“No word from Dean, huh?” asked Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 27. He was off the air, between commercial breaks, sitting in the makeshift set at a ski lodge in Manchester, N.H.
“They were going to come out early,” he said, flicking his tongue, crestfallen, looking a little like a kid who had a toy taken away from him. Earlier, before Mr. Matthews’ coverage began, he told NYTV that Dr. Dean’s media adviser, Steve McMahon, had told him “they’re going to announce they won at 8:10.” Foreseeing a close second, the Dean campaign projected that it would pull a Bill Clinton–style “comeback kid” moment.
Mr. Matthews’ gut was telling him the theme of his show on this night might end up being “dramatize the Dean comeback,” he said.
But exactly two minutes later, Mr. Matthews came back on the air and announced the breaking news coming through his earpiece-Dr. Dean had lost by double digits to Senator John Kerry. “A crushing blow … a heartbreaker for the Dean campaign,” he said. Just a few minutes before, Mr. Matthews was ready to declare Dr. Dean “happy to be in second,” but was quickly chastened by panelist and Newsweek political analyst Howard Fineman, who said just as the show faded to commercial break: “Not if he loses by 14 points.”
“It’s unfortunately not a surprise,” Mr. Matthews said later, chewing on a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, his face still caked in make-up. “The polls were consistently double digits” for Mr. Kerry over Dr. Dean.
Earlier that evening, it seemed like a historic TV moment could be in the offing, as good as last week’s historic TV moment in Iowa. Before the primary coverage had begun, Mr. Matthews and his panelists, Campbell Brown, Jacques DeGraff, Mr. Fineman and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, were basing their assessments on the Internet drama created from numbers posted on the Drudge Report by Rich Lowry, a political analyst for The National Review .
Mr. Fineman told NYTV he personally called NBC to confirm those numbers. “They called me back and they said, ‘just between us, that’s correct. That’s the first wave.’” Those numbers projected that Sen. Kerry would get 37-percent of the New Hampshire vote and Dr. Dean 31 percent. It looked like a more competitive horse race was in the works, and the Bill Clinton comeback analogies were being quickly mounted.
“If you get between three and four points, that’s a victory,” said Mr. Scarborough, the host of MSNBC’s Scarborough Country , in the break room on the set.
Mr. Matthews thought it was possible for Dr. Dean to pull off a Clinton-style comeback, comparing it to 1992, when Mr. Clinton lost by eight points to Sen. Paul Tsongas in New Hampshire but went on television at 8:00 PM to declare victory.
“There’s some possibility that there’s a secret Dean vote,” Mr. Matthews said. “I think people are less disposed to give pollsters their information, if they’re partial to Dean.”
According to one MSNBC producer on the set, Dean staffers were out partying with the media in Manchester the night before the primary, exhilarated about a possible uptick.
At 6:17 p.m., Mr. Fineman walked off the set for a moment and said he’d received a call that the Los Angeles Times exit poll showed the race closer than the network polls that Mr. Lowry was using. But it proved wrong-as the numbers began rolling it, Sen. Kerry’s 12 point lead matched the late Gallup and Zogby polls almost exactly. Mr. Fineman said on the air at 8:01, when the polls had closed, “the Democrats are unsettled about who they want to pick,” and Mr. Matthews was still chomping for a dramatic close. “Win, place and show, just like in horse racing,” he said. But the statistical odds remained distressingly accurate for a sports-loving man like Mr. Matthews. It was on to South Carolina, etc., but without that crazed frisson that gives a true political junkie good reason to smile.
But Mr. Matthews is still hoping Dr. Dean will put a spike in the E.K.G. At the end of his interview with Dr. Dean later that night, Mr. Matthews told the former Governor of Vermont, “In the weeks ahead, if you have something to say and want to say it, please come to Hardball and make it your podium,” he said. “We want an exciting campaign, we want you to be a big noise in this campaign.”
After weeks of scrutinizing Senator John Kerry, the press corps that followed him in a long white bus called the Real Deal Express were less than thrilled on Monday, Jan. 26, to be victimized by the same process. “I write stories,” said Ceci Connolly of The Washington Post , “I’m not the subject of them.”
