quotes & notes from
The Boys on the Bus
Timothy Crouse

These pages: The Boys on the Bus

first part

second part (here)




index pages:

The Boys on the Bus

Riding With the Campaign Press Corps

Copyright © 1972, 1973 by Timothy Crouse


PART TWO: Covering Nixon’s Campaign

Chapter VIII: Nixon Before the White House

Every President, when he first enters the White House promises an “open Administration.” He swears he likes reporters, will cooperate with them, will treat them as first-class citizens. The charade goes on for a few weeks or months, or even a couple of years. All the while, the President is struggling to suppress an overwhelming conviction that the press is trying to undermine his Administration, if not the Republic. He is fighting a maddening urge to control, bully, vilify, prosecute, or litigate against every free-thinking reporter and editor in sight. [...] Every President from Washington on came to recognize the press as a natural enemy, and eventually tried to manipulate it and muzzle it.



The private vocabulary of journalists reeks with obscenity, but the dirtiest word it contains is “lightweight.” A lightweight, by definition, is a man who cannot assert his authority over the national press, cannot manipulate reporters, cannot finesse questions, prevent leaks, or command a professional public relations operation. The press likes to demonstrate its power by destroying lightweights, and pack journalism is never more doughty and complacent than when the pack has tacitly agreed that a candidate is a joke. As soon as a candidate shows his vulnerability by getting flustered, or by arguing when he shouldn’t argue, the pack is delighted to treat him as the class clown.

If only Humphrey would attack Nixon on the war, said the reporters, then we could use Humphrey’s charges to corner Nixon and make him answer. But Humphrey wanted to avoid the Vietnam issue for his own reasons. So the two candidates had a tacit agreement to lay off the war. What could the press do?

It never seemed to occur to the reporters that they had a duty to stand up and take the place of Nixon’s nonexistent opponent.

“It’s easy to look back now and say, ‘Jeez, this was very important and you didn’t ask the guy about the war,’ ” said Witcover. “But he would have press conferences and we’d ask him about the war, and he’d slough it off, you know. And after a while you get tired of asking the same question.”

Note (Hal’s):
Jules Witcover, of the Los Angeles Times.

— end note


Vietnam War

Chapter XI: Nixon’s Campaign

After the dinner ended, Cassie Mackin went out into the hall to do her “standup” in front of the NBC camera crew. She got as far as the second sentence, and then she doubled over in a fit of laughter and had to stop. The guests were being allowed to leave through only one of the doors, but were trying to get out through all of them. The beautifully dressed people still in the ballroom were actually pounding on the doors, and the security guards and police were leaning against these doors form the other side.

“They’re banging on the doors to get out!” Cassie kept saying between paroxysms. “I’d love to see them break the doors down!” Then she would compose herself, signal the cameraman, try to do her introduction and collapse in laughter again.

“Even outrageous remarks seem to help Nixon this year,” I pointed out.

“And to be recorded flatly, it helps him more,” said Semple, completely contradicting his first position.

“Yes, but I don’t know why that is,” I said.

“I can tell you why,” said Lisagor. “It’s because Nixon is one of the best students of journalistic formats of any politician we’ve had in a number of years. He understands the one-dimensional format of the wire service, where you can’t qualify anything and where you’ve got to go with a hard punchy lead, and that’s what this speech is designed to do.”

Note (Hal’s):
Robert Semple of The New York Times, and Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News.

— end note

Nixon himself stated this law of journalism back in the fifties, when he saw himself as a victim of attacks from the left. “A charge is usually put on the front page; the defense is buried among the deodorant ads,” he said.



The extraordinary thing about her piece was that it was virtually unique. Nobody else who reported on the trip said in simple declarative sentences that Nixon had made demonstrably false accusations about three of McGovern’s programs. Bob Semple said that you couldn’t do it—it was against the rules. But Mackin did it, without even thinking about the consequences. Even months later, she did not like to talk about the piece, because she felt that it put her in the position of defending an action that was natural and obvious, an action that required no defense.

The reason that the piece packed such a wallop was that it was so simple and direct. There were no lengthy film clips to prove that McGovern didn’t believe in confiscation of wealth. There were no complicated references to “observers” or “experts” who would vouch for McGovern. Mackin was confident of her own honesty and intelligence, and she simply expected people to believe her when she said that Nixon was wrong.

Chapter XIII: Watergate
Bernstein and Woodward had, after all, traced a plot to sabotage the Democratic party right into the inner sanctums of the White House. Yet somehow the Watergate affair failed to “sink in”; its sinister implications never registered on the public’s imagination. A Gallup poll taken around the time of the election found that 48 percent of the American public had never heard of the Watergate affair, and most of the rest didn’t care about it.

