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Our Boys On The Bus


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?

'The fact that there are so many gay reporters on the campaign, what is the effect on coverage of gay issues in the campaign?' wonders Charles Kaiser, the media critic and gay historian. 'I suspect the answer is zero. Gay reporters aren't any more likely to raise gay issues than straight reporters, and in many cases are probably less likely to raise them, for fear of being labeled 'that gay reporter.'' Same-sex marriage, don't ask don't tell, the rights of gay men and lesbians to adopt children'they're all issues debated on the campaign trail. In July, for example, John McCain gave an interview to the Times's Adam Nagourney -- in a long-term relationship with his partner -- and a straight colleague, Michael Cooper, in which the candidate defined his stances on many issues. "Mr. McCain, who with his wife, Cindy, has an adopted daughter, said flatly that he opposed allowing gay couples to adopt,' wrote Nagourney and Cooper. ''I think that we've proven that both parents are important in the success of a family so, no, I don't believe in gay adoption,' he said.' What's it like to interview a candidate and be told you're incapable of being a parent?

'How does a woman who has had an abortion, how does she write about a candidate's position on abortion?' replies one reporter. 'Every person covering politics, as a human being, has strong feelings about certain issues. But they have to be able to put those things in a box, to analyze and write as dispassionately as possible about what a candidate is advocating and what that means. I don't think being gay and writing a story about a candidate's position on gay issues is any different than being a straight man who's violently opposed to the death penalty and writing a story about a candidate's positions on capital punishment. It's all part of the process of covering politics.' That ability to turn off your own feelings and attempt to report neutrally is part of what makes these people succeed at major mainstream news organizations. But, still, hearing a candidate tell you that his position is counter to something you believe in is different than hearing a candidate tell you his position is counter to you.

'It's definitely an issue on the issue of gay marriage,' says a different reporter. 'There are a lot of issues you cover as a reporter where you pretend like you don't have opinion on it. But on this one, you can't pretend to be an objective observer.' So what do you do then, interviewing, say, a Republican candidate pushing an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment. 'You just ask the question,' he continued. 'It goes unsaid. They might be thinking, 'Oh, I'm saying something that offends this gay guy.' And you might be thinking, 'That offends me.' But it never really gets articulated. Now, am I as quick to talk about the fact I'm gay with sources in Republican campaigns as I am with sources in Democratic campaigns? Definitely not. It doesn't come up, and I don't force that awkwardness.'

'It's kind of like, there are gays everywhere,' says one of the reporters, 'and I keep hoping we're going to move beyond the, 'Look, there are gay teachers,' 'Look, there are gay political reporters.'' Essentially, we have. Through the early '90s, The New York Times was one of the most homophobic news organizations in the country; when Arthur Sulzberger Jr. became publisher, in 1992, he immediately changed that culture, and today its most marquee political reporters are gay. Reporters' sexuality isn't an issue to the campaigns, agreed everyone I talked to, even to conservative Republican ones. There aren't cliques of 'the gay reporters' on the planes and buses -- assigned seating is by type of news organization, which means the stratification is more class-conscious (a reporter from The New York Times is going to hang out with reporters from other big-city papers, thank you very much, not with one from the Cedar Rapids Gazette. ) But there's one way the gays do remain removed from much of the rest of the press corps.

'A campaign is a very conventional, very heterosexual environment,' one reporter says. 'And at the same time, it's an extremely oversexed environment. There's the whole wheels-up-rings-off culture' -- when the plane takes off, the wedding rings are ignored. There's a long tradition of flings, affairs, and liaisons among reporters cooped up with only each other for so much time. 'It's weird,' the reporter continued. 'You realize that people are married and they're sleeping with someone on the campaign. It just happened, because they're at the end of these long days in what is a highly sexed environment.' The gay reporters are, of course, in that same environment, and they're not immune. But the numbers are stacked against them. 'I think the gay guys are left out of that,' he says, maybe a touch wistfully, 'because there are fewer of us.'

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