During the 2000 Presidential campaign, Ms. Connolly had earned a reputation in Washington as one of the “Three Bitches of Eastwick,” a trio of bad-girl political reporters who gleefully tortured Team Gore. Now, with Mr. Kerry positioned, Ms. Connolly sauntered back to the Kerry tour bus in candy-striped sunglasses and a black scarf around her neck, reeking pleasure at re-establishing her old part. But hordes of strange reporters were drifting on and off the bus, looking for a piece of her story.
Ms. Connolly wasn’t the only one snarling at interlopers: David M. Halbfinger, The New York Times ‘ correspondent on the bus, sat next to Ms. Connolly in the makeshift press room in a recreation hall in Keene and suddenly gave a hard glare to poor NYTV, who sat idly on a couch. Scary!
“Who are you?” he asked, with the press corps looking on. “Who are you with? What are you doing here?”
He wanted to know if he was being quoted. Well, there was no Off the Record sign up. Later, Mr. Halbfinger relaxed and agreed to an interview. Why had he been suspicious?
“One of the other members of my press group expressed some concern, that’s why,” he said. “I mean, we’re a pretty tight bunch.”
Yes, they are. The handful of reporters who have been with Mr. Kerry for months or weeks, roaming the bleak Iowan landscapes during the hard times, well before “the surge,” have formed a kind of tight-knit brat pack-correspondents from CBS, NBC, Fox News and the Boston Globe -who now cluster toward the very back of the Real Deal Express, away from the loners, old-timers and newbies up front.
In late 2003, these reporters could barely get their stories on the air or on the front page-Governor Dean was the story. But since Jan. 19, the number of Kerry reporters at events has quadrupled. And the candidate who once drank beers after a day of campaigning could barely feed the hundreds of media mouths.
“You definitely have this sense of ‘the group,’” said Kelly Wallace of CNN, who has been with Sen. Kerry since Jan. 11. “They’re the people who have been with him for five months or longer … the group who have been with him very step of the way.”
And the Kerry pack has a sense of owning the story. Becky Diamond, a correspondent for MSNBC and NBC, said she felt she knew Mr. Kerry better than almost anyone after spending all last fall with him. “I feel liked I’ve logged the hours,” she said. “You have a lot more freedom when you’re not covering the front-runner. You have time. And that’s wonderful. The downside is the network doesn’t have the appetite for your story. Not as much of your stuff gets on air. I don’t have the kind of access to Kerry that I used to have. Now, there are 50 journalists instead of five.”
She said that she and Ed O’Keefe of ABC News “used to drive around in a van” with Sen. Kerry. “That doesn’t exist anymore.” “It was so quick,” said another Kerry-packer. “It was an explosion of people …. Everyone wants a piece of this guy. We used to hang out all the time.” “It’s gotten three to four times bigger,” said Pat Healy, the Globe reporter, with Sen. Kerry since September.
“People on the Dean bus are joking about trying to get on the Kerry bus,” said Ms. Wallace.
On Monday, Jan. 26, the Kerry caravan traveled from Portsmouth and back to Manchester. A pool of six reporters and photographers traveled with Mr. Kerry by helicopter to two photo ops, while a dozen reporters followed in the Real Deal bus, driving 15 hours through bleak, frozen landscapes that melted away before they could be remembered, stopping in hot, dry, mobbed high-school gymnasiums where they found makeshift desks, plugged-in laptops, assaulted deadlines.
Along the way, the bus was morbidly quiet, except for the occasional barked cursing at the cell-phone signals that flashed in and out of the mountains near Keene.
But even those on the helicopter didn’t get much face time with Mr. Kerry.
“I had a lot of trouble getting an interview today,” said Mr. Halbfinger late Monday in the Salem High School auditorium. “Thirteen minutes, it turned out …. A month ago, I could have time with him any time of day … but you weren’t taking advantage of it everyday, because you didn’t want to be greedy for access when it wasn’t going to get into the paper. We gave him his space and we had our space.”
