The perils of political reporting

Tribune senior correspondent

Not to get spiritual on you (no danger of that in this little corner of the ether) but several Biblical stories came to mind on the final day of the convention.

First: As Teresa Heinz Kerry was speaking to the tambourine caucus, I saw a woman rise out of her wheelchair and stand up!

It turned out not to be a The-Lame-Shall-Walk miracle.

Missouri U.S. Congressional candidate Linda Jacobsen was merely standing on her good left leg. She broke her right ankle in four places campaigning in Columbia, home of the University of Missouri (Beat Kansas!) a few days ago.

Second: At the Sheraton Back Bay I stepped into a ladies' room (since there are no bathrooms in the press igloo at the convention hall). But, damn the luck, I finally get to use a real washroom and the stall door jams. I couldn't get out. We're getting to the Biblical reference. Keep reading.

I was waving my hand into the air above the door, squeaking, "Help." I was pushing against the door with all my might but it wouldn't give.

This is when New York political consultant and Good Samaritan Jennifer James came to the rescue and yanked the door from her side to open it just enough for me to squeeze through.

This political reporting thing is fraught with peril.

Ex-Texas Gov. Ann Richards said she'd been truly impressed with the performance of Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama when he spoke to the convention. "I thought he was terrific," she said. "But I think any young person like that has to guard against too fast a rise because the way this game is played, the media will take you up and then take you down."

Peter Jennings, on ABC during the couple seconds the network devoted to summing up the four days of the Democratic convention, discussing Barack Obama: "He doesn't have much Republican opposition in Illinois this year."

Nope, not much: None.

Speaking of Obama--isn't everyone?--Teresa Heinz Kerry, talking to the Women's Caucus on the final day of the convention revealed he'd given her a little advice. When she told him that his great speech would make hers look especially second rate, he told her, "You'll be fine." And, she was.

At the women's caucus I saw the best gimmick of the entire convention. Admittedly, there wasn't much competition. This event was particularly low on creative gee gaws and hopelessly lame on available freebies.

Anyhow, the women in the audience there were shaking miniature tambourines, the first political "noisemakers" I've come across that don't make you want to strangle whomever is shaking, banging, blowing or clacking near you.

These were given away by E.M. Winston Band Instrument and said "Shake Up the White House," accompanied by a phone number to call to rent Winston's musical instruments.

WHO KNEW: A use for latex that you don't find near the pharmacy counter. The nearly 100,000 balloons dropped after John Kerry's speech were made of biodegradable latex, which is NOT a feature you'd want in that other latex product.

NOT A CHANCE: Testing out the FleetCenter sound system before his acceptance speech Thursday night, Kerry said, "Members of the Fourth Estate, I have called you here to tell you that your reign is over."

See you in New York.


Advice from a new band: July 29, 2004 10:31 PM CDT

Maroon 5 played a Rock the Vote benefit gig on the last night of the Democratic Convention here and I caught up with them to ask their advice for aspiring rockers.

"Get a respectable job. Kids, you'll never make it in this business," said lead singer Adam Levine.

"That was a joke," he said, "My real response is, if you like doing this, do it all the time."

"You gotta believe," said keyboard player Jesse Carmichael, sporting a red goatee and a blue t-shirt that said, "Participate."

Bass player Mickey Madden said, "Work hard. Play as much as you can and don't suck. And if you suck don't keep doing it."

The band is on tour but flew in from St. Louis for the concert to increase youth voter turnout and defeat George W. Bush.

When I told them that their music was being played this week to pump up the audience before The Daily Show with Jon Stewart taping they were like schoolboys.

"It was! What song?" they asked.

"This Love," I told them.

Talking outside the FleetCenter, as delegates filed in, they spotted Al Franken.

"He's cooler than us," said Nebraska native James Valentine, guitarist.

"Really," I asked.

"Definitely. Absolutely. A lot of people are cooler," said Valentine.

