Walter Shapiro

MANCHESTER, N.H., 6:47 p.m., Wednesday: Stumbling blindly over mounds of packed snow in search of a seemingly mythical refuge known as the “Press Filing Center,” I find myself pondering that great existential question: “Why am I here?” What I am referring to is not my place and purpose in the cosmos, but rather my foolhardy determination to rush to New Hampshire instead of watching the final pre-primary debates at home in New York on CNN.

MANCHESTER, 6:57 p.m.: Three minutes before the GOP debate begins, I am whimpering, I am sniveling, I am pleading. Like the Ancient Mariner, I recite my harrowing tale of woe: marooned  in Minnesota for a day; up at 5 a.m. to get here; a two-hour conjugal visit with Meryl in New York squandered on unpacking and repacking.

(To be truthful, I didn’t share that level of detail about the conjugal visit.) The object of my disaffection is a young CNN assistant who controls the coveted pink lavalieres needed for admission to the Filing Center. My problem–which explains why I am the least likely New Yorker to ever be spotted nuzzling Naomi Campbell at Moomba–is that, as always, my name is not on the list. I finally cross into the Promised Land, after stating something about being a columnist for America’s largest newspaper and fearing that I was sounding like a modern-day Colonel Blimp harrumphing, “Come, come, my good man. Don’t you realize who I am?”

MANCHESTER, 7:02 p.m.: Why am I here? Why have I turned myself into a dervish in order to grub for a folding chair in an overcrowded basement with fetid floors at WMUR so I can watch a television set 100 feet away with 500 obsessed-with-their-own-deadlines reporters? What would have been so wrong with watching the debates back home in New York or even at my don’t-get-me-started-with-another-line-of-complaint hotel?

These questions are posed seriously, since I am a bit chagrined at how easily I fall under the sway of tribal instincts when I’m on the road. Tonight I am not even motivated by my daily dinner dilemma, since with two back-to-back debates, there will be literally nothing open by the time I finally escape the filing center. (Why do we pick our presidents in states where any meal ordered after 9 p.m. is called breakfast?) Sure, there are aides floating around, but what is Gore spokesman Chris Lehane likely to tell me? That “the vice president is embarrassed by the tenor of his campaign and intends to fire all of us as soon he locks up the nomination”? Yeah, sure.

The reason, I suspect, that filing centers and candidate entourages hold such a magnetic, if irrational, attraction for me is that only when I’m enveloped in a media cocoon does covering the campaign feel real. The locus of politics, even in meet-the-candidate, press-the-flesh New Hampshire, is the TV set. But there is only circuitry and illusion inside these appliances. And there is something so dispiriting, so isolating, so depressing about sitting in a hotel room watching debates and TV ads that succumbing to the herd instinct and heading for a filing center can be regarded as a last desperate bid for sanity. 

The problem, of course, is that herds produce heard-on-the-street group consensus. The media party line Wednesday night, both before and after the Democratic debate, was that even if Bill Bradley spent every moment between now and the primary heroically rescuing frightened kittens out of trees, he would still lose to Al Gore by a double-digit margin. Despite the difficulties I have with Gore’s focus-grouped platitudes and chameleon-like wardrobe, I will readily concede that Bradley has been floundering for the last month. But what bugs me is the degree of the finality with which my filing-center colleagues proclaim their Bradley-is-toast verdicts. Five days before the 1996 GOP New Hampshire primary, plaid-shirted Lamar! (Alexander) was leading most tracking polls, even though he ended up finishing third.

My point is less forecasting a Bradley comeback and more a plea for humility from the press. Nothing, not even the New England weather, is more changeable than a New Hampshire primary voter. I know I’m sounding like the author of a paperback that came out in late October of 1972 and was entitled something like “How McGovern Defied the Polls and Was Elected President.” But if there is an occupational hazard of political reporters (and God knows I’ve made my share of mistakes, like flatly predicting in Newsweek the day before the 1984 primary that Walter Mondale’s lead in New Hampshire was “unassailable”), it is that we tend to think too much like campaign consultants and that we react like a day trader to the latest blips in the all-consuming polls.

The best story I heard Wednesday night, pacing the periphery of the filing center, comes from Doug Berman, Bradley’s campaign chairman. While I was escaping Des Moines via Minneapolis Tuesday morning, Berman found himself on a delayed flight to Detroit. His seatmate? None other than Alan Keyes. As Berman tells it, he spent the entire flight counseling Keyes on his campaign–charting how the apocalyptic Republican should handle his mosh-pit episode in the debate and proposing that Keyes should now pressure Gary Bauer (the infinitely saner social conservative) to withdraw to unify the movement. As a laughing Berman put it, “I literally spent more time Tuesday advising Keyes than I did Bradley.” 

(See “Ballot Box” for more on Alan Keyes’ adventures in the mosh pit.)