On the Trail: Plane Thoughts
My days and nights aboard "Responsibility One."


Rich Lowry

I’ve just gotten off the Bush plane and Ramesh Ponnuru is now flying the National Review banner on “Responsibility One” (see his reports on NRO). So, what’s it like?

The plane is a huge jet, packed to the gills. It has an Aeroflot, disorderly feel to it. When I first got on a few days ago and looked in one of the overhead bins, one journalist laughed: “Oh no, get used to having your bags on your lap.” Every nook is taken on the plane, which is sort of a flying FAA violation.

Every rule that you hear about on normal flights is flouted. People sometimes do not sit down during takeoffs and landings, let alone buckle their seat belts (the outrage!). Bags are strewn everywhere. People merrily talk on their cell phones during takeoffs.

The back compartment is devoted to the cameramen, who are the rowdy, working-class guys. They’ve taped photos and signs on the cabin walls, so their area looks a little like a dorm room. During flights they are likely to break out into showtunes or songs like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” When the plane lands, they all yell in unison like we’re about to crash until we’re safely touched down: “Ohhhhhhhh-ahhh.”

Food is constantly available — various foodstuffs (usually fried) on the plane, and the inevitable tiny cubes of cheese and cold cuts on the ground. None of it is especially high quality. Once I walked to the very back of the plane to see the pasta that had just been offered to us being summarily thrown in the trash by the flight attendants. It’s a little disconcerting that your food is so close to being garbage.

The routine is deadening. Get on the bus in the morning to the plane. Fly somewhere. Take a bus to the rally. Take the bus back to the plane. Fly somewhere again. And repeat over and over again. One late afternoon we took an hour flight from Michigan to Pittsburgh. Then a two-hour bus ride to Morgantown. Then a two-hour bus ride back to Pittsburgh. Then an hour plane ride back to Michigan. Morgantown wasn’t popular with anyone that day.

Given the routine, everyone tends to bored and fatigued. That’s why something like the DUI story whips up such a frenzy — because it’s different. After all the discomfort and rotten food and dreary grind, it reminds most reporters why they’re on this plane in the first place — to sink a Republican presidential candidate.

Dearborn, Mich., Ford Park, Saturday, 11 A.M.
Dick Cheney and Colin Powell referred to DUI-Gate at a rally here. Cheney called it “typical dirty tricks” and cited it as another reason to vanquish Clinton-Gore from public life.

“The wheel has turned,” he said, in a reprise of his convention litany, “and it’s time for them to go.”

A spirited Powell urged the crowd “not to be distracted by the sniping at the end of the campaign.”

Bush just gave his typical stump spiel, ignoring the flap which he has mentioned at only one event — a Michigan rally yesterday. The strategy seems to be having surrogates like Cheney and Powell take it on for him and vouch for his leadership and character, while Bush stays above it all and hopes it goes away.

The problem with this approach may be that it doesn’t do enough to change the story line, to give the press something else to fasten on to. For now, of course, they’re still fixated by DUI-Gate, and chortled at a protester’s sign outside the rally here: “Go Home Bush. Just Don’t Drive.”

Morgantown, WV, Morgantown High School, Friday, 9 P.M.
What can you say? Pom-poms, shrieking, chants, waves of adoration. Another typical Bush rally here tonight. After 24-hours straight of the DUI story, maybe it’s time for some substantive observations:

Kyoto. The Bush campaign refuses to try to take advantage of Gore’s support of this treaty. It’s unclear why it hasn’t — it would be easy, as Gov. Cecil Underwood demonstrated tonight: Just talk about how many jobs it would cost to implement. As it stands now, Kyoto may help deliver West Virginia, but otherwise it has been a neglected arrow in Bush’s quiver.