All four of the men are 25 and live in L.A. They said they voted for Al Gore four years ago and are supporting John Kerry this year.

Madden decried "the sort of seeming bulldozer of war mongering that's not really going to stop unless a new administration comes into office."

"I think John Kerry will be a better steward to protect the environment," said Valentine.

"Don't be a fool, man. You need to vote," said Levine.

July 29, 2004 7:07 a.m. CDT: Reporter can't get kicked out

The fake reporters on Wednesday night's political "Daily Show" from Boston had all kinds of spoofy high-tech gear to cover the "news," including a weird rocket ship, piloted by Ed Helms.

But, get this: One of the real comedians who's a pretend reporter on the show doesn't even have a working cell phone.

Stephen Colbert tells me about his new Handspring Treo 600:

"I'm here, desperate to make a phone call. I don't get any service. I have to slap it. It's never good when you have to slap your cell phone. I'm banging it, literally banging on counters to get it to work. Once I bang it, it will work for about five minutes."

Just guessing here but I don't think the Handspring people will be signing Colbert to a spokesman deal.

Here's another one of his reporting adventures in Boston this week, this one on the floor of the convention.

"I tried to get kicked out…I went down without proper credentials onto the floor with a backpack on backwards, these huge audio cans (headphones), to look like John Chancellor in 1964 and my 'microphone' was just a stick.

"Finally, someone said, 'Sir, you can't be down here.' And I said, 'I am,' and he said, 'Sir, you're going to have to leave' and I said, 'I don't want to.'"

"I'm not going to kick you out," the man told Colbert, "Because I know there is a camera pointed at us someplace."

On the tape, you can see Colbert mouthing, "Please kick me out!" Finally, eventually, someone did ban him from the Boston convention floor, but it took a lot of cajoling.

Colbert said that's been a big part of the problem for the show here: The cast is too well known.

"Most of the people I spoke to yesterday, while fans of the show, were of no use to us because they just wanted to yuk it up and there are times when we need people to really give us answers," he said.

At the Democratic convention four years ago in Philadelphia, "The Daily Show" was just starting to take off. Then, "maybe 10 percent" of those attending knew who the comedians were. "Now, its more like 90 percent."

He figures that won't be a problem at the GOP convention next month in New York.


A reader in Boston, political consultant Al Gordon, e-mails a correction and a sighting:

You missed a celeb. ... Alec Baldwin, seen striding into the Park Plaza with his golf clubs, clearly back from playing a round. Apparently if you are a star, you have a flunky assigned to carry the golf bag... And it's not campaign "junk" -- the correct technical term is tchotchkes....

I knew what they were, Al. Just couldn't spell it.

Send me your most aggravating and interesting cell phone mishaps and we'll post some here. They've got to be more interesting than anything, anything, about the Democratic convention, where you can hardly get kicked off the convention floor even when you try.


July 28, 2004 10:37 PM CDT: Popping the clutch with 'The Daily Show'

Before the evening taping of The Daily Show, host Jon Stewart loosens up by answering questions from the small studio audience. Excerpts from this week in Boston:

Q: Back when you were in college were you known for the same things as you are today?
A: My college years were all bits and satires. No, I was known for actually making a bong out of almost any bottle.

Q: How's the baby?
A: (Looking alarmed, walking toward the exit) Oh, (expletive)! What have you heard? No, the baby (Nathan) is three weeks and three days, something like that. (Wild applause) Thank you for applauding my ability to keep a child alive.

Q: What other country would you feel comfortable living in?
A: What other country? Are you with immigration? (voice quaking) Am I in trouble? Do I have to flee? …I wouldn't mind living in Canada because there I'd be considered a thug, like a tough guy. They're so polite. (I'd say) "That's a really nice coat. Give it to me!" They'd be like, "OK." …No, I like it here. It's nice. We have a lot of accessible snacks. People seem nice. All my (expletive)'s here.

