'Boys On The Bus': 40 Years Later, Many Are Girls

Apr 19, 2012
Originally published on April 19, 2012 9:15 am

The news business has changed a lot in recent years, and that's especially true of political news. But when you ask about a book that captures what it's like to report on a presidential campaign, one decades-old classic still rules: The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse.

The rough-and-tumble account of the reporters who covered President Richard Nixon's re-election against George McGovern back in 1972 is part of a Morning Edition series on political history.

The modern-day reporters who have read it include Jonathan Martin of Politico.
"It just features a, you know, behind-the-scenes account of the boozing, the writing, the cavorting of what was then a largely male press corps," he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

"We're talking about typewriters, we're talking about one deadline a day," he adds, a dream situation for Martin and the two other political journalists who have gathered to discuss the book: Anne Kornblut of The Washington Post and Ashley Parker of The New York Times.

Today's journalists say they now face endless deadlines, not just one. They also contend that they drink somewhat less than the guys in The Boys on the Bus.

But as Parker follows Republican Mitt Romney, she finds the book still relevant, and in fact inescapable — an NBC reporter brought along his copy. "He has basically been passing it around to all the reporters on the bus," she says, "and his only rule is that you have to, you know, write notes in the margin, annotate it, and at the end so he'll have this sort of great keepsake."

Parker says one of Romney's advance staffers read the book as well, and wrote a note in the margin calling the press corps "jackals" — "which is obviously not how we view ourselves," Parker laughs.

She adds that while there has been massive technological change since 1972, the beaten-down state of the average reporter at the end of a long campaign trail is a constant.

Kornblut of the Post remembers talk in 2008 of "girls on the bus," in that year of female candidates. "We look around now, our political staff is almost half women at this point, which obviously would have been unheard of in 1972," she says.

Back in 1972, there were a few reporters who were extraordinarily influential on the bus, like R.W. "Johnny" Apple of The New York Times. Their choices guided much of the coverage. Now, says Martin, things are more fragmented. "There are just so many outlets," he says, "you don't quite have the same pack journalism you probably did in '72."

Even though many outlets today will spend countless news cycles on the same story, Parker says, that's less to do with any one person's individual influence and more to do with the power of social media.

"Anyone with a [Twitter account] can tweet out a story and generate buzz for a story, so it doesn't matter if you're the senior correspondent or you're a blog with a scoop," she says. "And then it all sort of gets re-tweeted."

Kornblut adds that Twitter is, in a way, the new bus. "There is obviously a physical bus, and there's a bubble that we've all been in, but because you can follow the campaign ... in real time, I'm struck now, even sitting in an office, how inside the bubble I can feel without actually picking up the phone and calling my reporters."

Parker says the Romney campaign pays very close attention to Twitter. "You might read a front-page story and you don't hear from them, and they will go crazy and yell at you for individual tweets," she says. Campaign staffers told her they saw Twitter as a kind of early-warning system for upcoming stories, enabling them to craft responses as soon as possible.

"Having read the book and covering campaigns, it does make you long for a day when the press corps had intimate access to the candidates," Martin says. The boys on the bus spent every day cultivating their relationships with Nixon and McGovern.

"They got to know them on a much more personal level than I think we do," he says. "I think that's one of the worst things about covering politics now versus then."

One passage in The Boys on the Bus describes the dreariness of following a losing candidate, and Martin says that has definitely changed since 1972. "The losing candidates have less to lose; they will say more interesting things because of that," and they're usually less organized, so you can get closer to the candidate, Martin says.

"We've had enough presidential losers in the history of this country who've gone on to make a big impact in American politics, that we've learned the lesson by now that they do matter," he says. "Barry Goldwater is one. Al Smith. The list goes on and on and on."

Kornblut agrees. "There is nothing more dramatic than watching it all start to slip away," she says. "You think about what happened in, well, the Edwards campaign, the Clinton campaign. ... By comparison, the Obama campaign was pretty boring to cover at that point."

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