Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Pay Attention!

As the plane began to taxi, I called Iris’ cell number. I had tried the apartment, no answer, and I figured she must still be in the Sophie-Mobile, cruising New York’s fashionable East side, looking for a parking spot. She picked up on the fourth ring, no doubt contravening the NY ban on hand held cell usage. We bought BlueTooth devices at a streetfair three months ago, (suitably cheated by a gentleman of indeterminate origin who assured us they really WERE Motorola, not just knock-offs packaged in cheap imitation wrappings) but neither of us feels particularly comfy with them, though we’d both like to use them as an example to our mothers that hearing devices hung on your ear are actually socially acceptable. She had that “I’m in the car, what’s doin?” tenor as she affirmed that a parking spot was on her shopping list.

My question was simple: “ What’s the worst thing that can happen to a Press person on the campaign?” Obviously when that THING happens to you, you are immediately aware of it. You feel like a total schmuck. Like a beginner in Journalism, someone who, if the word got out to PHOTO-J classes at the University of Ohio, your next visit there would be one of mocking rather than adoration. [We prefer adoration, just in case that isn’t clear.] She pondered for a second, spying, I’m sure, a possible parking spot 4 lanes of traffic away, the navigation to which would require all her immediate motor skills (and I do mean Motor), and I could sense her level of concentration about my situation was competing with something far more compelling for her. “Well, OK,” I said, deciding that since the high efficiency turbo jets were spooling up, I didn’t have days and days to recount my misfortune. Not that it would engender any immediate sympathy. Iris has been running campaign events for years, and I have always shared her mirthful disdain of those who just cannot seem to cut it. (i.e. today: Me!)

Cutting to the chase: the answer to that question: “Missing the Motorcade.” The mere typing of those letters causes further palpitations to a heart just half an hour ago strained heavily by an unscheduled ½ mile run. I just re-joined the John McCain campaign this morning (it’s Tuesday, exactly two weeks away from the Election) for the next few days trying to capture some of the electricity and energy of his campaign. And there is plenty. But one of the keys to photojournalism is actually SEEING the event happen. Yes, it is much harder for us photographers to phone it in, capture the essence of a rally later at the bar, or find out from colleagues what me missed and roll it into our stories. No, we actually have to witness it. That usually requires being not only in the same state and city as the candidate, but even the same venue, or room. If you are outside and hear the cheering, that is NOT a picture. Well, I guess it could be, but I’m just not sure how. No, we need to be there. Key to that is, I repeat, not missing the motorcade. For those of you who haven’t actually had the pleasure, the motorcade is the string of vehicles starting and ending with police cars, lights flashing in most cases, which then has security vans, the candidate (these days usually in a GMC SUV), and an assortment of 8 and 14 passenger vans which carry the Press Pool (the smaller, always-present group of TV/photo/writers) and a big bus with the rest of the Press. There is an inviolate order in which these vehicles run, so accidents don’t happen. And like most things in a campaign, the characteristics are determined by those at the top, and the attitudes slink downhill to everyone else. If you have a candidate who is a no-messing around kind of person, who likes to leave and arrive right on schedule, then the rest of the motorcade will react in that fashion. (George W Bush is always on time or early, and his motorcades are snappily like that. Bill Clinton wasn’t on time even once in 8 years. He was always distracted by things along the way, and the motorcades reflected that behaviour. The thing is, even if it is running late, when the “Principal” decides to move, everyone else reacts like the business end of a bullwhip.)

Former Navy flier John McCain has a little of that “don’t mess around, let’s get going” attitude. And when he is ready to go, the last thing he wants to do is wait for someone like me, for no matter how extraordinarily talented I may think I am, it isn’t MY motorcade.

So today, when I left the college field house where the rally for McCain had taken place, I did so with deliberate speed, not wanting to be one of those dorks who has to add “I was left behind at a Presidential Rally” to their personal resume. I got outside, having not dawdled [Editor’s Note: I am often accused by my very organized spouse of dawdling, and while I can admit that from time to time I actually do dawdle, today, in all honesty, I was dawdle-free.] only to find no sign of any of the aforementioned Press Vans. Like home burglaries where it is sometimes difficult to see right away what has been taken, judging a sense of negative space can be challenging. It’s not like they moved the Motorcade just to fool me. Sometimes you need to double check which door you entered the event, and go out that one, so you don’t get lost. But today I went out the right door, asking a Uniform Secret Service cop.. “Is the motorcade that way?” She said it was, but then what was her personal investment in making sure I made my way home? Probably not huge. She may have just been trying to be nice. In any case, outside on a gorgeous autumn day in Western Pennsylvania, I looked and looked and looked. No vans, no cops, no SUVs. It reminded me of the time I took Jordan Kai, then 4, to a big box store, just the two of us, to run a few errands for household supplies. She was at that age when she loved to play hide and seek. And she hid in a long row of dresses, so long that she really couldn’t be seen. I started looking for her, unaware of the game at hand. I softly spoke her name, then increasing in volume began running around the giant aisles, trying to find her. She was very good at the game. I was very frightened at the fact that I may have somehow lost my child at the mall. I kept yelling her name. No answer. Again, the sense of negative… the absence of her, was so hard to pin down, yet fright began to envelope my person as if I’d been dipped in a vat of liquid worry. She finally decided she’d had enough, and wandered tearful to the Help desk where they paged me, and moments later we had an emotional reunion. Neither of us has ever forgotten that sinking feeling.