Targeted Tax Cuts. This was supposed to be one of the great Clinton-Morris innovations-defusing the tax issue by proposing targeted credits that are a kind of social spending. But Bush seems to be effectively battling back against this tactic, by emphasizing middle-class families that are in circumstances that deny them targeted relief. This is the point of the “tax families” Bush trots out at every campaign stop; they get thousands of dollars in relief under his plan, none under Gore’s. This is the practical bottom-line argument against targeted cuts, but Bush also makes a principled argument. He makes it sound un-American that Gore would pick and choose who are the “right people” to get tax cuts: “In American, everyone is a right person,” is always a big applause line.

Social Security. Bush could be losing the debate on this one on the airwaves. But he has a pretty good, compact argument for his reform on the stump, with several different components:

1) Security — Bush first assures audiences that seniors will get their benefits, because “a promise made is a promise kept.”

2) Idealism — Bush says that he knows that it’s dangerous to touch the “third rail,” but he’s running for a reason, as a noble mission.

3) Newness — Bush knocks Gore’s attacks as “old-style” politics, tapping into the hunger for a “fresh start” in Washington.

4) Winning — Bush says that the Democratic scare tactics won’t work: “not this year, not this time,” a boast that goes over well with GOP audiences anxious to hear confidence.

5) The Young — Bush portrays himself as the advocate of young people, of a new generation that he doesn’t want to bury under onerous payroll taxes.

6) Rate of Return — Bush always makes the point that private investment will lead to a better rate of return, and help save the system.

7) Property — Ultimately, Bush says, “it’s your money,” so people should be able to keep a portion of their payroll taxes and build their own assets.

Nation-building. It’s not popular with Republican audiences, which always applaud Bush’s line that one of the things he worries about is that Gore mentions the words “nation-building and the military in the same sentence.” These are audiences that appreciate a fierce bottom-line approach to the armed forces. As Bush said in his military speech today, “Whenever America uses force in the world, the cause must be just, the goal must be clear, and the victory must be overwhelming.”

En Route Morgantown, WV, Aboard the Bush Press Bus, Friday, 7 P.M.
We still don’t really know how the DUI story is playing. But I have a theory — tentative, maybe a little wacky, maybe flat-out wrong. But since two hours on a bus from Pittsburgh to Morgantown is a little dull and lonely, I’ll share it. I call it the Yeltsin effect, and it goes like this. Every time Boris Yeltsin did something truly boorish, usually involving public drunkenness, his standing with the Russian public improved (this might be a slight exaggeration, but let’s assume it’s true for argument’s sake). Now, this obviously isn’t Russia. But there’s a chance that, in a similar way, the news of Bush’s beer-fueled misconduct 24 years ago will increase his regular-guy quotient.

Certainly if you compare the youthful indiscretions of the two candidates, Bush comes out ahead. Bush drank too much beer while hanging out with professional athletes. Gore smoked pot and talked about Heidegger. Most of the public is more likely to identify with the Bush experience, especially voters in rural, culturally conservative areas. In huge swaths of the country (in fact, pretty much everywhere outside of a few university towns on the two coasts), a session of dope-induced reflections recycled from Harvard seminars comes pretty close to defining aberrant behavior. Now, on the other hand, a few too many Buds — that’s another matter. Well, at least it would be if there is such a thing as a Yeltsin effect.

Saginaw, Mich., Saginaw Valley State University—Ryder Center, Friday, 2:30 P.M.
George W. Bush often says that Al Gore is “of, by, and for Washington, D.C.” Well, the DUI story is of, by, and for the media.

No one seriously thinks that a DUI 24 years ago has any bearing on Bush’s ability to be president. This is exactly what they invented the phrase “non-story” for. It was reported entirely because it was new, not because it had any real relevance. If it were old — if Bush had admitted it a year ago, or even a month ago — no one would be paying any attention. It’s become a focus precisely because it relieves the media of reporting on substantive issues, which by definition are old and boring.

It also plays into the media’s favorite story line, which is hypocrisy. It’s not really clear what exactly the hypocrisy involved here is, except having the audacity to run for president as a Republican after having been arrested 24 years ago. Bush has always been open about his reckless youth. Then, there is the idea that he lied, making him “Clintonian” and a hypocrite for implicitly criticizing Clinton’s conduct in office. But this is rather attenuated, since when asked about it most directly — in the 1998 interview (see report below) — Bush more or less owned up to it (in a non-answer that seems meant to have been readily interpreted as a “yes”).

