NPR Reporters Reflect On Campaign

They've traveled by bus and by plane from New Hampshire to California, and every state in between. From caucuses to state fair speeches, NPR's political reporters have been on the road for almost two years. On Tuesday, it will all be over.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered, I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Now that the campaign is pulling to the finish line, all those reporters who trailed the candidates have visions of home in their heads. For more than 20 months, they've been hopping on and off buses and planes and travel vans, sleeping in endless hotels, eating at restaurants they can't even remember, listening to the same stump speeches so many times that they can practically recite every word by memory. NPR's political team has covered every twist and every turn in the dramatic presidential race. And before they step off the trail, we wanted to check in with three of our campaign road reporters for a final debrief before Election Day.

Scott Horsley is traveling with the John McCain campaign. Before that he was assigned to cover Mitt Romney. He joins us from Miami. David Greene has been covering the Hillary Clinton campaign and then he went on to hopscotch to other candidates and other political reporting. He's in New York. And Don Gonyea has been covering the Barack Obama campaign from day one. He joins us from Jacksonville, Florida. Hello to all of you.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Hi there.

DAVID GREENE: Good to be here, Michele.

DON GONYEA: Good to be with you.

NORRIS: And good to have you all together. Now, we've heard you so many times and from so many places over the course of this very long campaign, but I'm just betting that there are stories and memories that still remain in your notebooks and your recorders that you haven't had a chance to share. And I'm interested in some of those. And David, I want to begin with you. Are there moments that never made it onto the radio that you nonetheless will never ever forget?

GREENE: I guess the one moment, Michele, that still stands out for me is back - this seems like a long time ago - but it was back before Super Tuesday, and I was following Hillary Clinton around. And I mean, she was keeping this crazy schedule of going to, you know, five, six, seven stops in a day. And we landed on Super Bowl Sunday in the evening in Minneapolis at a bar, and I got the chance to interview Senator Clinton in this tiny little manager's office, this cluttered space in the back of the bar. And we spoke for five, ten minutes.

And then she just stayed there. You know, there was this huge crowd out waiting for her to come and greet them, and she looked exhausted, watched the end of the game, and didn't really want to go out for a few minutes and shake more hands. And it was this revealing moment - I think you could probably say this about all the candidates - that they have this game face on all the time, but behind the scenes, I mean, the exhaustion from this long adventure is there. And you know, I felt like I could empathize since I had been following her every step of the way. I kind of wanted to say, you know, Senator, maybe one less stop tomorrow.

NORRIS: Scott, what about you? Is there a memory or a moment that you just wish you could have woven into your reporting that you'd like to share now?

HORSLEY: Well, we did do a story at the time when John McCain attended the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, but I'm not sure we really captured the full flavor of that event. John McCain was in his element. Obviously a lot of Vietnam veterans among the bikers there, and he really seemed to connect with the bikers. This was the sort of the height of the "Drill here, drill now" push that he was making, and there was a lot of revving of Harley Davidson engines. And he was - he just was totally at ease there.

But you've never seen a greater mismatch than the buttoned-down Washington press corps walking into this Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. And we took a lot of good-natured ribbing from the folks. I remember one of the press aides to Senator McCain was given a T-shirt by one of the vendors there, and she slipped it on over her top. And there was some chanting that she was supposed to take her other shirt off first.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: They say that campaigns really sort of peel back and reveal the candidate's true personality. Don, what is it that you've seen in Barack Obama's case?

GONYEA: I've heard others describe it this way, and from watching him, I have to acknowledge that it's an interesting contradiction within the person. I mean, he is the candidate as rock star, no two ways about it, drawing these huge crowds. The people who come to see him, you can see the look on their face like they're just so thrilled to be here, so thrilled to see him, so thrilled to be in his presence. But when you see him up close, you do see kind of, you know, dare I say it, kind of a boring guy. He doesn't seem to have a lot of, kind of, visible quirks. He's not particularly, you know, loquacious when he's coming back and talking to the press. He's very low-key. And the difference between that and the figure people see on the stage is quite stark.

NORRIS: Now, we all know that the Secret Service has special names, nicknames, for the candidates. And the press corps often has a nickname for the candidates, their spouses, sometimes their family members as well. So I'm wondering if you would be willing to share those nicknames with us.

HORSLEY: You know, we don't really have a nickname for Senator McCain. We do have a cardboard cutout of the senator which hangs in the front of the press section of the plane, and that's referred to as Flat Mac because it's a two-dimensional cutout. And recently we added a cutout of Governor Palin, and that's referred to as Paper Palin. But the senator himself was always treated, I think, with respect and called by his full name.

GONYEA: And for Senator Obama, same. I mean, we don't really have a nickname for him. But we all know why we're here, and it's because of him. And he's generally referred to as "he," as in, is he here? Here he comes. He's on the plane. And when you say, he, everybody knows who that pronoun refers to.

GREENE: Yeah, Michele, that would be the real dish if we told you how much strange stuff is going on back in that press cabin in the plane. But with Hillary Clinton there was no real nickname that I knew off, but we did have a list of the color pantsuits that she wore each day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: We were almost able to - based on whatever color she was wearing, know that it was a Wednesday or Thursday.

NORRIS: Anything you all are going to miss?

HORSLEY: I think the memory I'll carry away is from a debate in Iowa in the summer of 2007 over in eastern Iowa. And when the debate was over, the candidates left right away because they had to go to another debate on television in Des Moines the next morning, but the volunteers stayed behind. And these were passionate partisan volunteers from the different camps, and they shared pizza and beer, and then they all worked together to fold up the metal chairs and sweep up the Grange Hall where the debate was held. And you know, one of these guys is going to win this contest and be the president. And then it's going to be up to the rest of us to work together to face the challenges that America faces.

NORRIS: Well, thanks to all three of you not just for this conversation, but for all the months that you spent on the road away from your home and away from your families so you could report on these campaigns for all of us. Thanks so much.

GONYEA: Thank you, it's been fun.

GREENE: Thanks, Michele.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you.

NORRIS: That's Don Gonyea. He spoke to us from Jacksonville, Florida. David Greene is in New York, and Scott Horsley is in Miami.

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