Today, I knew I was in trouble. No van. No SUV. No Jordan Kai. I really was striking out. A young well-barbered Advance kid walked by (they have the clip on “I belong here” buttons, and a radio in his ear), the kind of Advance kid that even though he was of the other party, Iris would have loved. Not only accepting my plight as a challenge, but vowing to make good on delivering me, he flagged a colleague with a car, and in we piled. “How bad do you want me to drive?” the young driver asked. Confident but not cocky. I liked his attitude. “As bad as you feel comfy with, as long as you don’t kill us.” I realized that was a wide open writ, and he jumped at the chance to make it happen. Left turns from right-hand lanes, flashers ablaze, skipping red lights when there was no traffic. This was my kind o’ guy. He should be recruited for The Amazing Race, for he seemed to understand that little tactical advantages can be leveraged into major strategic gain. I’d sent a thumb –twadled email to Kimmie of the campaign saying “(Gulp) I missed the motorcade, making all efforts to arrive before plane leaves…” just so they would know to expect me IF I could get there in time. We arrived at the private terminal within five minutes, and I saw that while the rear stairs door was closed, the front one (the one the Candidate uses) was still open. We scooted through the small lobby and out onto the tarmac where several Secret Service agents, obviously made aware that a desperate photographer was soon to arrive, guided me up the stairs. I’d made it. I survived missing the Motorcade (a Bumper Sticker, anyone?) I walked past the Senator and Cindy, sitting up front, nodded that “Gee, I’m quite appreciative you didn’t get the hell out of Dodge without me” look and made my way to row 14 where I now write, en route to Manchester, New Hampshire.

The thought of having had to recapture the route (I’m sure there are NO direct flights Pitt-Mht) made me ill, and I cannot tell you how good it felt to drop my butt into a nice leather seat, just as the engines were getting revved.

Once, in 1988, on a Reagan trip to Moscow (remember Glasnost?) we’d made a refueling stop in somewhere like Helsinki. Everyone got off that plane for a half hour to stretch their legs. We were warned not to be tardy. After we’d all reboarded, some 200 of us, and the engines started, and doors closed, it became apparent that one amongst us was no longer present. Looking out on the tarmac, on the right side of the plane was a small diminutive figure, arms waving in almost cartoon like desperation. It was a correspondent from one of the Japanese papers, dressed in a dark suit. He must have dawdled in the Men’s room a little too long. Everyone in the plane craned necks out the right side windows, watching to see what would happen. It would take fifteen minutes to shut down engines, bring the stairs back, and open the door. Had it been Sam Donaldson or Johnny Apple, you knew they would have done it. But here was a hapless Japanese correspondent, unknown to virtually everyone on the plane, a man who had yet proved to his boss that he would be worthy of the select job of White House Correspondent. A man of great talent, no doubt. But at that moment, he was just a poor well-dressed slob, a guy who couldn’t cut a break. The trip director said “sorry”… and off the plane went. I have often pondered what the big press plane must have looked like to that poor guy, as he saw his future, his reputation, and possibly his job lumber out to the end of the runway, and then disappear in a dusty roar overhead. I’ll keep wondering just what he felt, I guess, for while I came ---] [--- close to having the same experience, I am actually writing this as the plane is descending into Manchester. Another tiny victory and personal disaster averted. Thanks to the Advance kids Don and didn’tGetHis name. But as we ran towards the plane, I yelled to him “you get extra credit in school today, young man!” And I meant it. We’re just sayin…. David


Justin Sullivan said...

Burnett missed the motorcade? What?!?!?

You're kidding, right?

MGR said...

"suitably cheated by a gentleman of indeterminate origin who assured us they really WERE Motorola"

now... i really don't understand how a stereotypical "cheap Jew" in justified by stereotyping a "faceless foreigner" trying to rip him off while back alley shopping.