The Wayne Slater interview, meanwhile, is murky — a prematurely terminated exchange that Slater himself says is incomplete. Slater says he has the feeling that Bush was about to correct himself before Hughes intervened. This is supposed to sink a presidential candidacy? This is supposed to be comparable to lying repeatedly under oath?

There’s another reason the press loves the story, which is that it pits one of their own — Slater — against the Bush campaign (which is making vague noises about Slater misinterpreting the exchange). “Get in trouble, call a reporter a liar,” is how one reporter summed up the situation. For the press, nothing is quite so true and just as a reporter — genuflections, please!

Slater has become a mini-cult figure on the plane, as other reporters urgently consult him. “Slater for president,” says one reporter. “W. is for Wayne,” says another. “Slater’s going to get his own show on FOX,” jokes still another. One of Slater’s colleagues, stands and — mocking Bush’s frenzied press aides who never quite know here Bush will be the next day — says, “Wayne does not, I repeat does not, have his schedule available yet.”

Maybe the DUI story will remind people of Bush’s long wilderness years in a way that won’t be helpful to his candidacy. But, then again, maybe it will just remind people of the solipsistic arrogance of a biased media. I know which I’m rooting for.

Grand Rapids, Mich., Cornerstone College, Friday 11 A.M.
During the course of this campaign, ” Bush said, looking out over a sea of thousands, packed into a fieldhouse here, “it’s become clear that I’ve made mistakes in my life. But I’m proud to tell you that I’ve learned from those mistakes.” Thunderous applause. Pom-poms and signs waving. People stomping on the stands. Chants of “We want Bush!” This crowd was as frenzied and enthusiastic as any Bush has addressed in recent days. When he took the podium it was difficult for him to get the crowd to quiet down so he could start speaking, about military readiness — the one phrase you probably won’t hear in any of Bush’s press coverage today.

Milwaukee, Wis., Mitchell International Airport, aboard the Bush plane, Friday, 9:30 A.M.
How does a feeding frenzy start?

With a couple of reporters gathered around Dallas Morning News reporter Wayne Slater on the campaign plane, talking about an interview he had with Bush in 1998 in which Bush apparently said he hadn’t been arrested after 1968. (Although Bush appeared to want to correct himself before Karen Hughes cut him off).

Then, with everyone else asking: What’s going on? Then, a crowd beginning to squeeze around Slater in the aisle, and more and more people trying to get near him. Then, with word being passed down about the 1998 incident.

Then, with Karen Hughes headed from the front of the plane back to Slater, and camera crews rushing up the aisle like a phalanx of gladiators, shoving people aside to try to record the confrontation.

The frenzy is on.

Hughes apparently first suggested that the Slater-Bush conversation may have been off the record, but when Slater disputed that she dropped that line of attack. She then just questioned Slater’s account in a way that wasn’t entirely clear.

Hughes disengaged, and reporters were still standing talking to one another as the plane was about to take off, prompting a Bush press aide to shout at everyone to sit down.

During the flight, Hughes headed back to the middle of the plane again, with reporters standing on their seats, their heads brushing against the ceiling as everyone tried to listen in. Hughes backed off again, and word was she would hold a press conference on the tarmac when the plane arrived in Michigan.

On the tarmac a tight circle of cameras and boom mikes and reporters holding microphones formed, awaiting Hughes. Excitement charged the air. “I smell blood,” announced one reporter. “Circle the wagons!” said another. “I’m thinking frenzy photo,” said yet another.

Hughes told of an interview in 1996 when Bush had been asked directly if he’d ever been arrested for drinking and had responded: “I don’t have a perfect record as a youth.” Then Hughes blamed Democrats in Maine for leaking the story.

But the reporters wanted to talk about the Slater angle, and Hughes’s answer seemed evasive. “I don’t remember seeing that [interview] in print,” she said — but it did show up in The New Republic. And now it seemed the DUI story had some more legs.

