Taxing the Boys on the Campaign Bus


June 29, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

NEW YORK — New York. -- The Federal Election Commission, a toothless old tiger that is supposed to have something to do with the integrity of presidential elections, actually bit somebody recently -- sinking its gums into the press.

The FEC decision, another screwball demonstration of privatization, will stop most reporters from traveling with presidential candidates. And maybe that's not such a bad thing. could be argued that reporters on what used to be called the campaign trail became part of the problem rather than part of the solution in the photo-opportunity, media-event travels called campaigns these days.

''The Boys on the Bus'' -- the title of a book by Timothy Crouse about the traveling press in the 1972 campaign -- was fun while it lasted. I was one of them in those days, and there was something to be learned by playing cards with the candidate, as we did with Edmund Muskie that year. Or talking football with Richard Nixon, or staking out the urinal next to George McGovern, as Hunter Thompson of Rolling Stone did the same year.

But that really was the beginning of the end. Since then, candidates, particularly the Republicans, have talked only to their own media advisers, who were hired to keep the press as far away as possible and restrict their coverage to one flag-waving rally a day.

It became like the Gulf war, with the candidates offering exotic backdrops and briefing sessions with press-relations officers. At the same time, newspapers, magazines and television network news departments came under the control of corporate accountants who judged stories by their unit cost -- dollars per paragraph or thousands of dollars per 20-second sound bite. The bean-counters, though, did ask a valid question: Why are we paying so much for so little?

Now the cost will shoot up even more -- at least for the press. What the FEC ruled on June 19, more or less, was that presidential campaigns should force correspondents to pay for things such as the travel costs of Secret Service agents and baggage handlers and other campaign gofers.

You see, the Secret Service, which is part of the Treasury Department, refuses to pay for the full cost of the squads of men and women charged with protecting the candidates. They just say ''No'' at Treasury, the same way they do to state and local governments who ask for some federal money to help pay for federally mandated programs.

In this case, there is an Air Sununu touch to squeezing first the candidates and now the press: Like the White House chief of staff, Secret Service agents, or their bosses, pay only first-class fare for the dozen or so agents on each chartered campaign plane. That amounts to only a fraction of the real per-passenger costs of planes charted for $30,000 an hour or more. It was the Democrats who complained this time about the unfairness of the campaigns paying the difference, subsidizing the expenses of government employees.

''You're right,'' said the FEC. ''Let the press pay the difference.''

Well, now most of the press is going to just say ''No.'' Correspondents and reporters already pay in proportion to the actual charter costs -- at least double most first-class commercial rates between American cities. The daily air bill of campaign correspondents can run more than $10,000 a day -- that's just for a seat hopping from city to city to hear rehearsed candidates say the same thing and evade the same questions.

It's time to get off the plane, and off the merry-go-round. The press, print and electronic, would be better off doing their own thing. I think the country might be, too. The networks could send one pool crew to follow each candidate and share the pictures as backdrop for their own reporting and analysis.

Both television and newspapers could make their own determinations of the issues of the day, sending out their own people to research and document what they think is relevant about drugs or education or military spending. Then they could ask candidates to respond to those concerns. If the candidates decline or refuse, that's fine -- worth a line in the story or script.

There is nothing particularly new about this; it is really just a role-reversal. Candidates now set up their own ''theme weeks'' or ''theme days'' and refuse to talk about anything else, more or less forcing the press to run candidate-selected images and words. The ideal of modern campaigns is to program and discipline the candidate, and control the press, so that he or she never has to answer any questions at all. The perfect candidate under the current system is nothing more than a walking, talking poster.

What the new campaigns could look like was demonstrated effectively last week by ABC News in a series of reports from Columbus, Ohio, on the neglect of children in the United States. The series was important because, in addition to being very well done, it was confronting politicians and other elite Americans with independent information and images. The sad truth is that usually the great bulk of American news is generated by those politicians standing in front of tame television crews or handing out press releases to Washington reporters with their tails wagging gratefully.

News organizations should not have to pay tribute to the government for the privilege of covering politics. And I don't think most will. Jet journalism was fun, but the price is too high now, and it's not doing any of us much good. Let politicians try the thing most of them dread most: Being alone.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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