The five-term ex-congressman sits down next to me on the plane and starts right in.
"I guess the press learned its lesson about Bill Clinton," he crows.
I have a rule against striking up conversations on airplanes. They are even more perilous than conversations in bars. Because in bars you can always say: "Sorry, gotta go stick some money in the meter."
Try that on an airplane.
Clinton? I say. What about him?
"All that draft stuff," the guy says. "All that tabloid stuff. The public sent you guys a message."
I must have missed it, I say.
"Look how well Clinton is doing!" the guy says. "That is the public telling you they don't want to hear any more negative stories."
But even if the public is saying that, I say, and there is no way to know, why should that have any effect on the press?
"You mean you don't care what the public wants to hear? Is that what you're saying?" the guy says.
No, I say. But keep in mind that the public didn't want to hear about Watergate. Not at first. Richard Nixon was re-elected after Watergate broke in the press.
So should the press have listened to that message? And stopped pursuing the Watergate story?
"Not the same thing," the guy says.
Why not? I say.
Instead of replying, he reaches into his wallet, takes out a credit card, sticks it into the flight phone and starts dialing.
Which, I guess, is the equivalent of going out to feed the meter.
I suppose I should not be surprised that the public often does not understand what the press does and why we do it. We don't explain ourselves very well.
And during the presidential campaign, we have a tendency to treat the public the same way the candidates treat the public: as props.
At one of George Bush's events in Manchester, N.H., a visit to a popular restaurant, the press throng was so great and the aisles of the restaurant so narrow, that ex-White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, campaigning with Bush, was caught up amid the reporters.
"I'm trapped in the media!" he wailed in horror. "I'm one of them! I'm one of them!"
The White House Pool Report for the event describes the "mostly happy and excited diners" who were crushed by the people around Bush "except one lady who found a press guy standing on her table, with his foot on her fish sandwich. . . . Get off my food, she kept shouting."
This is no joke. It happens all the time. So, in the interests of explaining the press, let me explain the throng.
Except I can't. I really can't explain why so many thousands of reporters cover the presidential campaign except to say that to a political reporter the campaign is what the Super Bowl, the World Series and the Olympics are to a sports reporter.
You just want to be there. Print reporters always went in great numbers, and about eight years ago, when mini-cams and satellites made it possible and affordable, local TV stations started showing up in great numbers, too.
And where does this great throng want to be? As close to the candidate as possible. Which is where the voters want to be. That's why they go to political events.
But who cares about the voters? They can go home and watch it on TV, can't they?
This, more and more, is what the candidates really want. The actual pressing of flesh is limited to a few small states. Elsewhere, candidates assemble crowds only so they will make good TV pictures.
And this leads to a certain callousness toward the public. If you've ever been to a political rally, you've seen it happen:
You wait for two hours for the candidate to show up. You stake out your seat or your chunk of standing room so you can get a good view of the podium. And late but suddenly, the candidate arrives with his entourage. And the reporters, especially the TV cameramen, stand right in front of you.
It drives people crazy. And it makes the public hate us. They don't blame the candidates (which they should; the candidates organize these events). They blame the reporters.
So is the public sending the press a message?
Yes, but it is not about who or what we should investigate.
It is much simpler:
Down in front.