ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL | October 26th 2008
"John McCain's campaign serves macho Republican meals", writes a political correspondent for The Economist. This means "chunks of dead animals on sticks", reassuringly enough ...
When people discover that I am a political reporter, they often ask me for the inside scoop. "You've travelled with Obama and McCain. You've sat at the back of their planes. What's it like? What's the big difference between the two campaigns?"
I'd have to say it's the food. John McCain's campaign serves macho Republican meals. There are cooked breakfasts, chunks of dead animals on sticks and coffee that tastes like coffee. One day following Mr McCain in Nebraska I ate beef five times. (To be fair, the last time was in a hotel restaurant, where I could have ordered something wussier. But who eats coquilles St Jacques more than a thousand miles from the sea?)
On Mr Obama's plane, by contrast, the breakfasts are designed to keep scribblers lean and liberal. There are little plastic pots of cereal, no doubt rich in vitamins and fibre. There are little tubs of chopped fruit. There are cups of "coffee" that have clearly never met a coffee bean.
The cereal and the fruit I can understand. But what is the point of being a latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving progressive if you can't get a decent cup of coffee? The Onion, which is normally scrupulously accurate, recently depicted the Democratic candidate holding a delicious-looking latte as part of a story entitled "Portrayal of Obama as Elitist Hailed as Step Forward for African-Americans". But this is a serious distortion. In fact, it is John McCain who is most often seen with a Starbucks cup in his hand. He seems to live on the stuff.
Travelling with the candidates is hard work. You wake up too early and don't remember which state you are in. You gather to have your bags sniffed by secret-service dogs. You jump into the bus that will take you to the airport. And then you wait. And wait. The motorcade will leave the moment the candidate is ready. But that could take some time. The waiting hacks read papers, surf the web and swap tales of unreasonable editors. (Not me. The others. My editors are all wonderful. OK?)
Finally, we set off. John McCain used to invite reporters to come and sit with him and chew the fat for hours every day. It was fun. We learned what he thinks about everything from health care to Waziristan. He joked around, spoke his mind and wandered delightfully off-message. But since late summer, his advisors have curbed him. Now he is barely more accessible than his rival, which is saying something.
Back home, one of my African-American neighbours, who is terrified that Mr Obama will be assassinated, asked me if he has any security. Are you kidding? He is surrounded by big yet agile men with guns and sharp eyes. They hustle him into cars with darkened windows. They block off freeways so his motorcade can zoom by. They make sure that no one comes within distant eyeshot of him without first being checked for weapons.
My neighbour is concerned that crazed racists out there are plotting to take down the first black president. And it is true that, from time to time, maniacs make threats. But my impression is that such people are neither serious nor well-organised. And you would have to very, very well-organised to get past the secret service. My neighbour should sleep easy.
Meanwhile, a chum of mine working for a French wire service has a problem. Mr Obama is holding a rally in a school sports stadium in Pennsylvania. My friend smokes, and smoking is barred on school property. He has to slip outside the security cordon for a puff. Being a journalist, he looks shifty. To the untrained eye, he also looks vaguely Middle Eastern. Every tobacco break leads to him being stopped and questioned by state troopers.
Mr Obama is always urging crowds to get "fired up". But when someone tries to light up...
Picture credit: peepic2008/flickr