Q: Do you ever get direct feedback for your work…from the Bush Administration?
A: Are you suggesting that they are going to invade my building? No, we don't really get direct feedback from anybody on our work except the audience that's there for our live show because we're working all day. We sit in that little room and we write and do everything and then we do the show. If you guys laugh, that's our feedback. The Bush Administration or the Clinton Administration or the possible future Kerry Administration doesn't care about us.

Q: Can I get a job as a writer for the show?
A: It's not a meritocracy. It's very much like politics. It's greasing the wheels. It's patronage. Sexual favors…

Fake Senior Political Analyst Stephen Colbert is a Northwestern University and Second City alum. He took Ellen Warren behind the scenes of "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart. She asked Colbert a bunch of stupid questions that he answered with great patience. Excerpts:

Q: As a fake news reporter what was the stupidest question you've ever asked a real person?
A: There are so many great stupid questions. It would be (to a tax collector in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.) 'If you're so innocent then why won't you admit you're not,' to which he said, 'Not what?' and I said, 'You tell me. You seem to have all the answers.' That would be it.

Q: What kind of music do you listen to?
A: I listen to a lot of Johnny Cash lately.

Q: Because he's dead?
A: Yeah, so there are no copyright problems when I steal his music.

Q: What kind of a car do you drive?
A: I drive a Shelby Cobra…There are only 19 in existence… Pop that clutch and that thing will just jump off the line.

Q: But you live in New York.
A: New Jersey.

Q: OK, do you ever get to 'pop the clutch and jump off the line?'
A: I go to a local speedway…The car will go 230 miles an hour, but I don't ever go above 150. It's not my family car. I drive a Volvo. The family car is a Cadillac SRX. And a Moped.

Q: Is this the toy you bought yourself when you 'made it'?
A: Actually, I bought it when I didn't have any money…I was a waiter for years and years and years.

Q: You're staying in a dorm at Boston University. Are there plastic mattress covers that crackle when you turn over?
A: It's great. Way better than the dorms I lived in college. TV, cable, Internet access. I went to Northwestern. Those dorms were ridiculous. Ancient.

Q: Is it like college all over again?
A: We're just too busy. Well, last night I had a couple guys over for late night cocktails…

Q: Booze in the dorm?
A: (Laughs) Yeah, boozin' and whorin'.

July 28, 2004 7:29 a.m. CDTThe entire cast and staff of the "The Daily Show"--yes, that includes Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and political correspondents Rob Corddry, Samantha Bee and Ed Helms--are bunking in dorm rooms at Boston University during convention week.

Yup, single beds. Tossing Nerf footballs. Staying up late, writing jokes, not term papers. And, just like the college kids that occupy the rooms during the school year, they did sneak some booze into the building.

"The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart is talking dirty about his three-week-old son, Nathan. Dirty diapers.

Just before the star of the fake news show goes on stage for the first program from the Democratic Convention here, he offered this story when I was hanging out on the set of the show.

"There were a few days where the wife and I were concerned because he hadn't…pooped. As I was driving up to Boston, I got a call on the red phone--that he'd dropped a huge load."

Riffing on the topic, Stewart said, "Imagine if throughout his life that's all it took for my affection and pride. 'Dad, I got all Ds.' 'Well, son, at least you took a big dump.'"

When Stewart learned that one of the people in the audience worked in the "infectious disease" field, Stewart said, facetiously, "That must make your row mates very comfortable."

Then he asked the guy, "If I had a sore, what is the worst place it could be? On the plums or the carrot?"

The Comedy Central show is an enormous hit among Democratic political junkies--which is making it harder for the fake reporters on the program to do their trademark comedy bits here.

Instead of playing it straight, delegates want to be part of the joke, which "doesn't really help," correspondent Stephen Colbert told me.

"They just wanted to yuk it up," telling "the political equivalent of knock knock jokes." Or, "Tell Jon I'd love to be on the show!"

In a moment of sheer serendipity as he wandered around the FleetCenter, Colbert spotted Tom Brokaw in the NBC booth and did an impromptu bit where he crawls up and cleans the window as the anchor points at the dirty spots. "It was a nice, real moment," says Colbert who DOES do windows.

