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Q&A: Timothy Crouse
Just in time for Election Day, the author of the 1972 campaign journalism classic The Boys on the Bus talks to us about politics then and now.- November 2, 2004
In 1972, America confidently re-elected a President who lied and manipulated his way to a second term in front of a news media that proved unable—if not outright unwilling—to convey the true balance of the elements at play in the campaign. It would take a kid, fresh out of school and foreign to the insular world of the media, to capture some of the more brazen truths of Campaign '72. It was the year Timothy Crouse would release The Boys on the Bus, a seminal campaign-trail reporting book that marked a turning point in American journalism. Finally, someone was reporting on the reporters. Nobody had thought to do that before.
Crouse was a newbie, out on assignment for Rolling Stone, but he had an almost preternatural grasp of how exactly things worked. As he criss-crossed the country, keeping close watch on Nixon, McGovern, the high-strung hopefuls, and the low-slung correspondents—the grizzled wire veteran, the ambitious college graduates, the ego, the hack, the rising television star—Crouse would use that, in tandem with the tweaked soothsaying of his colleague and friend Hunter Thompson, to convey both the detail and the grand narrative of life on the bus.
Much of Crouse's account seems familiar today, but instead of a centralized, tightly-knit group, the sources have multiplied exponentially. And to a certain extent, the bus doesn't exist anymore—or maybe, to extend the metaphor, we're all on it. Certainly there are reporters following the campaign trail, but only a fraction of today's media content consists of actual coverage of speeches, campaign stops, and press conferences. The majority of news today is a kind of chattering about chatter—stories that fall somewhere between the trivia of daily pools and the truly analytic coverage that was sorely lacking in the 1972 campaign. Are we any better off for it? It's hard to tell.
We recently checked in with Crouse—who, after releasing Boys on the Bus, disengaged from the journalism pack almost entirely—to talk about campaigns old and new.
Every campaign season must seem at once the same and totally different. What seems familiar to you in this campaign season? What is new and strange?
My method in The Boys on the Bus was to assess the coverage I was seeing against what I was witnessing and discovering myself. Since I'm not out on the road, and haven't been for some time, I have no way of doing that now. So far this year, I'm not getting a very clear idea of the generalship behind the two campaigns, and how the ongoing strategies are being formed. Nor have I seen a completely convincing analysis as to how such a huge cultural rift came about in this country. But that may well be because I have so little time these days to follow the coverage—and because I don't have a hooked-up TV and the only publications that I see with any regularity are The New York Times, Harper's, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker. Also National Public Radio.
These have all run their share of substantial reporting on the campaign and the background issues. But it seems that there are only so many reporters who do original work, and a lot more who indulge in a kind of groupthink. (Joan Didion, in The New York Review of Books, is good on this year's reportorial clichés.) What's more, there are only so many thoughtful consumers of news. Louis Menand spoke the unspeakable in his New Yorker piece, "The Unpolitical Animal": According to those who have studied the matter, not a whole lot of voters make their choice according to anything resembling rational analysis.
One similarity I see between this year and 1972 is the ongoing inability of the campaign press to deal with a bully. The bullying tactics haven't changed: lie, intimidate, cover stuff up, and—when the press tries to nail you—cry "bias." Always effective. In 1972, there was a hopeless imbalance between the relative transparency of McGovern's campaign and the toxic opacity of Nixon's, yet the press never managed to make it clear that one side was consistently playing foul. (Just how foul would only sink in after Election Day—although Woodward and Bernstein had begun to blow the whistle well before, to the studied indifference of most of their colleagues.) In my book, I tried to show how this failure came to be committed by reporters who were, as individuals, for the most part neither cowardly nor lazy, but who, as a group, tended to act like lemmings. Then, as now, the press fell back on a supposed even-handedness which amounted to watching one side rabbit-punch the other and pretending it was a fair fight.
This year, one side is again impressively out-lying the other (and with a whole network devoted to spreading the disinformation, something Nixon never had). And again, the press has been awfully slow to point the imbalance out, much less try to redress it. I was heartened to see the alarm sounded the other day by Paul Krugman in the Times: "Mr. Bush's statements... are fundamentally dishonest... Journalists who play it safe by spending equal time exposing his lies and parsing Mr. Kerry's choice of words are betraying their readers." Mark Halperin's reported ABC memo struck me as another sign of intelligent life—especially on the need "not to reflexively and artificially hold both sides 'equally' accountable when the facts don't warrant that." But what, I wonder, has come of these calls, other than predictable grief from the right?
Let's take a step back. How did you first get the idea to do the book? What did it take to get started on the project? You allude to some resistance to your presence in the book, but just barely. How were you received "on the bus"?