Many papers completely ignored the Post stories, but gave good play to White House denials of the stories.** For instance, the Chicago Tribune, the San Diego Union, the Minneapolis Tribune, and the Philadelphia Inquirer all neglected to print the Post’s October 25 story on Haldeman, but printed Ziegler’s denial of the story the next day.*

** This information comes from “The Fruits of Agnewism,” Ben H. Bagdikian’s excellent article in the January/February 1973 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.

* While this approach was largely a result of partisan decisions on the part of editors and publishers, it also, as Bob Woodward said, “went to the core of reportorial technique.” “The immediate reaction of the reporters,” said Woodwards, “was, ‘What does Ron Ziegler say about this?’ They flooded White House aides with phone calls; they tried to check our stories with people who were bound to say, ‘Of course it’s not true.’ ”

“Did you feel any sense of disappointment that you failed to affect the election?” I asked Woodward and Bernstein as they finished their coffee at the Hay-Adams.

“No,” Bernstein laughed, “that wasn’t our purpose. We wish there hadn’t been any goddam election. Our stories would have had much more impact in a non-election year, when the White House wouldn’t have had the election issue to work with. They just painted us into McGovern’s corner.

“But we never expected to have much impact anyway,” he added matter-of-factly. “Why? Well, we watched the McGovern campaign fall apart, we knew how the press had been undercut, and we realized one crucial fact about the White House: they know our business and we don’t know their business.”

PART THREE: Covering McGovern’s Campaign

Chapter XIV: Chafing at the Rules

Some of the better minds on the plane had begun to feel caged in by the old formula of classic objective journalism, which dictated that each story had to make some neat point; had to start with a hard news lead based on some phony event that the candidate’s staff had staged; had to begin with the five w’s; had to impose some meaning, however superficial or spurious, on the often insignificant, or mysterious, or downright absurd events of the day. [...]

A reporter was not allowed to make even the simplest judgments; nor was he expected to verify the candidates’ claims. The classic example came not from a national election, but from the contest for the presidency of the United Mine Workers Union between Tony Boyle and Joseph Yablonski. In that contest, all of the charges made by Yablonski were probably true; at the same time, a resourceful reporter could have shown that many of Boyle’s accusations were lies. Yablonski was an honest reformer; Boyle was a corrupt executive interested only in perpetuating his own rule. But the press insisted on reporting the election as a dispute between two warring factions in the union; using the time-honored techniques of objective journalism, they gave equal weight to each man’s charges. It was objective coverage, but it wasn’t fair.



Thompson seemed just the man to establish a truly “adversary” relationship with the Presidential candidates. In December 1971, he was dispatched to Washington to open a Rolling Stone office and to turn his violent, satirical, epithet-studded style on the men in the Democratic primaries. I also worked for Rolling Stone, and they sent me out to write the serious backup pieces, keep Thompson out of trouble, and carry the bail bond money.


Hunter Thompson

Thompson had loaned his press card to a freak, who had run amuck aboard Muskie’s whistle-stop train, insulting reporters and heckling the candidate when he tried to speak at the final stop in Miami. Many of the reporters, seeing only the badge on the freak’s lapel, had taken him for Hunter S. Thompson of Rolling Stone. In the article, Thompson explained the mistake but revelled in its consequences. The piece was a big hit with the press corps, and they soon began to read him regularly.

Note (Hal’s):
Thanks to a college roommate who read Rolling Stone, that same article became my own personal introduction to Hunter Thompson’s work.

— end note

Chapter XV: The Black Hills
“He never got a focus on how his actions as a candidate translated to the people out there,” Greider said later, and that turned out to be as good an epitaph as any. The classic example was the way in which McGovern handled the press during the Eagleton mess.

Note (Hal’s):
Bill Greider, of the Washington Post.

— end note

Richard Nixon, with his hard-won knowledge of the media, would doubtless have known better than to stand 1,000 percent behind anything in the middle of a hot public controversy. But McGovern apparently did not.

What made McGovern’s statement doubly incredible was that two days later, on Friday, he decided to dump Eagleton. And he chose to use the press to send Eagleton the bad news.

Chapter XVII: The Last Days

The reporters attached to George McGovern had a very limited usefulness as political observers, by and large, for what they knew best was not the American electorate but the tiny community of the press plane, a totally abnormal world that combined the incestuousness of a New England hamlet with the giddiness of a mid-ocean gala and the physical rigors of the Long March.

There were two press planes, actually—the Dakota Queen II (named for the B–24 McGovern had piloted during World War II) and the Zoo Plane (etymology uncertain.)*

* Since Presidential candidates first took flight, the second (or third) plane has always been known as the Zoo Plane. Apparently, this name derives from the large numbers of TV technicians who ride the second plane and who are considered slightly less than human by the print journalists.

text checked (see note) Oct 2006

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