Watch for the segment later in this week.

Back at the real so-called "news" at the no-news convention…

The young ladies primping in the bathroom during the convention speech of John Kerry's stepson, Chris Heinz, watched the handsome dark-haired young man on the TV monitor there and reported that they'd met him at a party. "He's hot!" they agreed.

With loads of time on their hands, that was Illinois Lt. Governor Pat Quinn chatting with failed former presidential candidate Mike Dukakis, the ex-governor of Massachusetts, on the street near the convention hall.

Dukakis got far fewer looks of recognition than did legendary ABC newsman Sam Donaldson, who was walking purposefully near Boston Commons with his wife, Jan.

You can sample an enormous range of causes just by walking through the Commons on a sunny convention afternoon and reading the T-shirts. Proselytizing Scientologists in bright yellow; a man with the simple message, "Yankees Suck" and another wearing this scary question: "If you died tonight, would you go to heaven or hell?"

That depends: Do the dorm rooms in hell permit liquor?



July 27, 2004 2:04 PM CDT

This didn't take long. You don't even need to say, "Shove it," any more. You just say, "Teresa Heinz" and everyone knows what you mean.

I barreled up to a former celebrity peace activist--Jane Fonda's ex-husband Tom Hayden--to ask a couple questions and he cut me off, invoking John Kerry's outspoken wife.

"Teresa Heinz set the standard," Hayden said, when I pressed him for a moment of his time.

California legislator Hayden is in Boston to promote a new book and to speak against the war in Iraq. When he told me to Teresa Heinz, he was about to address some peace activists and Dennis Kucinich delegates in a church basement that looked like something out of the '60s protest era of a different war (that would be Vietnam).

Actor Sean Penn, a Kucinich supporter, was supposed to be on a peace panel with Hayden and others but there was "an unanticipated schedule conflict on his part."

For celebrity-watching purposes here, thank goodness for Bono, Glenn Close, John Cusack, Jon Stewart, and Ben Affleck, who is getting more airtime than Tom Brokaw.

Some television anchors might still be having trouble figuring out how to pronounce it, but on the street here, Illinois Senate candidate and convention keynoter Barack Obama has entered the no-last-name needed Madonna/Bono/Beyonce world.

One well-heeled delegate was hustling along Boylston Street here name-dropping, "I hear Barack is having a party tonight."

I saw a Boston cop exiting a stall at the Sheraton Back Bay ladies' room, struggling to wrestle back into her belt, which had a Glock, handcuffs and a bunch of other stuff attached.

"You've got to take twenty pounds on and off every time you go," she said. She ought to know. She's weighed the thing. As if this is news: It's still a man's world.

The Sheraton has the convention's most comprehensive selection of fairly routine Kerry-Edwards campaign junk selling briskly at table in the lobby.

This stuff is really expensive--$10 for a shot glass and $22 t-shirts. Best bang for the buck: Bumper stickers (3 for $5) that say: "Democrats are HOT. Ever hear of a 'Fine Piece of Elephant'?"


July 27, 2004 7:12 AM CDT

The Daley brothers respond to those outrageous accusations heard on the street here: That we Chicago people talk funny.

"What?" said the Mayor asking me to repeat the scurrilous charge. He then roared with laughter.

Younger brother John, the County Commissioner, was incredulous: "We talk funny?"

It felt like Family Day at the state fair here -- what with the Daleys hanging at the Back Bay Hilton, Bill bear hugging Hill on stage at the convention and three generations of Jesse Jacksons making their presence felt.

I was talking to Sandi Jackson, who is married to Jesse Jr., the congressman. Before long she was digging into her mini black backpack to show off wallet photos of her 10-month old Jesse III and daughter Jessica, 4.

Nodding her head toward her husband, Sandi said, "I thought I loved this guy but I'd kick him to the curb in a minute for these kids!"

