When Barack Obama took the oath of office, I had been covering his quest for the presidency for more than 700 days. Many of those days had been like this one: standing in the cold, notebook in hand, with a front-row seat to history.
Reporting on a presidential campaign for a major newspaper like the Chicago Tribune is an amazing experience, especially when it happens to be the candidate’s hometown paper.
But it also is a slog for the candidate, his staff and those who chronicle the race.
For me, it was a journey through 37 states and the District of Columbia – from Hawaii to New Hampshire and Florida to Oregon – during the nearly two years between Obama’s announcement and his move to theWhite House as the nation’s 44th president.
I watched the candidate speak from countless podiums across the country, outlining his plans for how he intended to lead the nation. Several times, my seat was much closer as I conducted one-on-one interviews with him.
Along the way, I experienced a few high-profile moments myself, including when I had both polite and tense exchanges with him before and after his election that were broadcast on national television.
When my editors told me in January 2007 that I would be reporting on Obama’s campaign full time, I knew it was a good assignment. I just didn’t figure it would last so long. After covering presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004, I was well aware of the obstacle course that awaited the freshman Illinois senator.
Obama, after all, was a long-shot when he announced his audacious bid on Feb. 10, 2007, just two years removed from the Illinois Senate.
Most expected the rookie to be outgunned by Hillary Clinton. Initially, I figured odds were good that both he and I would be home shortly after the New Hampshire primary in the opening days of 2008.
But after numerous trips from coast to coast in 2007 – and dozens of days in Iowa – it started to become clear that I might be away from home longer than expected.
While Obama often talked too long (yes, some supporters used to walk out before he was done), those of us who watched him daily could see him gradually getting better as a candidate. He was learning, in real time.
For most of that first year, I traveled by Southwest Airlines and rental car. There was no campaign “bubble” back then to transport the media by chartered plane and bus.
One trip took me to southern California to stake out a major fundraiser held at Oprah Winfrey’s estate, while others took me to places like Florida and New Hampshire.
Despite the logistical challenges, these could well be called the good old days. Before the Secret Service arrived in May 2007, you could still walk up to the candidate after an event and ask him a quick question or make small talk.
There also was a greater sense of freedom. Once the bubble was formed, the timetable for virtually every waking hour was determined mostly by the candidate’s schedule, not my own. Every morning, members of the traveling press were “magged” by the Secret Service and our bags sniffed by a dog (imagine the equivalent of going through airport security each and every morning).
The Tribune assigned three people to cover Obama’s campaign on a full-time basis. I am based in Chicago, while my colleagues are stationed in Washington.
Four years earlier, I had covered Howard Dean’s relatively brief presidential bid and also helped cover Sen. John Kerry and President George W. Bush during the general election. But I had always wanted to report on a presidential campaign, from start to finish.
The experience of covering Dean had made me skeptical of Obama. The former Vermont governor also had attracted huge crowds, money and enthusiasm, before finishing fourth in Iowa and quickly exiting the 2004 race.
Some of my skepticism also was rooted in polling data that showed Obama was struggling to connect with working-class voters. People were curious, but it was hard to tell whether that would convert to commitment.
Obama did seem more introverted than his public persona. Although he could fire up a crowd, behind the scenes one got the sense that the former university professor might be equally happy reading a law review journal.
While Dean seemed to enjoy the give-and-take with his traveling media contingent, Obama was less interested in making small talk with reporters.
A highly disciplined man, he was more like a marathoner, focused on the miles ahead and what he needed to do before running past the next crowd of people cheering along his route.
Because I was closer to Iowa and had previously worked at The Des Moines Register, I handled virtually all of the Tribune’s Obama coverage in Iowa, ahead of that state’s legendary precinct caucuses. And this is where his rise began.
I loved traveling to Iowa because I would see many old friends and knew the territory and traditions. In such a white state, I figured Obama had an uphill climb. But I also knew the extensive coverage he had received in Illinois would help him in the eastern part of the state.
The campaign events in Iowa during early 2007 were often rather quaint, sometimes only attracting a few dozen to a city park or private home. They gradually grew, until hundreds or thousands were at each stop.
The January night Obama won the caucuses – a victory that propelled him forward – he flew with his media entourage to New Hampshire, where the next primary was just five days later.
The plane landed about 4:30 a.m. in Portsmouth, N.H. As the weary candidate walked down the aircraft’s aisle to speak briefly to some tired reporters, the joy was obvious on his face and in his voice.
“Alright, everybody, it is good to see you,” he said, standing next to me in Row 7 of the DC-9. “We had a good night. My throat is hoarse, but my spirits are good.”
Being from one of the nation’s largest papers – and one that had covered Obama more extensively than any other – I was generally afforded a spot on the plane in the first two or three rows of media seating, behind the Secret Service and staff.
For the first half of 2008, I was usually across the aisle from The New York Times, whose seat often was occupied by a close friend and former colleague from Des Moines and Chicago.
Such things seem rather trivial when flying between Chicago and Minneapolis. But when you are making three or four flights a day – often while trying to eat, work or rest – seating arrangements become more critical.
These comforts became increasingly important as it started to become clear after Obama’s second-place finish in New Hampshire that the nomination fight would be a marathon, not a sprint.