The Kerry pack, attuned to micro-variations in the stump speech, often compared notes. “I’ve edited packages and had my direct competitors look at them,” said NBC’s Ms. Diamond. “And they’ve given me honest feedback.”
“I’ve heard that other press campaigns can be very cutthroat and competitive,” said Mr. Halbfinger. “We will compare crowd counts and check each others’ estimates. I often rely on my colleagues if I missed a quote. We back each other up because it’s sort of like a mutual-aid society.” The reporters said they sensed Sen. Kerry’s rise early on, reporting the growing numbers of Iowans at his rallies. But their editors weren’t always listening-and some began to question their instincts.
“The story was inside the paper, 800 words, no picture,” said Mr. Halbfinger. “I saw it on the ground and we put it in the paper, and I even felt then that the polls weren’t showing this yet, and I was thinking, ‘Mmm, I either look smart, or hopefully people will forget this.”
In the Kerry pack, Mr. Halbfinger was the cool guy in a black leather jacket with a decidedly dark pose. Mr. Halbfinger has been at it since August, when there was only a rental car to follow Mr. Kerry. He was married in November and went immediately back on the campaign trail. Alternately pissy and poetic, he was the dark prince of the bus-and hey, he kind of liked the sound of that.
“It kind of sounds cool,” he said. “It sounds flattering in a way.”
But, said Ms. Diamond, “We are all for one, one for all. These are my closest friends. I don’t have a life …. I don’t have time to call my best friend who just had a baby. When I want to talk to my boyfriend, it’s in front of 15 people. There’s no privacy, so if you’re not friends with your colleagues, you’re going to be lonely.”
“I wouldn’t call it the love bus,” Mr. Halbfinger said. He called it the “Let’s Not Kill Each Other Competitively for Things That Are Insignificant” bus. “Look, I will bust my butt and beat my friend’s brains out to get a scoop. But we don’t sweat the small stuff … need to eat, need to communicate with your loved one, need to sleep, sometimes somebody falls asleep, and usually we’ll just wake somebody up if something happens.” He bristled at the suggestion that a kind of Manchester Syndrome might set in, in which they fall in love with Mr. Kerry and each other. But, he said, “the funny thing is, it’s like, we are all in a tunnel-I mean, we have the same blinders on. And we can only see things through the windshield of our bus. If you spent your whole day watching one guy, what are you going to talk about? And who are you going to talk shop with? There’s only so many times I can call my wife and say, ‘Guess what John Kerry did today?’ … He once meant to say ‘Wahhabi’ fundamentalism and he said ‘wasabi.’ Yeah, I wrote that.”
Then he remembered: “No, actually I gave it to another reporter who used it in a piece about fatigue.”
“You’re in this little cocoon” said Christopher Wilson, a Washington editor for Reuters, “and you’re traveling with his people, going to his rallies. It’s not all that easy to break out.”
At the end of the day, a palpable sense of relief settled over the press corps as everyone filed. Middle Eastern food was served in the cafeteria of the Salem High School. There was no news, but Mr. Halbfinger managed to tweak it in The Times : “Sleepless, Grueling Days Are Fine, But, Please, No More Lasagna.”
Later, Mr. Halbfinger walked up from his encampment in the back of the bus. “Truth is,” he said, “it’s almost a better story when the campaign is going down in flames. It’s more fun to write wicked prose than rah-rah prose. And a badly imploding campaign-look at Howard Dean. He was on Page 1 more than John Kerry was. That goes to show you, it was a better story.” That was Monday.
Jack Paar, 85
Jack Paar, the affable, spiritual godfather to all talk show hosts, died on Jan. 27 at the age of 85. His health had been shaky since suffering a stroke last year, which was preceded by bypass surgery in 1998.