As a young Rolling Stone reporter, I'd been doing a lot of music stories, but I wanted to try my hand at political reporting. There was a convocation of the whole Rolling Stone masthead in Big Sur at the start of 1972, and since the only other writer interested in covering the election was Hunter Thompson, I latched onto him. When I showed up in New Hampshire, it was clear that Hunter would be doing the main coverage, so I began looking for a juicy, unexplored subject. It only took a few days of riding the bus for me to see that the reporters themselves would make a great story. With Hunter's enthusiastic sponsorship, I got a green light at the magazine, and was on my way.
A few of the reporters were openly hostile at first, and one or two took me aside to explain what damage I could do to venerable reputations; but a number of them, especially the younger ones, were welcoming, which gave me a wedge. After it became clear that I wasn't going away, nearly all of them opened up to some degree. I guess they assumed they'd be better off if they made their case to me than if they didn't, and since I was more than willing to listen, things worked out. Acquiring historical context took a while, but there were old-timers living around Washington whom I sought out, and I did library research.
Reading the book, it's remarkable how many of the reporters you mention are still familiar to readers today. There's R.W. Apple Jr. of the Times on one page, and David Broder of The Washington Post on the next. Do you keep in touch with any of them?
I wish I saw more of them. Jack Germond and I were going to get together a few weeks ago, but he got stuck behind a highway pile-up and never made it to lunch. For a good, growly assessment of how campaign reporting has changed over the years, by the way, see Jack's book, Fat Man Fed Up.
In a way, your book marks the opening of the media's inward-looking eye, yet it is very unlike most of the navel-gazing that seems to have followed. What do you think about the media's self-obsession—is it essential to gain perspective on a given moment, or is it more often its own form of distraction?
The media, self-absorbed or not, remains a major factor in the political mix, and I'm glad that there are people like Ken Auletta at The New Yorker writing intelligent stuff about it.
But you're no longer a factor. In fact, you seem to be doing anything but journalism—writing short stories, translating a century-old French novel. Why, after writing such a penetrating and groundbreaking book, would you leave journalism, more or less altogether?
I hope to get back to journalism at some point. I'm in contact with various magazine editors off and on, and one of these days I'm sure we'll hit on just the right subject. What happened is that I got pulled away by other pursuits. There are a number of projects (fiction, theatre, translation) that I'm committed to, not only because they interest me deeply but also because the subjects are far enough off the beaten track that I know they'll never get written if I don't write them.
Hunter Thompson once said that he'd watched me getting hooked on politics and was sure I would never miss a national convention for the rest of my life. In fact, I gradually realized that, although politics intrigued me, literature and the theatre had a stronger pull. With hindsight I began to see what hadn't been evident to me at the time—that my attraction to campaign reporters had its roots in certain personal circumstances. My father, Russel Crouse, had been through a whole career as a newspaperman before I was born, by which time he had become a successful playwright. The stories he told me of his newspaper days—especially traveling around the country with prankish sports teams—had a fatal tinge of romance about them. The inception of The Boys on the Bus can probably be traced to the moment in my fifteenth year when, as I stood with my father in the lobby of a Chicago hotel, the doors of an elevator parted, and out stepped the dean of the White House correspondents, Merriman Smith. My father knew him, and as he introduced me, the expression on my father's face—deep respect, combined with what looked like an upsurge of nostalgia for his former vocation—made a lasting mark. My father died when I was nineteen, and I missed him. I think the spark for Boys on the Bus came from a desire to connect with him, and particularly with the exciting realm he had occupied before I came into his life.
Is there any pattern to this flurry of widely varying projects you mentioned?
If there's a pattern, I think it's that I care a lot about literature, and want to come at it from every angle that my skills and talents permit. One project reinforces another, so there's a kind of constant cross-pollination going on in my work. I also like writing for the theatre. I co-authored a new libretto for the musical "Anything Goes" with John Weidman. It was produced at the Royal National Theatre in London in 2002, was a hit, moved to the Drury Lane in the West End, and just closed recently.
You talk about the pull of literature. Tell me about the collection of short stories you have coming out. How long have you been writing fiction? Was this a natural extension of your earlier journalism?
I've been writing fiction for several years now. I'm still working on the short-story book, so I'd like to hold off on characterizing it until it's done. But "Sphinxes," the story that ran in Zoetrope, gives a pretty good idea of what I'm doing.
Journalism provided me with a good foundation in writing prose and strengthened my habit of observing. I'll always remain something of a journalist in that I don't like to invent for the sake of inventing. Reality is just too rich and fascinating. My stories are based on things that happened: the challenge, for me, is to fathom the meaning of these events.
Greg Bloom, a former mediabistro.com intern, is currently engaging in extreme participatory democracy. Tomorrow, he will be unemployed once again. You can buy Boys on the Bus at Amazon.com.
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