11.03.08

The Boys on the Bus

From Steve Schmidt's bad karaoke performance to Dennis Kucinich's nut thievery, campaign reporters share their best—and most hilarious—memories from the trail.

One of the tragedies of political journalism is that, often times, the funniest and most touching moments don’t make it into final copy because they are tangential or superfluous to the main point of the piece. With Election Day tomorrow, we asked several national political reporters to look back over the long campaign and share their favorite memories. Snapshots include karaoke with Mark Salter and Steve Schmidt, hunting for Chinese food in Iowa with Howard Wolfson, Mike Huckabee’s amazement at his own photograph on the front pages of the major papers, and Dennis Kucinich’s thievery of mixed nuts.

Rick Klein, Senior Political Reporter, ABC News

On the day of the New Hampshire primary, Mr. and Mrs. Dennis Kucinich stole my nuts. Not my nuts exactly—ABC's mixed nut can, the food we'd stocked away in our filing location in Manchester. I was in the ABC workspace and looked up and saw them eating our food—not picking out a cashew or two, but taking big handfuls of mixed nuts. I caught Elizabeth Kucinich's eye, and she said, "So sorry, but we're absolutely starving." I reminded her that, a few days earlier, her husband had sued ABC to try to block our debate from going forward without him on stage. With that, Rep. Kucinich grabbed a mini-can of Pringles and walked away.

Another moment that will always stick with me came last summer, in the early days of the primary, when you could get lots of access to the candidates. I was on board John Edwards' campaign bus, with ABC's off-air Edwards reporter, Raelyn Johnson, riding in who-knows-where Iowa. I was interviewing Edwards while his wife Elizabeth looked on—and I happened to notice that she was doing a lot of scribbling. I assumed she was taking notes. At the next stop, as we got off the bus, she handed Raelyn a beautiful pencil portrait she'd done of her, just to kill the time. A nice moment of humanity in the course of a crazy campaign.

Ana Marie Cox, Contributor, Time

The moment that stands out as both iconic and unreal has to be a scene from a Nashville bar, long after the last presidential debate. Senior McCain aides Mark Salter and Steve Schmidt had—reluctantly—joined a few reporters at the nearest open bar to the hotel. It was karaoke night.

Eventually, after much cajoling, Salter took the mic. And gave it up only after running through the bar's entire Dylan catalogue. Schmidt favored us with a bass, but sentimental, rendering of "Rocky Mountain High."

It might be hard to picture these two guys—tough campaigners both, not given much to sentiment in public—engaging in such a weirdly earnest version of what's become hipster camp ... but that's the kind of campaign it's been. In many ways, it's the least ironic thing to ever happen to any of us.

Joshua Green, Senior Editor, The Atlantic

My most memorable moment on the trail was getting offered weed by a Ron Paul supporter during the Republican primary in Ames, Iowa. He had urgently wanted to discuss the gold standard and I wasn't having any part of that, so I guess the weed was intended as an enticement.

Adam Nagourney, National Political Correspondent, The New York Times

I love Des Moines. I really do. But one of my enduring—though not endearing—memories of the presidential campaign was dinner on Christmas Day in Des Moines. I found a dinner companion: Howard Wolfson, a senior strategist for Hillary Rodham Clinton. We were quick to discover that there aren't a lot of restaurants open in Des Moines on Christmas night (or bars, but that's another story). But what was open was sure to warm the heart of two displaced Jews from New York: A Chinese restaurant.

Yes.

Now it wasn't a particularly good Chinese restaurant; It was Chinese food served buffet style on steam tables, in a very brightly-lit (and surprisingly) crowded spot. But who were we to complain?

Dana Milbank, National Political Reporter, The Washington Post

For me there were many great moments of the campaign, and they all involved Mike Huckabee: taking reporters hunting, taking them jogging, taking them to the barber for a face massage and shave. But the single greatest moment, I think, was when he was about to lose the Texas primary and he campaigned at the shrine of hopeless causes, the Alamo.

Robert Draper, Correspondent, GQ

I felt especially privileged to be with McCain, his son Jimmy, Mark Salter, three soon-to-depart McCain staffers, and two other reporters at a Springfield, Vermont pub one evening in July of last year, just after the candidate's campaign had effectively collapsed and the press had scribbled his political obituary. Whatever else one might say about John McCain, the man is brave, and his fortitude was on display that night as he talked about Hemingway, Faulkner, past girlfriends, Elizabeth Taylor, immigration--everything but quitting.