A few hours later, the glad handing Rev. Jackson and posse swept into the Tribune workspace--a third-world igloo with no toilets and temps just above freezing.

There even was some hugging of key reporters. Jackson Sr. is trying to keep his enemies close.

Grandpa told me that Jesse III is showing presidential tendencies. "He's already giving extemporaneous speeches…He determines when people are awake and asleep."

Jessica "calls me 'Papa.' She makes me melt," said the Senior Jackson.

Now the whole Democratic Party is getting behind the No CARB diet.

That's No Cheney, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Bush.

There's a No CARB luncheon here later this week and, of course, you can buy buttons that promote the No CARB program.

Illinois Senior Sen. Dick Durbin to Mayor Daley: "It's great to be in Boston with all these Sox fans. Isn't it, Mayor?"

Protesters were screaming at arriving delegates from the Free Speech pen at the Fleet Center. "Attention convention delegates. Please be prepared for a full body cavity rectal search. Remember it's in the name of national security."

The protesters, of course, detest being told that if they want to raise hell near the convention site, they will have to stay in the razor-wired area.

But police commissioner (and lawyer) Kathleen O'Toole agrees with them, sort of.

"I hate the cage. I'm a big First Amendment advocate," she told me over bites of dinner interrupted by calls on two different cell phones. "I taught Constitutional law in the police academy. It's a very unfortunate result of the times we live in."

The huge security headaches made me think that O'Toole would have gladly passed if she could have voted against holding the convention in Boston.

But she says quite the opposite: "I'm addicted to the adrenaline. I love that it's here."

Speaking of adrenaline, convention keynoter Barack Obama, the fawned over Illinois Senate candidate, told me he expected his adrenaline level to be 11--on a 10 scale--when he steps to the podium Tuesday night.

The John Kerry people didn't fool around much with his text except to be VERY insistent on length. Obama said they've got the timing figured down to the number of words, with 15 minutes equaling 2,100. And they're counting!

My figuring says that if you read this 535-word posting out loud, it should--using the Kerry formula--take 3.8 minutes. Give or take, depending on the interruptions for standing ovations, sign waving and delirious cheering.

If that happens, email me a picture and double your medication.


July 26, 2004 8:45 PM CDT

A few impertinent questions for Barack Obama, asked in an interview Sunday:

Q: What happens if you give a dog of a speech (Tuesday night)?

A: If I just bomb, then I'll have to answer to my wife.

Q: Has she given you any advice?

A: She has told me, "Don't screw it up!"

Q: There's a party at an oyster house for the Illinois delegation. Are you a big raw seafood eater?

A: I'm a big oyster man. I like raw oysters...It's probably a bad time to get food poisoning.

Q: Looks like you got a shoeshine.

A: (Looking at his shiny black shoes) Not bad. People look at your shoes. I went to my guy, who buffed 'em up real nice…I got a haircut. I got my shirts cleaned. I bought a new tie.

Q: Did you bring the kids (daughters Malia, 6; Sasha, 3) to Boston?

A: We talked to our 6-year-old…We told her she'd miss a couple days of camp and swimming. She said, "Daddy, I won't hurt your feelings will I if I decide not to go?" I thought to myself, my 6-year-old was showing fine judgment to go swimming instead of listening to a bunch of grownups talking for hours."

Q: What's the dumbest question you've been asked?

A: It's not so much that they're dumb. They're repetitive. "How long will you talk…?"

Q: Give me a hint of what you're going to say.

A: Thank you very much.

And, some questions for Obama's wife, Michelle:

Q: What's your husband's favorite music?

A: If you were to go into his car and see his CD collection, he'd have some Sting, Eminem, Latin popular music…He loves Thelonious Monk, He loves Miles Davis. He just took my Outkast because I can only play one song on it because I usually have the kids. There's too much cursing...Marvin Gaye is one of his favorites. He loves to sing "Let's Get It On." You need to get him to get up and do that. He's not shy, if you sort of coax him.

