Tales From the Trail  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October 1996

Tales From the Trail   

Journalists recall unforgettable moments of high drama and low comedy in presidential campaign coverage.

By James McCartney
James McCartney is a former Washington correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers.     


The year was 1956, and President Eisenhower was whistle-stopping in the Upper Midwest in his campaign for reelection. In those days photographers on the campaign train had a workroom that was zestfully decorated in the true spirit of photographers of that era: with photos of naked young women.

Among the passengers accompanying Eisenhower on the train, however, were Sherman Adams, the straightlaced White House chief of staff, and Adams' wife, Rachel, who fancied herself something of an artist.

As recalled by Phil Goulding, who was aboard as a reporter for Cleveland's Plain Dealer, a time came when Eisenhower and the campaign entourage debarked for a motorcade and a presidential speech, to be gone for a couple of hours.

While the crowd was absent, Goulding recalls, Rachel Adams seized a grease pencil, crept into the photographic workroom and drew bras and panties on all of the photographs of the women.

The incident is only one of hundreds that live in the memories of reporters who have covered presidential election campaigns--stories of fun and frolic, pathos and bathos, drama and melodrama.

Reporters have embarrassed candidates, dramatically influenced elections, experienced personal trauma, witnessed riveting moments in the nation's political history--and have had many a roaring good time. It's often observed that somehow it doesn't seem to be nearly as much fun today as it used to be. Yet almost any reporter involved in campaign coverage has a tale or two to spin from Eisenhower right on up to Bill Clinton. Among them:

David Broder may well have changed the nation's history with a story he wrote about Edmund Muskie for the Washington Post in 1972.

Gary Schuster, then Washington bureau chief for the Detroit News, parlayed a brief chat with Ronald Reagan on a campaign flight in 1980 into a job with CBS.

James Naughton, then of the New York Times, confronted President Gerald Ford at a 1976 press conference dressed as a chicken. His chicken costume is on display today in the Ford Presidential Library in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Clark Hoyt, then with Knight Newspapers, realized in a flash of insight in 1972, when a doctor's face went pale, that Democratic vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton might be dumped.

Patricia O'Brien, then with Knight-Ridder, recalls feeling aghast when during the 1988 campaign Gary Hart answered the door of his hotel room for a scheduled interview clad only in a bathrobe.

phil Goulding himself became a key figure in a memorable drama on Barry Goldwater's campaign plane in 1964.

Goldwater, the Republican nominee, was an airplane buff and was enchanted with the capabilities of a spanking new Boeing 727 hired for his campaign. After a speech in Kentucky, Goldwater had the plane's pilot "buzz" the airport--roaring 30 feet over the runway at 400 or 500 miles an hour.

Reporters on the plane had not been alerted in advance. Some were praying, fearing for their lives. Goulding wrote a memorable story, the lede of which went something like this:

"I was in combat in World War II, but I was never so frightened as I was in Barry Goldwater's campaign plane over Kentucky." On the campaign trail ever after Phil Goulding was known as "Frightened Phil." But, in fact, some of the other reporters were even more frightened. One told William J. Eaton, then with United Press, he thought he was about to die.

The Goldwater campaign remains a favorite of many reporters for its jocularity from beginning to end. It is certainly mine.

In those days many organizations kept reporters with one candidate or another from beginning to end, which led to deep friendships and shared hilarity.

One of the major practical problems for national reporters on that 727 lay in efforts to preserve the middle seat of the three seats on each side of the aisle for work space as local and regional reporters came aboard the plane for brief stints.

At the time I was with the late Chicago Daily News and held the aisle seat. My seat mate, by the window, was the late John Averill of the Los Angeles Times. As the campaign wore on we contrived a fictional character to occupy the middle seat and gave him the name "Murgatroid Backfire." His paper: the Pocatello Post.

To preserve assigned seats we pasted the masthead of our paper on the back of the seat in front of us. We invented a masthead for Murgatroid.

How could a small paper like the Pocatello Post afford to cover a national campaign? Well, Murgatroid was a publisher. A publisher, obviously, is rich. He can afford anything.

As the campaign progressed, questions arose about what Murgatroid was filing. Other reporters in nearby seats-- Marjorie Hunter of the New York Times, Jack Steele of Scripps Howard, Bill Eaton and Goulding--began asking what Murgatroid was using for a lede.

