When Mayhill Fowler joined "Off the Bus," a Huffington Post project enlisting citizens as opposed to professional journalists to cover the presidential campaign, there were about 12 members. It has since exploded to at least 10,000 contributors. Fowler has scored two major scoops on the campaign trail – one about Bill Clinton's tirade in which he called Vanity Fair writer Todd Purdum, who had written a less-than-flattering article about the former president, a "scumbag"; the other revealing Sen. Barack Obama's comment at an April fundraiser in San Francisco about "bitter" blue-collar Pennsylvanians who "cling" to guns or religion, a remark that has haunted the Illinois Democrat throughout the campaign. Fowler, a 62-year-old Obama supporter, discussed her adventures on the hustings with AJR's Lindsay Kalter. Here's an edited transcript:
Q: What originally got you interested in the "Off the Bus" project?
A: I thought of myself as having never been interested in politics, but I had always wanted to be a writer. I'd been writing every day for 12 years. And so I had that discipline behind me, and I knew how to write. I had been in the Middle East at an international women's conference. So when I came home I thought, "I really want to keep up with this," so I threw several Middle Eastern blogs in my daily e-mail box, a couple Middle Eastern and English newspapers, and at the same time I said, "Oh, the U.S. election is coming up, let's throw a few more things in my e-mail box." I had never read the Huffington Post, but I had heard of it, so I threw their daily paper, The Daily Brief, in my e-mail box. And within about four days I got this e-mail saying, "Would you like to cover this Obama walk for change?" And for some odd reason, I thought, "Well, I'll do that." And then there was an online form you filled out when you finished the walk, and there was a little box where you could write in 500 words or less what you thought of the experience. Within a couple days [Editor] Amanda [Michel] called on the phone and said, "Would you like to join this project?" At that point I was interested in Barack Obama and knew that I wanted to write about his campaign, even though I had never been interested in politics before.
Q: You said you were writing for about 12 years. What was it you were writing?
A: I had always wanted to be a writer and had put off doing it, but I thought, "Well, time is rushing on apace, I've got to get cracking here," so my younger daughter and I wrote a family cookbook, and that actually sort of sideways was how I got started. And after that I started writing short stories and novels, and the novels almost got published. So I started writing these little monographs for my family, and that's what I was working on when I started writing for "Off the Bus." I discovered that, since I haven't been interested in politics of our day, that there are gaps in my knowledge. But one thing I do know is, I know a lot about American history and American politics of the 19th century, and 18th and 17th centuries. And that really, really helps me, and gives me things I can draw on in my work.
Q: What did you study in college?
A: I was an English major. I graduated from Vassar the last year it was an all-women's school. And I went to graduate school at UC Berkeley. And that's another thing which is helpful for writers and journalists, knowing Shakespeare. And knowing theater; theater was my specialty in school. I had never thought about this before until I went out on the campaign trail, but campaign events are little plays. They are little staged performances. And being able to see how campaigns wheel out these little playlets from town to town, city to city, also was a great way to structure and write about campaign events.
Q: What have been some highlights of your experience with "Off the Bus?"
A: It's been a rollercoaster of a year. One of my best days was in Lenoir, North Carolina, when I covered a Bill Clinton front-porch rally and the entire town turned up. And another day was in Zanesville, Ohio, which to me was the perfect kind of campaign coverage for "Off the Bus." Barack Obama wheeled out his idea for faith-based initiatives based on what the Bush administration's been doing, actually going back, the Clinton administration to be precise. I got the idea that I would go to Zanesville one week later and talk to the faith-based charities there and the churches and see what their idea on faith-based initiatives was, and whether they were amenable to Obama's ideas. So getting their viewpoint as opposed to the official campaign and the traveling press' viewpoints was wonderful. A lot of the days on the trail are just a really hard slog. But every once in a while there's just this great, glorious day where you enjoy what I call "our fellow Americans," and I enjoy what I'm seeing, and I enjoy the piece I write, and I think it's important.
Q: You have publicly supported Barack Obama in this election since early in the primary season. Do you have any regrets about putting his infamous "bitter" quote out there?
A: No regrets. I took about four days to think about whether or not to write it up for "Off the Bus." So, no regrets.
Q: What went into your decision to post it?
A: It wasn't until about 24 hours after the event that I turned on the tape recorder to see, "Did he say what I thought he said? Was my reaction the right one?" I was thinking about whether or not to do it, because in my mind, it was devastating. The reason I supported him was because he was touting himself as someone who could bring people from different parts of America together, people who had been on the opposite sides of the partisan divide. So I was very taken aback that he was feeding stereotypes, just the worst stereotypes that Californians – and I've lived there since 1968 – believe about rural small-town Americans. I thought, "Well this really goes to the heart of what he's presenting himself as." So I thought about it for a while. And I still wasn't sure if I was going to write it up or not. And I was talking to my editor, Amanda Michel, and we had a long phone conversation. She said, "If you're going to be a journalist, you can't be partisan." I thought about what she was saying, and it took me a while to process it, but I decided that, in the end, she was right.
Q: How did you deal with the negative feedback you received from Obama supporters?
A: I would say I probably haven't finished dealing with it. I had no idea, because I wasn't a professional journalist, and I had never done anything like this before. I was very innocent, and it never crossed my mind that people would be interested in the writer of the piece. I knew it would be devastating to Sen. Obama. In less than 24 hours, I had news media calling me from London to Tokyo wanting a piece of me. And the piece went out Friday afternoon and by Saturday morning I had hundreds of really, really creepy hate mails in my e-mail box, and so did my daughter, because she has the same very unusual name I do.
Q: How do you think being an unconventional journalist helps or hurts your pursuit of information?
A: It's much harder to get a story for "Off the Bus." I discovered early on that I can't compete with what the traveling press does, because they have access that I don't have. So I have to resist the urge to follow the story they're following. I just stop in my tracks and pivot on my heel and turn in another direction. And that is actually how I got the Bill Clinton story, because throughout the Democratic primaries, the mainstream media and the traveling press, and often not even the local press, were not covering all of these small-town events that he was doing. I mean, he went to over 300 small towns and did these front- porch rallies. A lot of times I would be the only print journalist there. And by the time I got him on the rope line in South Dakota, I had been to 22 small-town events with Bill Clinton, and therefore I knew him and that part of his life on the campaign trail really, really well. Therefore, I knew exactly what question to ask.
Q: How, if at all, has your perception of politics changed since joining the project?
A: My perception of politics hasn't changed at all. You know, my mother grew up in a political family. My grandfather was mayor of Memphis for many years. And my mother always said – and actually, I saw this because I campaigned for my grandfather when I was 9 years old – she said, "Politics is a really dirty business." And indeed it is. And sometimes I've felt like my ancestors are looking down from heaven saying, "See? We told you, we told you." And that was certainly the case after the piece I wrote on Obama at the San Francisco fundraiser and my daughter and I got hundreds of hate mails, I got death threats, terrible things were written about me on daily posts and other places in the blogosphere. But when I stopped to think about it, I thought, "Well, this is what my family always knew politics was." And actually I would have to say the 2008 campaign as a whole hasn't been really dirty, I don't think, compared to other American presidential campaigns.
Q: What do you think is in store for you after the election ends?
A: I really don't know. I'm just counting the days. I love being on the campaign trail, but I think – even if the story becomes even more surprising – I'm flagging. And I see other people out there flagging, too. But after that, I can't really look ahead. My editors really want me to write a book [about her campaign experiences], so I think I am going to write a book. And then that'll take some time and then after that I'll just, I'll see.