The traveling press, needless to say, is delighted, and the word “Clintonian” is being thrown around a lot — a word that, for them, is only an insult if replied to a Republican.

West Allis, Wis. (outside Milwaukee), Wisconsin State Fair Cattle Barn, Thursday, 9 P.M.
We’re not going to surround him,” Karen Hughes is telling the camera crews and reporters jostling outside a just-concluded Bush rally.

Bush is about to make a statement about his Kennebunkport DUI and Hughes doesn’t want the media hounds circling him like he’s a fox at the end of a long, unsuccessful run. So, the Bushies have set up a straight line of barricades to keep all the reporters in front of Bush, in a relatively orderly manner. But there’s a lot of pushing and craning in anticipation anyway — they don’t call it the Cattle Barn for nothing.

Bush appears, holding hands with Laura. As they come out back door of the arena to face the cameras, very briefly there seems to pass over Laura’s face a look of — what? — fear? weariness? anger? But almost immediately she has a tight-lipped smile as she listens to Bush explain.

Bush has a tiny piece of red glitter caught in his hair, a little reminder of the odd juxtaposition of the night. Inside, he had performed wonderfully before an adoring crowd that had no idea of the breaking story. Then, stepping through a door, he finds himself in a different world entirely: a skeptical crowd that for the moment cares about nothing else except the breaking story.

Bush doesn’t say much, and really what is there to say? He made a mistake.

About an hour earlier, when word of the story first passed from reporter to reporter as the press buses arrived at the Chicago airport (on the way to Milwaukee), the air filled with electricity. Everyone charged over to a spot on the tarmac where Karen Hughes delivered a statement, surrounded in just the way she later wouldn’t want her boss, reading from remarks written on a piece of yellow legal paper.

Reporters are obviously delighted finally to have something to write about besides Bush’s stump speech. But it doesn’t take long for this story to feel a little thin.

The questions to Bush get silly pretty quickly. How many beers did you drink? someone asks. Bush can only smile: “enough to have been in violation of the law.”

Who knows what would’ve been asked if Bush had stayed longer: Were you drinking draft, or bottle? Domestic or foreign?

As we know from impeachment, it is difficult to gauge how the public will react to personal scandal. But it’s difficult to see how this 24-year-old story will hurt Bush. It may even help, especially if the Gore campaign were to have its fingerprints on it in any way.

Even tonight, within the first hour, some of the air seems to be going out of the story. As Bush concludes his brief press conference, a reporter unsuccessfully tries to throw out a last question: “if you kept this secret how does the public know you might not be…keeping…other things…secret…” trailing off, and sounding a bit lame.

Glen Ellyn, Ill. (outside Chicago), DuPage Community College, Thursday, 4:30 P.M.
Dick Cheney joined Bush for a huge outdoor rally here (a crowd over 10,000, according to the Bushies), under a slanting autumnal sun in the college’s courtyard. Cheney did his usual stump routine, which is a little like William Shatner singing in a Priceline ad, so flat-toned it’s almost funny. “This must be Illinois,” he said, in one of those cheerleading lines that warm-up speakers usually shout out at an enthusiastic crowd. Cheney spoke it as if it were a casual observation. It’s as if a cheerleader were to say in the softest tone possible: “Rah.” But Cheney leaves a pleasing impression nonetheless, I think.

He’s not winning Bush any votes. But he is so solid. There is none of that preening enthusiasm of Joe Lieberman, who never knows when to turn the high-fives off. Cheney is fundamentally a football guy (he routinely campaigns outside games), with broad shoulders and a stolid immovability about him. When he talks about the sailors on the U.S.S. Cole, as he did today, he exudes real authority, a serious man for serious business. When he handed over the program to Bush this afternoon, he gave W. the slightest tap on the back, the most extravagant emotional gesture you can imagine him making. And there’s just something reassuring about that, about the fact that there is at least one man left in American public life still comfortable in his emotional reticence.