For me, the physically toughest part of the campaign was leading up to “Super Tuesday,” when on Feb. 5, 2008, primaries and caucuses would be held in more than 20 states.
Since Obama’s campaign was trying to expand the playing field of states – knowing that Clinton would likely have an advantage in big ones like California – we found ourselves in some unlikely places.
For several weeks, it was like a rock concert tour, bouncing between packed arenas in places like Denver, Phoenix and Boise. On some days, we would touch down in three or four states.
Most nights on the road, I was lucky to get five hours of sleep. All the stress and wear and tear had started to take a toll on my stomach and back, and I would essentially collapse upon returning home for a few days of rest.
When the Feb. 5 contests yielded a draw, the battle moved on to what seemed like an endless string of primaries and caucuses during the spring.
A month later, on the morning after Obama narrowly lost primaries in Ohio and Texas, he spoke to reporters near my row aboard his campaign plane, before we took off from San Antonio for a rare trip home to Chicago.
“I think we’re going to be on the road a few more weeks, guys,” he said.
As he headed back to his first-class section, I shouted, “Weeks or months?”
He smiled and just kept walking to the front of the plane. It turned out to be months, with Obama finally claiming his party’s nomination in St. Paul on June 3.
As the campaign moved into the general election phase, the access to the candidate became even more limited. Days or even weeks could go by between our chances to ask him any questions or have any meaningful interaction beyond watching from a safe distance as he boarded the plane (he from the front, me from the back.)
The smaller campaign plane that had served as our transport for much of the primary season was traded in for a larger Boeing 757.
Although I am only in my late 30s, I was one of the oldest reporters among the regulars on the campaign plane and older than virtually the entire traveling campaign staff.
We were fed well, and there was an open bar on the plane each night as we flew to the next destination. The candidate would come back to make small talk from time to time, but that happened less and less as the weeks progressed.
The cost of the travel depended on many variables, but a rough estimate is about $10,000 a week for campaign flights, food, hotel rooms, ground transportation and Internet access.
It was fun, but tiring. And I had it easier than most. Because Obama liked to return to his own bed at least once every couple of weeks, I occasionally got extra nights at home. Still, there were a lot of early morning cab rides to Midway Airport, where the charter plane always departed from Chicago.
In private moments, Secret Service agents would sometimes remark that they did not understand what we were all so frantically writing each day. To them, the campaign speech sounded pretty much the same, over and over. And we all could sing the lyrics to the songs used at each and every rally. (U2’s “City of Blinding Lights,” Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” are pretty well burned into my brain.)
The Internet, meanwhile, had by now fully saturated the way reporters did their jobs, creating a highly competitive environment where each new development – or gaffe – was immediately filed to theWeb, creating an hour-by-hour chronicle of the campaign.
Still, there always seemed to be some actual news breaking: another primary election night, fundraising records, national conventions, sniping between Obama and Clinton (and later between Obama and Sen. John McCain), the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. and more. There also always seemed to be another debate around the corner, including three that I covered between Obama and McCain.
Throughout it all, my wife, Jackie Jessen ’92, and daughter patiently waited at home. Obama used to joke about the campaign being so long that infants he met at the start of the campaign could walk and talk by the end. That was pretty much the case for my daughter, Anne, who might just have been one of the youngest in the nation who could say, “Barack Obama.”
As summer turned to fall, the pace actually slowed. There was typically just one big event a day, followed by fundraisers in the evening.
By now, reporters would rarely get close to Obama, unless he was holding a news conference, something he seemed inclined to do about once a week on average.
Being a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, I put considerable pressure on myself. I wanted our coverage to be the best and most extensive anywhere. But it was challenging for the paper, which wanted to balance the uniqueness of Obama’s Chicago ties – and heightened interest in his campaign there – with the need to be fair and balanced with the other candidates.
Still, it was hard not to be struck by the drama happening in front of me.
One of the most emotionally charged days was the last one before the election, when Obama learned his grandmother had died in Hawaii.
Although he had known of her death since early morning, he kept soldiering on through multiple appearances. The media did not learn of her death until the afternoon, just after we landed in North Carolina for a rally.
When we arrived at the outdoor event in Charlotte, N.C., a driving rain storm started. But the heavily African-American audience of thousands did not budge, as they waited for Obama to take the stage. Leading in the polls and with such commitment from supporters, the election’s likely outcome seemed clear.
After another stop in Virginia that evening, we were finally headed back home to Chicago. The plane logged 1,226 miles that day, touching ground in four states.
As we boarded atWashington Dulles International Airport, Obama came back to the press section to thank us for making the journey with him. It was after midnight, but he wanted to shake each and every hand.
The next night, I was assigned to cover the rally at Chicago’s Grant Park, where Obama would speak for the first time as the president-elect.
It was a night filled with history and emotion, as well as common human connections, like when I bumped into Oprah Winfrey as she tried to enter a porta-potty I was leaving.
After finishing work around midnight, I walked into the Billy Goat Tavern, the newsroom’s official watering hole. I felt like I had just finished a marathon myself, complete with a dozen or so colleagues applauding as I opened the bar’s door and crossed the finish line.
There still would be a transition period, holiday trip to Hawaii and inauguration to cover. But for now, I was home.
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