Just before the doors to the press bus close with a sigh, a tall, tanned man with weathered skin leaps aboard and walks to the rear.
He is wearing a brown suit with a carefully folded white handkerchief in the pocket. His dark hair is slicked back. It is 1976. He is Ronald Reagan, and he is running for president.
His presence on the press bus — virtually unheard of for a candidate today — does not attract any special attention. Reporters fill the air of the bus with the clack, clack, clack, ping, zip of their portable typewriters.
The bus begins to roll and one by one the reporters go back to talk to Reagan. Finally, I am the only one who has not spoken to him. The press secretary looms over me in my seat.
“C’mon,” he says. “Time to talk to the governor.” (Reagan had been governor of California.)
“Think I’ll skip it,” I mumble. “Don’t really have anything to ask him.” It was my first campaign and I was very nervous.
“You’ve got to go back there,” the press secretary says. “The governor will be hurt if you don’t.” He is serious.
I unfold myself from my seat and follow him.
Reagan greets me warmly. He has an easy smile and long laugh lines that crinkle his face.
“Is there something you would like to ask me?” he says.
I paw through the pages of my notebook, which are limp with sweat. Reagan’s favorite issue is the Panama Canal and how Jimmy Carter wants to give it back to Panama.
At each stop, Reagan says one of three things about the canal:
“We bought it, we paid for it, we built it, and we intend to keep it.”
“We built it, we paid for it, it’s ours and we are going to keep it.”
“We built it. We paid for it. It’s ours.”
I flick through my damp notes. Um, um, I say. Um, how do you feel about the Panama Canal?
Reagan’s face brightens. He leans forward and speaks to me with the utmost seriousness. “We built it,” he says. “We paid for it. It’s ours.” He then leans back in his seat.
Great, I say. Thanks a lot. Really.
I get up and he stops me to shake my hand. “Nice meeting you,” he says sincerely. “I’m sure we’ll do this again.”
And we do. Day after day. (I learn to ask slightly more complex questions.) And nearly every day, Reagan also holds a full-fledged press conference at which reporters can ask him anything.
This, too, has gone the way of the carrier pigeon, the great auk, and the woolly mammoth. These days, candidates have advisers and coaches and pollsters. What they lack is guts.
They hide from the press whenever possible.
Today, covering a presidential candidate means never having to say you saw him.
Ronald Reagan railed against a number of things including communism, big government and high taxes. But I never heard him rail against reporters. He was not a blame-the-press president.
Flash-forward to Nov. 6, 1992. This is how my column begins:
“After one of George (H.W.) Bush’s last campaign speeches, Torie Clarke, his spokeswoman, climbed onto the press bus to answer a few questions.
“As we pulled away, Clarke gazed out the window onto a familiar sight: Crowds of people shaking their fists at the media.
“‘I hate it when I ride with you guys,’ she said with a sigh. ‘I’m always afraid someone will throw a Molotov cocktail.’
“She was kidding. A little.
“At nearly every stop in the last weeks of his campaign, George Bush would bash the media.
“Attacking the media was good politics. Just like Willie Horton had been good politics. A scapegoat had to be found to explain the lousy poll numbers. And the media were convenient.”
At the time, I interviewed a photographer who told me how he had been standing by a cyclone fence taking pictures of Bush, when a man reached over the fence, grabbed the photographer’s hair and slammed the photographer’s head into the fence.
“He kept yelling, ‘Get an honest job, get an honest job.’ I thought it was bad when they just spat on us,” the photographer said. “But this was worse.”
In Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, a large crowd awaited us. Two yellow ropes created a gauntlet for us to walk through.
A gray-haired gentleman leaned over the rope line and waved his small American flag in my face.
“Scum!” he yelled at me. “You scum!”
Bush walked out and delivered what had become his stock line.
“Annoy the media!” he shouted. “Re-elect George Bush!”
The people did not re-elect George H.W. Bush, but now just about everybody — including me — has warm feelings about him.
I actually had forgotten about his incidents with the press and only stumbled across them when I was looking for columns about how presidential campaigning has changed and how attacking the press has become a tactic that guarantees cheap applause and maybe a point or two in the polls.
Recently, Donald Trump said of reporters: “They’re scum. They’re horrible people. They are so illegitimate. They are just terrible people.”
Some of the Republican candidates want debate moderators who will be easy on them — or else.
“I’m not going to allow them to ask stupid questions,” Chris Christie said recently. (Maybe he knows some guys.)
Today, Republicans invoke the name Ronald Reagan as if he were a god. But they forget how he actually behaved. Reagan, for all his faults, had something today’s candidates lack: a spine.
He did not quiver like a bowl of Jell-O or whine when asked a “gotcha” question.
A gotcha question is one that seeks to reveal a difficult truth.
So you can see why today’s candidates are so afraid of them.
Roger Simon is Politico’s chief political columnist. His new e-book, “Reckoning: Campaign 2012 and the Fight for the Soul of America,” can be found on Amazon.com, BN.com and iTunes. To find out more about Roger Simon and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com COPYRIGHT 2015 CREATORS.COM
Photo: Roger H. Goun via Flickr