St. Charles, Mo. (just outside St. Louis), St. Charles Family Arena, Thursday, 1 P.M.
This was a bigger venue than Bush’s other events, an arena that must hold 15,000 or so. Only the lower tier of seats was filled, so the crowd was a little more dispersed than the one, say, at the high school last night. There was a corresponding drop in energy, as Bush worked through his typical stump speech, with a little extra language on health care added in. Bush said that Gore maintains that he wants to get a “step-by-step plan toward universal health care. No. He’s for a hop, skip, and jump toward nationalized health care.” A nice line.

But Bush made a gaffe that you’ll hear about soon. He said Democrats treat Social Security “like it’s some kind of federal program.” Hmmm. He probably meant that his plan would give people their own assets, while Gore’s would maintain as much federal control as possible. But you can just imagine Gore now saying, “No wonder Bush doesn’t want to protect Social Security — he doesn’t even think that it’s a federal program.” Most reporters greeted the Bush mis-step with a smug satisfaction.

The traveling press can’t wait for this sort of thing to happen. One reporter last night before Bush’s event in Des Moines, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, told me how the night-time rally would be more interesting than the other events, since Bush makes his mistakes when he’s tired. After the St. Charles rally today, the tape recorders started whirring as everyone tried to track down other miscues (when they actually find one reporters are as pleased with themselves as Woodward hanging up after talking to Deep Throat). “Did he say ‘agrimony?’” one reporter asked. “No, no, it was ‘acrimony,’” replied another. Oh, well — maybe next time. But Bush did mess up “integral” as something like “ingritable,” prompting the usual knowing (and irritating) hilarity among journalists.

And it’s not even late afternoon yet.

Des Moines, Valley High School, Wednesday, 10 P.M.
W. could have hiccuped and gotten applause. He could have yawned and prompted fervent chants. If he had fallen off the stage Bob Dole-style, it would have prompted marveling at his gymnastic skill, or perhaps a makeshift mosh pit that would have eagerly passed him hand-to-hand over people’s heads.

The remarkable thing about Bush crowds is how much they want to love him. Noticing this phenomenon at the Republican Convention, my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru remarked that Bush could have pledged to nationalize the banks and gotten cheers. This crowd in a Des Moines high-school gymnasium, smaller than the other ones today but at a fever pitch, would have given such a pledge a standing ovation.

Even before Bush’s arrival, as a Ricky Martin song blasted from the sound system, as pounding and deafening as the music at any New York nightclub, the crowd chanted over the din: “Six More Days!” They kept it up when Bush arrived: “That’s the way I look at it too,” he joked. Bush started one of his stock lines about how the surplus is excess money that the government doesn’t need, which is why it’s called… A SURPLUS, the crowd spontaneously interjected in unison, as if it were a well-trained studio audience at a game show. When Bush began his stinging litany of how Gore likes to say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” and how it’s true that, in the case of Medicare reform, rebuilding the military, tax cuts, etc., etc., “We ain’t seen nothing yet,” the crowd was shouting along with the repeated punch line almost immediately. No one outside of Kim Jung Il experiences this kind of eager and disciplined fervor.

This is encouraging for what it says about the intensity of Republican voters this year. Then again, there’s just the slightest worry that this is a strange bubble, that — despite the huge and enthusiastic crowds — there’s no way that the country can possibly be feeling this way about W. But maybe the rest of public only has to feel the slightest bit of this affection toward Bush, and it will be enough. A little should go a long way.

Duluth, Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, Wednesday, 7 P.M.
They must play mean minor-league hockey here. It’s a tiny arena in Minnesota’s “North Country,” full to the rafters, supposedly with a capacity of 10,000. The crowd is so juiced that John Engler and Tommy Thompson, feeling its energy, do unlikely turns as rabble-rousers in their brief introductory remarks. Then, a Minnesota state senator, a Democrat turned Independent and Bush supporter, talks about why “sportsmen” should back Bush, comparing the slow chipping away of gun rights to the proverbial effort to slowly boil a frog. He blurts: “We’re the boiled frogs!” This makes him the talk of the press bus afterward, as reporters are bemused by the frog analogy and, of course, can’t imagine anything quite so ridiculous as the right to bear arms. (In the current New Yorker, Joe Klein sounds indignant that voters in places such as Michigan and Pennsylvaniamake it impossible for Gore to push what’s right and true, gun control, more aggressively — these damn elections!)

