60 Years in Journalism: Thoughts on Covering Politics

The people of Iowa are truly nice people, nice to strangers, nice even to reporters. It's just that every four years, they vote in strange ways, as often as not for candidates that fall by the wayside soon after their first-in-the-nation caucuses. And every four years, as the snow flies, politicians who would be President come storming in, with reporters in their wake.

And it can be hard work. The candidates are up early to greet workers at factory gates, or breakfast at local coffee shops. They head from town to town in their vans and buses, and it goes on until a dinner speech somewhere. The caucuses take place in the evening of a long day. For a broadcast reporter, the campaign days don't end until sound bites are edited and stories are recorded for the next morning's newscasts.

Then comes New Hampshire, just as snowy and cold.

Primary day in 2008 ended when Hillary Clinton made her victory speech, after which I drove my rental car across a very unfamiliar town to hear Barack Obama make what turned out to be a campaign address for the next set of primaries. Two terms in the White House were won on the strength of his oratory, which I first heard when he captured attention at the convention that nominated John Kerry for President in Boston in 2004.

Covering nominating conventions also entailed four long concentrated days, beginning when the candidates went to breakfast caucuses of state delegations, continuing through lunch caucuses, afternoon meetings over coffee, and the convention session itself in the evening--again followed by the late hours to file for the next morning. And in Boston, our motel was 25 minutes away in Brookline, as delegates got priority for more conveniently-located hotels.

The week before many earlier conventions was often also newsworthy, as a committee drafted rules, of crucial importance if there's a floor contest for the nomination. The work of the platform committee was also particularly significant when such seminal issues as civil rights were on the agenda. At the 1956 Democratic convention, which I covered for a startup called Radio Press, the platform committee held a contentious all-night session behind closed doors. This year, for the Republicans, it could be the issue of abortion rights that keeps platform writers up at night.

At the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, I had the safest perch in the city. As President Lyndon Johnson's administration sank under the weight of the Vietnam War, the convention nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey to succeed him. Thousands of demonstrators crowded Grant Park and were outnumbered and suppressed by what an official report called a "police riot." On the floor of the convention, television reporters were roughed up by security thugs while doing live interviews on national networks.

Where was I? On the stage from which party leaders spoke and Humphrey accepted the nomination, seated a few yards behind the rostrum. The ABC Television executive producer decided he didn't need a reporter in that spot, so ABC Radio took it. I had an array of badges to get me there each evening, where I worked in tranquility. And when Humphrey, after his speech, walked back toward me, surrounded by party leaders congratulating him, I later learned that ABC-TV plugged in my radio broadcast describing the who's-who backstage.

I was in the same position at the Republican convention that nominated Richard Nixon. When Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Bill, an aide quoted LBJ saying that the Democratic Party had "lost the South for a generation." Nixon helped make it happen by adopting a "Southern strategy" that remained useful from that day to this, certainly in state-level elections.

After I came back from abroad, I covered the 1984 Democratic convention in San Francisco. The nominee, former Vice President Walter Mondale told the assembled delegates, "President Reagan will raise your taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did!" I rose from my seat in wonderment. That's not the kind of line that wins elections. Not that it mattered; Reagan was enormously popular.

I was assigned to cover the campaign of Mondale's vice presidential running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, a member of Congress from New York City. She was the first woman ever on a national ticket. I spent 55 overnights on the road during that campaign, on the press plane and the press bus. Other reporters took vacations, but I had to see it through from first to last. And the final evening, I remember Ferraro's three top advisers, among them Madeleine Albright, seated on a hotel room floor, exhausted.

During Reagan's successful campaign against President Jimmy Carter, I watched crowds greet his applause line with thunderous applause again and again: "Government doesn't solve problems--government is the problem!" Reagan easily got a major tax cut through Congress. Democrats initially opposed it, then happily joined in by adding tax breaks of their own. But in his second term, Reagan did raise taxes and/or "user fees" to reduce significant budget deficits. His successor, George H.W. Bush, did so as well, and many fellow Republicans were unforgiving after Bush had promised the convention that nominated him, "Read my lips, no new taxes!"

In 2016, primary and caucus voters are embracing candidates who promise to blow up a broken system by the force of their personalities. As we get into the thick of an election season, the gap between the two parties is a chasm. While many voters wish a plague on all their houses, the consequences of electing one party versus the other will be enormous, in terms of the policies to be enacted, or repealed. In addition to which, the world is aflame. Who among those now campaigning can make the most prescient future judgments and somehow unite a bitterly-divided body politic distrustful of a globalized economy, let alone deal with the thuggish masters of Moscow, Beijing, Havana, Teheran, and Pyongyang, and a variety of allies and sort-of-allies in between? Certainly not the one who shouts the loudest.