Joe Klein, Political Columnist, Time

I remember an Edwards event in Algona, Iowa, about a year ago. Good crowd, open to Edwards—but what they really wanted to talk about was the young Obama organizer who’d come to town six months earlier and become part of the community. It was the first glimmer of what soon would become apparent: Obama’s army of idealistic young people was transforming American politics. There were other great moments—some personal and unforgettable—but that was the most important.

Matt Bai, Contributing Writer, The New York Times Magazine

Bill Clinton was in South Carolina on Veteran's Day, and I think I was the only national reporter following him. The motorcade was making an "unscheduled stop." We came up on a military hospital, and I thought, "Of course, it's Veteran's Day. This will be really moving." But then the motorcade drove right past the hospital gates and pulled off instead at an African-American hair salon, so the former commander-in-chief could go bounding in for hugs and pictures. I thought, "You want to understand the problem with the boomers and their Democratic Party? Well, there you go."

Marc Ambinder, Associate Editor, The Atlantic

The Palin pick. It was memorable because it was so surprising, and it changed a lot of conceptions we had about the race. Also: when Obama’s daughter Sasha called out “Hi Daddy” as her father appeared on the big screen from Kansas City on the first night of the Democratic National Convention. It was very cute, but it also revealed how staged even Obama’s campaign had become: he was sitting with a random family and was forced to intermix genuine emotion at seeing his family with the well-worn clichés of politics.

Perry Bacon Jr., National Reporter, The Washington Post

I flew to New Hampshire the night of the Iowa caucuses on Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's plane, after he had won. We got into Manchester after 4 a.m. and I was pretty groggy as I walked into the Homewood Suites after the press bus dropped us off. But there at the front desk was Huckabee. Read more…

Byron York, White House Correspondent, National Review

I went to a McCain rally in Woodbridge, Virginia on October 18. It was nothing out of the ordinary, until afterward I came upon a guy who was ranting about media mistreatment of Joe the Plumber. Read more…

Sam Stein, Political Reporter, The Huffington Post

Only when she found out my name and the name of my publication, the vitriol spread like wildfire. I was, it seems, persona non grata amidst the crowd of PUMAs. Read more…

Amy Sullivan, Senior Editor, Time:

The night of the Iowa caucuses, before Obama arrived at the Hy-Vee Hall to give his victory speech, a local drum-and-step group entertained the waiting crowd in a cordoned-off area next to the press pen. The kids were all African-American--the youngest, probably 8-years-old, and the oldest around 15. All over the country, African-Americans were still worried that white voters wouldn't support a black man. Read more…

Michael Scherer, Washington Correspondent, Time:

Back in September of 2007, I spent a couple days at a Republican retreat in an oversized Victorian dollhouse called the Grand Hotel on Makinac Island, Michigan. Most of the Republican candidates came there to speak to state party activists, serving up stump pomp while waiters in white-tie tuxedos served drunk diners with pecan-coated ice cream balls. Read more…

Walter Shapiro, Washington Bureau Chief, Salon

On caucus night at Precinct 69 in Des Moines, I knew that Obama had won the moment that I had to go to the third satellite parking lot because all the spaces were taken – 30 minutes before it was scheduled to begin. Read more…

Ronald Brownstein, Political Director, Atlantic Media

At that point, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s back was against the wall. So I headed to Texas to watch some of her volunteers making the last ditch effort to stave off elimination. With all the creativity that I could muster, I figured Hillary Clinton, back against the wall, Texas—where should I go? I picked the Alamo. Read more…

Update: “Moms on the Bus.” Check out New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor’s take on juggling motherhood and the campaign trial: “There is no materally correct way to say this,” she writes, “but the things I saw on the road—Obama’s world, the Edwards family trying to hold it together, the Huckabee surge, Iowa, African American voters in South Carolina, Hillary Clinton’s last stand, Denver—were worth the hours away from my daughter.” And on the joys of parent-child fingerpainting: Not possible to sneak a peak at the BlackBerry. Read the full post here.