Bush owns the arena from the moment he steps out into one of the upper rows, in front of a huge American flag, and makes his way down the steps toward the microphone. He has become quite adept at mixing and matching his traditional lines with the new bits that have been written for him. Almost every riff is a success, on Social Security, on education, on the military, on taxes. W. must say that taxes are the people’s money and that he trusts the people, not the government about a dozen times. What sounds new to me — although I’m told he’s been saying it for a while — is crediting the Reagan tax cuts for the current prosperity, and suggesting that cutting marginal rates now will, in a similar way, give the economy a “second wind” (this was a notion that he hit in his prepared remarks earlier in Minneapolis).

Bush also criticizes the irresponsibility of fathers who abandon their families, a theme that he has sounded in the past but isn’t part of his regular routine. “That’s not the definition of a man in America,” he says, getting a warm reaction from the crowd. It’s something he should say more often, as it fits with his advocacy of a “new responsibility era” and also sounds a stern note about the culture’s crisis of manliness. Altogether it’s a fine performance from Bush, all the nicer because it’s delivered in such an unlikely place — foggy and rainy northern Minnesota, six days before the election.

Minneapolis Airport, Sun Country Terminal, Wednesday, 3 P.M.
Michael Barone has a (typically) brilliant piece in the current U.S. News arguing that the electoral map looks so different this year, because Democrats have gained major ground in metropolitan areas while Republicans have in turn picked up support in rural America. Barone posits that the cultural positions of the parties are driving this dynamic. At Bush’s rally this afternoon in Minnesota — yes, Minnesota! — that certainly seemed to be the case, at least during the warm-up. The Oak Ridge Boys provided the entertainment, their lead singer sporting a long white ZZ Top beard. They sang — and forgive me if I have the titles a little wrong — “My Baby Is American Made,” “Thank God for Kids,” and “Elvira.” Yes, the Democrats can have unhip entertainment at their events too. But the slogan here might have been, “We’re cornier than they are!” It would have been enough to make the blood curdle in anyone from New York, Washington, or L.A. Go Bush-Cheney!

The crowd was large, several thousand packed in an airplane hangar, and they shrieked when Bush’s plane edged into sight right outside. Bush delivered an extremely tough attack on Gore’s tax and spending plans. A huge banner hung behind him with the words, probably about 100 feet long, “Bringing America, Together.” So, Bush was killing Gore — but doing it nicely. Near the beginning of his remarks he unfurled a 20-foot-long list of Gore’s spending proposals, “because it’s a little hard to remember it all.” Then he attacked Gore as an old-style big spender who would endanger the nation’s prosperity — an extremely important message for Bush (as Larry Kudlow and others have argued on NRO). Let’s cut to the videotape:

“These are not the policies of the 1990s. These are the same policies that threatened our economy in the 1970s. And when Ronald Reagan changed those policies in the 1980s [big applause], my opponent was there, opposing him. In 1981, the vice president voted in favor of a 70 percent top income tax rate. If his views and vote had prevailed, a family of four, making $50,000, would pay three times more in federal income taxes than they pay today [boos].

“That’s not all. Twelve times while in Congress, Al Gore was rated a ‘big spender’ by the National Taxpayers Union. Three of those times, he earned the worst rating of any member of Congress.

“Considering the competition, that’s quite an achievement [laughter].”

It was an effective speech, although not necessarily a rabble rouser — it had as many boo lines as applause lines. People did pretty much boo on cue. But W. is still not a natural performer at the podium, and he improvised for too long at the beginning of the speech, and then at the end too — taking a little of the air out of it. Before he had pledged to “restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office,” some people were heading toward the exits to beat the traffic, like the eighth inning of a Dodgers game. But that may not matter so much — as long as that list makes the evening news.