Our Boys On The Bus
By Jesse Oxfeld
The seemingly interminable 2008 presidential campaign, which will finally come to an end Tuesday, had its first official stop in Iowa, where the caucuses were held on January 3 of this year. The national press corps had spent the previous few weeks camped out in that snowy state, and on the last night of 2007 a crowd of young reporters were celebrating New Year's Eve at a gay bar in the East Village -- that is, at The Garden, in the trendy East Village of Des Moines, Iowa. This crew -- a CBS producer, a reporter for The New York Times, two guys covering the campaign for Logo -- were part of the gay minority of reporters on the campaign trail.
Every four years, a small, insular world of political reporters develops, a cadre of journalists who eat, sleep, and travel with the people who are trying to be president. In his seminal 1973 study of this ecosystem, Timothy Crouse dubbed them 'The Boys on the Bus,' the newspaper correspondents and wire reporters and magazine writers and television personalities and photographers and cameramen and producers who travel with each campaign for weeks and months at a time, staying in mediocre hotels and pecking away at laptops and shuffling out of bed to catch early morning planes to wherever the candidate wants to go next. There isn't necessarily a higher-than-average population of gay men among this group, but there are a good number in very prominent jobs.
The chief political correspondent for The New York Times since 2002, Adam Nagourney, is gay, as is his predecessor in that job, Rick Berke, who started in the paper's Washington bureau in 1986 and is now a top-level editor in New York. Likewise the Times's lead Barack Obama reporter, Jeff Zeleny, its lead Hillary Clinton reporter, Patrick Healy, and the man who ambled behind George W. Bush in 2000, Frank Bruni, now the paper's restaurant critic. (Jeremy Peters, a rising star in the Albany bureau, occasionally joined the campaign crew for those nights out at The Garden and Des Moines's two other gay bars, the delightfully named Blazing Saddle and Frat House.) There's Michael Finnegan, a campaign heavyweight at the Los Angeles Times, and Jonathan Darman, Newsweek's 27-year-old wunderkind political scribe; there's Candy Crowley's producer at CNN, Mike Roselli, his fellow CNN producer Chris Welch, who was the network's off-air in Iowa, and producers from CBS's The Early Show, ABC's Nightline, and, of course, Logo.
It's hard to overestimate how all-encompassing, how time-consuming, how life-consuming the job of covering a presidential campaign can be, especially in an era when presidential campaigns now start two years before the actual election. The major papers, the big networks, the cable news channels, they each have their own coterie of people following all the major candidates -- Obama and Clinton and McCain and, in the early days of the race, John Edwards and Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani and so on -- starting well before the Iowa caucuses. The reporters can spend weeks or even months at a time on the road, tailing one candidate nonstop or moving between candidates as their news organizations want coverage of the different contenders. They'll often return home to New York or Washington after an extended reporting swing only to learn they're expected back on the road, in a different state, maybe with a different candidate, just a day or two later. There's no regularity, no predictability; your time is not your own. It's a job for young people, or at least for people otherwise unencumbered by the trappings of Ward-and-June suburban life.
'I think part of it is that a lot of gay men don't have children back home, family responsibilities back home,' says a gay veteran of two campaign trails. (Journalists, ironically, are among the sources most reluctant to talk to reporters or be quoted; none of those who would speak to me would do so on the record.) 'If they're in long-term relationships with partners, the partners are high-powered career guys as well, so they're each doing their own thing. I don't know if there's something in the genes that attracts us to politics, but I do think our lifestyles create time, space, a certain sense of freedom.'
It's a job that requires you to have some of the attributes of a loner -- few commitments, an ability to pick up and disappear from your life -- without having the personality of a loner. You have to be social enough and socially adroit enough to read people, talk to people, and get them to talk to you. 'Is it a total surprise to me, if I were to go and look at it analytically, that gay guys want to be political reporters, and might excel at it?' asks another reporter. 'No. Because to be a good political reporter you have to be interested in power and sophisticated in seeing where it works and how it shifts. And I buy into the theory that growing up as a kid who feels different, you get to be very sophisticated about where power is, just in your own experience. You feel outsiderish, and you have that critical perspective.'
It's also a glamour job -- inasmuch as any ink-stained gig can be glamorous -- that keeps you close to high-profile people. 'I think a lot of gay men are attracted to that boldface-namey thing,' says a gay reporter who has covered presidential campaigns. 'My guess is that if you did a canvass of gay male journalists who are on-air or who are writing -- so I'm taking out copy editors and producers and that sort of thing -- you would find them gravitating toward spotlighty things. To me, that's one of those things gays appreciate, is life on the public stage.' These reporters, he's suggesting, have a fascination with life lived in public, and they like having their own place on that stage. 'I think that the theater of politics is of real interest to political reporters,' says one of them. 'And a lot of gay reporters are theater junkies as well. The candidates are divas, larger-than-life personalities, and I think there's a definite appreciation for those characters.' What was never-give-up Hillary, after all, if not an electoral Mama Rose?