Soon a competition developed to write Murgatroid's lede. Marjorie Hunter suggested an all-purpose lede that could be used in emergencies in case Murgatroid wanted an early dinner: "Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater lied again today."

The Washington Post's David Broder remembers the wild airplane ride back to Washington in the closing days of the campaign, when many drinks were poured and many songs were sung. Goldwater came back to the press section wearing a Mexican serape and a giant sombrero and regaled reporters with tales of his courtship of his wife, Peggy.

One song, quoted word-for-word in Theodore White's classic, "The Making of the President 1964," drew its inspiration from the name Goldwater had chosen for his campaign plane--"Yai-Bi-Kin," Navajo for "House in the Sky."
"The man of our dreams has lost his hair,
His glasses are blank and black,
He hates to mess with the Eastern press,
His knife is in Lyndon's back.
The man of our dreams is free from care,
He's certain he's going to win.
The polls say he's not, but he's sure that's a plot--
He's the sweetheart of Yai-Bi-Kin."

When the campaign was over, with Goldwater losing by a historic margin, a question arose on the proper Murgatroid lede for Goldwater's swan song. It was noted that Goldwater seemed proud of his performance, despite the dimensions of his loss, because he had polled more than 27 million votes--more than any other Republican except Eisenhower. Lyndon Johnson, of course, polled more than 43 million.

The decision, a consensus, was: "Barry Goldwater proudly opined that he had won a moral victory in Tuesday's election."

David Broder's contribution to history has become known in press corps legend as "The Great Ed Muskie Crying Incident."

It was New Hampshire primary time in 1972 and Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine was the unquestioned Democratic front-runner. He had become enraged at editorials attacking him and impugning his wife's character in the arch- conservative Manchester Union Leader and had decided to confront the paper's publisher from a flatbed truck positioned in front of the paper's building.

Broder's story on page one of the Washington Post's Sunday paper began:

"With tears streaming down his face and his voice choked with emotion, Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine) stood in the snow outside the Manchester Union Leader this morning and accused its publisher of making vicious attacks on him and his wife, Jane."

In defending his wife, Broder said in his lede, Muskie "broke down three times in as many minutes."

James Naughton was the New York Times reporter on the scene. His story ran on page 54 and mentioned tears and broken speech only once, in the sixth paragraph. The UPI story, which ran on page 2 of the Washington Star, said in the eighth paragraph that Muskie was "visibly shaken," but went no further.

To the time of his death last year Muskie insisted he did not cry. He acknowledged being upset, but insisted that the alleged tears were melting snowflakes. And Broder has publicly brooded that this one story has caused him more second thoughts than any other in his long and distinguished career. He has suggested in retrospect that he may have gone too far, drawn too many unwarranted conclusions from his own preconceptions and may well have taken the event out of context. Recalling the Muskie affair years later in his book, "Behind the Front Page," Broder wrote, "Even when we are fairly sophisticated in putting the event in context, the news we deliver can fall short of the truth." Today, Broder says he's more sure of that principle than ever.

One thing is certain. The incident killed Muskie's campaign for the presidency, and Broder's story almost certainly played a key role.

Then there is the Gary Schuster story--how a reporter's inspirational whim, teasing a candidate, dramatically changed his career.

Gary Schuster was the Washington bureau chief of the Detroit News when Republicans decided to hold their 1980 national convention in Detroit. He attached himself to Ronald Reagan and began his reporting in June l979, covering him, on and off, for more than a year until election night.

Like other reporters, Schuster found that Reagan kept his distance from the press corps, preferring staged events. There was no such thing as intimacy.

Thus Schuster was more than a little annoyed on the final day of the campaign to find Reagan coming down the aisle of the campaign plane, profusely thanking reporters for their coverage, acting as though all were pals.

Schuster was seated in an aisle seat and noted that Reagan would glance at a reporter's credentials to pick up the name, then say things like: "Thanks so much, Joe"--or Pete, or Charlie--"for the wonderful job you've done."

So Gary Schuster hid his credentials in his shirt pocket.

Schuster recalls saying to Reagan when the candidate got to him: "You know, Mr. Reagan, I've been covering you for more than a year, but I don't think you know my name." And he continued: "How many of the reporters on this plane do you know by name?"

