 30 minutes on the treadmill—Scout, the photographer was on the bicycle watching debate coverage on C-SPAN. We joined the group watching cable news. I drank water and munched frosted flakes.
When I got in my room, I turned on—you won’t be surprised—cable news and laid down on that great pillowtop. I fought the impulse to fall asleep without plugging in my electricals for recharging and I lost. My inner being is trained not to do this, so I woke up about 3 a.m. and plugged in: my cell phone, laptop and blackberry. I broke discipline and did not deal with recharging my video camera; I guessed my still camera was fine.
Our traveling crew left the Comfort Inn a little after 7:30 a.m. I got down in time to gulp some coffee, and, being weak, took a few bites from a donut—but I threw the rest away.
Some things you should know: Obama is not riding with us. He’s in another Prevost that looks from the outside like a luxury model, riding with staff. Our motorcade includes police and Secret Service chase cars.
On the bus, there is enough room so each person can claim two seats. There is little legroom, so I sit at an angle to type with my laptop on my lap.
We just wrapped up Obama’s first event, a townhall meeting here. It was a rather sedate, down-to-earth event, a contrast to the recent stumps with Winfrey. At the gym, I’m listening, working on this report and scanning the transcript the campaign just sent of an interview Obama did this morning (from his room at the Comfort Inn) with Tom Joyner.
Reiter is herding me back on the bus.
We’re on the road again. The bus is quiet. Almost, that is. The tapping on laptops and Blackberry thumbing create a music of their own.