Q: Favorite food?

A: Rice and beans. He loves greens. He loves sort of Latin-Jamaican food…plantains.

Q: He said he bought a new tie for his speech.

A: He doesn't like to shop…Buying a tie is a major purchase…I said, "You're gonna go buy another suit." He said, "I don't need another suit."

Q: At this convention, people are talking about him like he's a rock star. Has it gone to his head?

A: The level of hype is just that…Barack has not won anything yet. He still has to do a lot of work before he's impacting the country in a way that is meaningful…It's not going to anybody's head. He's going to make a mistake and the minute he does all this will turn to dust.

Chicago actor John Cusack popped into a breakfast meeting of the Illinois delegation to show support for John Kerry.

Cusack says his voting address is his Chicago home near the Hancock Building. For his early call, he had shades perched on his head and wore a plain gray T-shirt, olive cargo pants with a small coffee thermos in one pocket, a Boston Globe and a blue bandanna in another.

Some excerpts from the group grope:

Q: What are you doing here?

A: Chicago's my hometown. I gotta show up here...I'm very interested in Barack Obama…looking forward to meeting him and finding what Barack is all about.

Q: Why did you come to the convention?

A: I'm going to talk to some of the delegates, especially…in the swing states…Just basically pump people up (for John Kerry).

Q: Is this more fun than acting?

A: Different. This is higher stakes.

Q: Do you have political ambitions?

A: I kind of like my day job.

Q: Are you working on a film?

A: I just finished one in Chicago with Harold Ramis…"The Ice Harvest."

Q: Are you been hanging out in Boston with Hollywood stars?

A: No…I don't. I haven't seen anybody from California yet.

Q: Are you disappointed in the Chicago Cubs?

A: It's not over. What are they, 8 ½ games back? How many for the wild card? Three games? Are you ready to throw in the towel?

Q: Name three songs for the Kerry campaign.

A: Good question! (pause, thinking). Maybe, "Let Me Roll It," Paul McCartney and Wings; "Let's Get it On," Marvin Gaye and "We are the Champions" (by Queen).

Read more about Ellen Warren's adventures at the Democratic National Convention in Tuesday's edition of RedEye.

July 26, 2004

Here's something to chew on: John Kerry has had his teeth whitened.

That means maximum wattage for his big convention moments, set off by his sunny Nantucket glow.

This popular dental procedure is said--just like Botox--to take years off your face.

And if Kerry denies it? Well, issue this challenge: Bite me!

And you thought Howard's howl was bad? Failed presidential contender Howard Dean was singing an Irish ditty with his pal Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) at an E. Berkeley St. Irish pub on the eve of the Dem convention here.

If you barely remember Dean, you surely have forgotten his one-time campaign manager, Joe Trippi. Dean canned Trippi after the former Vermont governors back-to-back losses to Kerry in Iowa and New Hampshire last January.

Trippi and Dean still aren't speaking and Trippi is making the party rounds here pitching his new book and griping about how Dean wouldn't have flamed out if he'd paid more attention to advice from… Joe Trippi.

Here's a good one: People in Boston think Chicagoans talk funny. Boston carpenter Chris Burns, installing American flags outside the Democratic Convention's FleetCenter, told me, "You hang around here long (pronounced laaahng) enough and we'll teach you to speak English."

On a Chi-bashing roll now, another carpenter from local 33 chimed in, "At least Fenway isn't falling down." And if that slam at Wrigley Field wasn't enough, listen to the shot that Celtics legend Bill Russell took at the Bulls.

With his 6-9 frame folded into a too-small chair at a VIP reception here, the 11-time NBA champ told me, "Y'all had a cute little basketball team for awhile." Then he threw back his head and busted out laughing.

Russell is 70 now and his beard is as white as John Kerry's incisors. When I asked him what happened to our vaunted Bulls he said, "Athletes have a bad situation. They get old."

Ditto politicians...and even, they tell me, some news reporters.More soon,


Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World