Reagan was visibly flustered, and acknowledged that he had trouble remembering names, and that he realized that wasn't a very good thing for a politician.

Schuster didn't want to embarrass Reagan further and produced his credentials. Reagan quickly said: "Of course I remember you Gary. You've been with us all along."

Reagan staged his first press conference after the election in the Century Plaza hotel in Los Angeles and the room, of course, was packed with reporters from around the world. Schuster was far back in the crowd trying to get in a question.

Reagan took several questions, then raised an arm to point directly at Schuster in the back of the room and shouted out: "Gary, do you have a question?"

In subsequent press conferences, says Schuster, "he always recognized me--and always by name."

Those little dramas on television clearly made a deep impression on executives of CBS. The network had had a hard time dealing with the Reagan White House. Executives concluded that Gary Schuster must have developed a special relationship with the president.

By 1985 CBS had seen enough of Schuster's cozy relationship with the Gipper. The network offered Schuster a job, covering the White House. "That was a factor in CBS coming to me," Schuster says, "the fact that Reagan knew me by name."

Schuster's luck, however, did not last. Fifteen months later CBS fired about 300 people--Schuster among them. Today he is in public relations with Union Pacific.

Then there are stories of sheer whimsy--like when the New York Times' James Naughton bought a chicken costume and wore it at a Gerald Ford press conference in 1976.

Naughton, now president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida, says it all started at a Ford rally at a San Diego shopping center when Ford spotted a man dressed in a chicken costume in the crowd. It was part of a publicity stunt for a local radio station. Ford exclaimed: "The chicken--I love it!" The chicken man, sensing an opportunity, pranced up to the platform, approached the president and embraced him with his wings.

"I said to myself, 'I have to have that chicken head,' " Naughton recalls.

After the rally Naughton tracked down the chicken man and asked if he could buy the costume. The man said no, he needed it to make his living, but he had an old chicken head that he would sell to Naughton for $100.

Sold. Naughton placed his acquisition in the overhead rack of the campaign plane. The following night in Portland, Oregon, after a no-news day, Ford agreed to hold a news conference at the airport. Naughton donned his chicken head and strolled down the airplane steps onto the tarmac.

"Suddenly flash bulbs are going off and people are saying: 'You have to ask a question or you're chicken,' " recalls Naughton. "..Some of the reporters hoisted me up on their shoulders and carried me into the press conference... And if you were watching television you would have seen reporters asking Ford questions when suddenly, in their midst, this giant chicken emerges, being identified on TV as a representative of the New York Times. The chicken did not have the nerve to ask a question, but he did meet with the president afterward, and I told Ford: 'Your campaign put me in a fowl mood.' You could say this is the closest I've come to the Pullet-zer Prize."

There was a sequel. Naughton listed the $100 it cost to buy the chicken head on his expense account and an assistant managing editor agreed to pay half. But Arthur A. Sulzberger, the paper's publisher, told Naughton privately that he should send the expense account directly to him and he'd pay it.

For personal drama, however, few memories rival those of Clark Hoyt, now a vice president of Knight-Ridder. In 1972 Hoyt, then a reporter, was assigned to investigate a tip that Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Thomas Eagleton had received electric shock treatments for a mental disorder.

Hoyt had been dispatched to St. Louis after the Democratic National Convention in Miami to prepare a profile piece on Eagleton, a senator from Missouri. An anonymous tipster had phoned the Detroit Free Press, a Knight newspaper, suggesting that the paper investigate Eagleton's medical history, including shock treatments.

The call from the tipster was received by John S. Knight III, grandson of the Knight group's founder, John S. Knight, who had the presence of mind to ask the tipster for some kind of confirmation--when and where, for example, were electric shock treatments administered, and who was the doctor?

The tipster called back a second time with the name of a doctor in St. Louis, the name of the psychiatric hospital and a date when treatments were administered. Hoyt was asked to track down the doctor. He learned his home address, screwed up his courage and knocked on the door.