Mr. Paar, an whose soft baby-face and a dimpled chin-he called it “adorable”- made his nightly visits on NBC’s Tonight an institution from 1957-1962, invented the talk show form as we now know it, personalizing it in a way that no one has since. His stammering, extemporaneous style was neurotic and germ-free as only a midwesterner could be, and he gloried in the American personality, making a suburban cocktail party-complete with coffee table and couch-that was the ideal match for the age of O’Hara, Updike and Cheever. His guests were the erudite and the corn-fed: George S. Kaufman, John F. Kennedy, Brendan Behan … and Dody Goodman. His jokes were anecdotal, his wit genuine, his marriage to Miriam Paar, a model of love, friendship and respect.
Bob Wright, chairman and chief executive of NBC, described the legend in a statement yesterday as “unpredictable, spontaneous, and endlessly entertaining. [He] brought a unique flair to the small screen. His success at the ‘Tonight Show’ helped establish late-night talk shows as an important part of American television.” In another statement, Conan O’Brien called him “a brilliant television pioneer.”
Born in Ohio in 1918, Paar’s comic acuity was first recognized during World War II, when he enlisted in the Army-he thought going on his own would be more “chic” than being drafted. He started performing for troops on the Guadalcanal-his big shtick had to do with making fun of officers-and was discovered by Jack Benny, who was touring the area. Benny told him to call when he was back in civvies. Call he did. After temporarily replacing Benny on his radio show for a summer, Paar got his own radio show in the mid-40′s and took over for Tonight in 1957, six months after fellow TV legend Steve Allen abdicated.
He streamlined the format of the typical variety show, favoring the use of just a couch and chairs, inviting on a roster of guests that read like the ultimate dinner party: John F. Kennedy, Dorothy Parker, Buddy Hackett, Woody Allen, Hermoine Gingold, Alexander King, Liza Minnelli, Richard Nixon, and on and on. And he managed to elegantly weave together the silly with the serious: He would talk about being vehemently against the Batista dictatorship in Cuba, but also enjoyed bringing onto the show a guy who could say and spell things backwards. “I’d like to thank you, Kcaj Raap!” he’d say.
“He created the form,” said Paar’s longtime friend, writer Larry Gelbart of M*A*S*H fame. “It was a time when people actually talked on talk shows. They didn’t just come on to promote a movie or CD or to pitch a product. It was called conversation, and he was a wonderful conversationalist because not only did he listen, he could also make witty remarks without upstaging his guests. He was unique. He had the ability to be sensitive and shy and a braggart all at the same time, which was not an easy thing to do.”
“In Paar’s hands, ‘The Tonight Show’ became the whole country’s Algonquin Round Table. His guests were wits, zanies and bon vivants; many told richly amusing stories, and so did he,” wrote The Washington Post ‘s Tom Shales wrote in 1983. “No one, ever, has made conversation on television more entertaining.”
Mr. Shales notes in that article that even media critic Marshall McLuhan was perpetually taken with Paar’s charisma.
Paar was best known for freely showing his emotions-laughing, crying, screaming, and generally using the live medium to the fullest. One day he called Ed Sullivan “a liar” on air. The next, he told Sullivan through his broadcast that his daughter really wanted Beatles’ tickets and asked if there was something that could be done.
“It was reality TV,” said Mr. Gelbart. “This was not a guy who put a face on things. It wasn’t laugh clown laugh. If he felt that way, it was cry, clown, cry…You know what he was? He was a sabra: prickly on the outside but incredibly sweet on the inside.”
Much of Paar’s teariness was the result of the movement from live TV to taping. When, in February 1960, a joke he made referring to a “water closet” was not cut before it aired, he threw a tantrum the following night and walked offstage. He returned shortly thereafter and stayed on for another two years, but ultimately left at the top of his game. Or did he?
“No, it wasn’t the end of the game,” said Mr. Gelbart. “It was the end of that part of his game. His life was his game. He painted, he traveled, he was a father and a husband and a grandfather. He was fiercely uncompetitive, which is an oxymoron, I know, but I mean it: He didn’t need to competitive to be ‘on.’ He enjoyed talking and listening and could be happy talking to someone across the table or with an audience of millions.”
But Paar perhaps put it most succinctly in his discussion with Mr. Shales in 1983. “TV,” he said. “got in the way of living.”
-Anna Jane Grossman
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