EXCLUSIVE: Inside the McCain Campaign Plane

“You’re kidding!” exclaimed Todd Gillman of the Dallas Morning News on Friday morning October 17 as we boarded the press bus for a John McCain motorcade from Manhattan to Newark Airport.

My colleague Gillman, whom I know from covering the Bush White House, had just learned that this was the first time in my near-three decades with HUMAN EVENTS that I had actually joined the storied “boys (and girls) on the bus” who cover presidential candidates.

It was true. Although I have interviewed presidential hopefuls for years and reported from nearly all the major primary states this year, this was my first up-close, “inside-looking-out” reporting from a candidate’s campaign plane.

Getting to this point was not easy. For months, HUMAN EVENTS had negotiated with the McCain campaign to arrange an interview. This was not surprising to the press who had been covering the Republican nominee. As one network news producer told me, “I liked the McCain of January and February, who always came back in the plane to talk to us. Now we never see him.”

Beginning the journey to the campaign plane, I arrived at the New York Hilton on Thursday October 16, after having filled out detailed forms for identification and billing purposes that would no doubt delight the Federal Election Commission. The next morning, I awoke early to join my colleagues for the 7:40 a.m. bus to Newark.

Ever nervous about making connections, I got to the Concourse E boarding site (in the Hilton basement at 6:00 a.m.. There I spotted past colleagues from the White House such as Gillman, Bob Douglas of McClatchy News and Kelly O’Donnell of NBC News. Some ate breakfast, some dozed, and others swapped stories. Expense accounts are a favorite topic of small talk for the boys and girls on the bus. “So you let the McCain campaign book you in this hotel for $500 a night?” laughed a fellow print reporter, “I stayed at a Days Inn in Brooklyn for $179 and took a $20 cab ride here. When they try to fire me, I’ll have the sheets that show how I saved money!”

Following the 20–minute bus ride from mid-town Manhattan to Newark Airport, we boarded the “Straight Talk America” campaign plane. It was business class for all, as plates of delicious ham, fruit, and Danish pastries along with various juices were handed to the reporters.

Welcoming us aboard the plane was former New Hampshire State Republican Chairman Steve Duprey, one of the “Friends of John” who frequently travel with the candidate. An architect of McCain’s triumph in the New Hampshire primary earlier this year, Concord hotelier Duprey took delight in needling HUMAN EVENTS as he reminisced about his campaigning for anti-Vietnam War Republican Pete McCloskey against Richard Nixon and HE’s candidate, conservative Ohio Rep. John Ashbrook, in the 1972 primary.

Also travelling with McCain is South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, who helped Cindy McCain pass out Halloween candy to the travelling press. This “trick-or-treating” by McCain’s wife and his good friend Graham was the closest most of my colleagues would get to the candidate that day.

“You Have Ten Minutes!”

Finally, as we took off and were Miami bound, a young lady stepped from behind the curtain at the front of the plane and spoke the words I had been waiting to hear. “You can come back now,” said the press officer, “and you have ten minutes, Mr. Gizzi.”

Ten minutes! The campaign had promised me at least 20 minutes. “Fight for that extra time,” the Bloomberg News reporter not very subtly whispered, as I headed for the interview.

For all the talk of his aloofness from reporters, Sen. McCain could not have been warmer. After I reminded him how I had written HUMAN EVENTS “Race of the Week” article about his first race for the House from Arizona in 1982 and recalled his two state legislator-primary opponents (“One moved to Canada and the other had a sad personal situation — very sad,” McCain updated me), we got down to business.

As I posed questions (speaking at a more rapid pace than usual), the Republican nominee responded to them all: Stopping short of blaming the financial crisis on Democrats who forced banks to lend mortgages to those who are likely to default (“Republicans have to share blame, too”); vowing he would “absolutely” keep sending to the Senate strict constructionist Supreme Court nominees; that he would consider former nomination rivals Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani for his Cabinet; and would visit the Arctic Natural Wildlife Reserve with running mate Sarah Palin but said he had to be shown more evidence before he changed his opposition to drilling in ANWR (read the full interview between John Gizzi and Sen. John McCain here).

McCain also let me know with a smile, “I don’t always agree with HUMAN EVENTS.”

“Last question!” chimed in Press Lady, as we hit the ten-minute point. But McCain came to my rescue, telling her to “let me take two or three more of his questions.” And he did.

With our interview ended, I again mentioned to him longtime HUMAN EVENTS Editor Allan Ryskind and how he had worked closely with the senator to defeat Bill Clinton’s nomination of controversial leftist Morton Halperin to a top Pentagon position in 1993.

“You bet I remember,” shot back McCain, the old cold warrior warming to the reminiscence and then turning to Graham to tell him, “You weren’t in Congress then, but they tried to tell us his views [Halperin’s strong criticism of covert operations] were no danger, that he’d be fine in the Pentagon. Well, we stopped him cold.”

As I went back up to my seat, colleagues immediately wanted to know “What did you get from him?” The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times, for example, began to conduct an “exit interview” with me.

Many of these colleagues, sensing my first-campaign flight jitters, helped me immensely in getting my story completed. Ever-gracious Bloomberg News reporter Lorraine Woellert prudently suggested I could save my editors considerable time by transcribing the story myself rather than simply transmitting the recording when we touched down in Miami and leaving them the time-consuming task of having it transcribed and then cleaning up my grammar and spelling. “And you can use my earphone for your recorder,” she said.

“John MEE-Cain! John MEE-Cain!”

Soon, it was down on the ground at Miami International Airport and onto another bus. Shortly, we arrived at Florida International University, as Sen. Joe Lieberman (Ind. Democrat-Conn.) was warming up an overflow audience of screaming “McCainiacs.”

“John MEE-Cain! John MEE-Cain!” chanted the crowd, its strong Cuban contingent putting the accent on the first syllable. Signs reading, “McCubans for McCain” and “We Love Joe the Plumber:” dotted the gym.

Even when McCain was introduced and started speaking, it was all background noise to me. When I first spotted an electrical outlet by the cameramen, I grabbed it, plugged in my computer, accessed my e-mail, and prayed that there was no power shortage. Finally, my transcribed interview was sent and soon received in Washington. Mission accomplished.

Were there glitches in my maiden voyage on the bus? Sure. Lacking the proper cord, I was unable to send back the photographs I had taken on the bus and plane and in my interview. When I stepped out of the area roped off for reporters at FIU, I was detained by security until Secret Service Agent Solano found someone in the McCain entourage who would confirm my identity. A campaign volunteer who was ostensibly driving another reporter and me back to the terminal at Miami International Airport finally interrupted our conversation to tell us he didn’t have a clue where he was going and needed directions.

But the glitches and nervous moments were just part of a new adventure. When my editor asked when I was going to interview Sarah Palin, I replied “as soon as possible.” I was now one of the “boys on the bus” — and loving it.