"The door opened narrowly," says Hoyt, "and I saw this face and I just blurted out: 'My name is Clark Hoyt and I'm from the Knight Newspapers in Washington and I need to ask you about the time you were present at the...hospital when Senator Eagleton had electric shock treatments.' The face turned white. 'I can't talk to you about that,' the doctor said, and slammed the door in my face. I was completely shaken. I knew there could have been other responses like, 'I don't know what you're talking about,' or 'I never heard of such a thing.' I knew it wasn't enough for a story, but as I walked away I think I knew that Tom Eagleton might be through--that our tipster had it right." After the visit Hoyt and Knight Washington Bureau Chief Robert Boyd flew to South Dakota and confronted Frank Mankiewicz, McGovern's campaign manager, with the information they had. They said the paper didn't want to write about it until the McGovern campaign had a chance to respond. Soon afterward the campaign announced the treatments and Eagleton stepped down. Hoyt and Boyd went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage.

For many veteran political reporters the most vivid memories of all are of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, when police rioted, according to an official investigation, in beating up antiwar demonstrators in front of the Conrad Hilton hotel. Haynes Johnson, who was then with the Washington Star, was on the street. "Violence was in the air," he recalls. "You could feel the emotion--the lights, the masses of cops, the chanting. The taunting of the cops... The cops went in and clubbed the hell out of them. Legend would have it that these were young, peace-loving kids. Not so. It was pro-active. Deliberate taunting. Jeering. You knew what was going to happen when the cops took their badges off so they couldn't be identified. It was not a nice scene. You felt angry and ashamed and horrified and disgusted all at once."

David Broder has a different memory. He recalls coming into the hotel lobby from the park where demonstrations were underway and spotting a woman he had first met during the Eugene McCarthy campaign in New Hampshire. "Her name was Cindy Samuels," Broder still remembers. "She was seated on a bench crying. She had been gassed. I went over and I put my arm around her and I said: 'Cindy. What can I do for you?' She looked up at me with tears on her face and said: 'Change things.' "

Quite another kind of memory remains with Patricia O'Brien from the campaign of 1988, when Colorado Sen. Gary Hart was the Democratic front- runner--but well before the Miami Herald destroyed Hart's presidential ambitions by reporting he had spent the night with a woman who was not his wife in his Washington townhouse. O'Brien was with the Knight-Ridder Washington bureau and was covering her first presidential election campaign. She was anxious to establish her professional credentials, she says, and had been trying for weeks to obtain a personal interview with the candidate. "I wanted that interview desperately." Finally, Kathy Bushkin, Hart's press secretary, told her Hart had agreed and she was given a time to meet with him in his hotel room. "I was really nervous covering him," she says, "because he had this incredible reputation as a womanizer."

O'Brien took the precaution of telling her desk that she was going to meet with Hart and proceeded to his room. "I knocked on the door, and Hart said, 'Oh Pat, come on in.' And he's wearing a bathrobe--with no pants... My feet propel me into the room. He sits down and crosses his legs, bare legs, and I know he didn't have any pants on. And I'm thinking, 'I'm letting him define this.' Then I say: 'This is bullshit, senator. I can't continue this interview unless you go and put some pants on.' " O'Brien says that Hart reacted indignantly, got up and left the room, and she could hear the zipper going up on his pants in the other room. "He comes back, and it's clear to me he's not going to give me anything. Then the phone rings and it's his friend Warren Beatty. And he's talking on the phone. He ignores me and keeps talking. And I simply got up and walked out."

Angry and embarrassed, O'Brien did not write about the incident, but it was later reported in Richard Ben Cramer's book about the campaign, "What It Takes."

I was telling the story about Gary Hart to longtime Washington correspondent Bill Eaton. He said he could do one better. He had a story about a president in a campaign who was stark naked.

It happened in 1964. Eaton was a member of a pool covering President Lyndon Johnson on Air Force One. "The pool, four of us, were summoned from the back of the plane to meet with the president. We were ushered into the presidential bedroom on the plane and the president was stretched out on a massage table--wearing nothing.

"Suddenly he stood up to towel himself off, facing us. He proceeded to lecture us on why we should do more reporting on the state of the economy and his success in budget cutting."

I asked Eaton, now curator of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program at the University of Maryland College of Journalism, "Did anyone write about it?"

"Oh, no," he said. "In those days you didn't write about such things. Today it would be around the world in a half an hour. But come to think of it, we didn't write about the budget either. I guess we were in a state of shock."

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