MUSIC: Here's to the travelers on the open road...
TERENCE SMITH: In 1972, author Timothy Crouse wrote The Boys on the Bus, the seminal account of life on the campaign trail. Ever since, reporters' road trips with would-be presidents have been the stuff of legend.
TIMOTHY CROUSE, Author, The Boys on the Bus: If your idea of a good time is flying around the country week after week, in the company of journalists and politicians freed of all the normal strictures of daily life, in an environment where nobody is going to raise an eyebrow if you want to have your first drink at 11:00 in the morning, this is the job for you.
SPOKESMAN: So we'll arrive Omaha at 6:05.
TERENCE SMITH: A new generation of reporters is logging thousands of miles with the candidates these days. The boys on the bus have become the more politically correct men and women. Equipped with space-age technologies, their numbers have multiplied, and they are trekking a different kind of campaign trail. Syndicated Columnist Jack Germond is covering his tenth presidential campaign. His newly published memoir of life on the road is entitled Fat Man in a Middle Seat.
JACK GERMOND, Syndicated Columnist: A lot of good reporters cover politics, but a lot of them don't want to do it anymore, though. And get out of it.
TERENCE SMITH: Why?
JACK GERMOND: They don't like it. They don't like the politicians.
TERENCE SMITH: Is that some sort of post-Watergate cynicism?
JACK GERMOND: No, I think it's the sort of dehumanizing of the whole process, the isolation of the candidates, the sound-bite approach.
TERENCE SMITH: Gone are the days of 1972, when a handful of reporters traveled with the candidates and got to know them personally.
BRUCE MORTON: This is, I think, the warmest winter I have spent here.
TERENCE SMITH: Bruce Morton, now a national correspondent for CNN, covered the 1972 race, in which George McGovern waged an uphill battle to unseat President Richard Nixon.
BRUCE MORTON: McGovern, I remember, was flying at some point in two little propeller planes, and we'd all swap around, so you'd spend this leg with him, and another guy would spend the next leg with him. The heat went out in one of them. We agreed the candidate ought to have the heated plane, as I recall. You know, you had that kind of access.
JACK GERMOND: Then they'd have dinner with you, they'd have a couple of drinks with you. They weren't afraid you were going to blow them up for one cheap story. I mean, it was an entirely different attitude.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Yeah, the creamed spinach was $18.
TERENCE SMITH: The notable exception in the current campaign is John McCain, who entertains reporters at length aboard his campaign bus, and has won sympathetic coverage as a result.
WALTER MONDALE: Thank Irma. Thanks, everybody. Thank you.
TERENCE SMITH: Over the years, the proliferation of news organizations, combined with satellite technology...
SPOKESPERSON: Turn the mikes on!
TERENCE SMITH: ...Have increased the size of the press corps geometrically.
JACK GERMOND: You now have these huge mobs, and what's happened, Terry, is that the crowd of reporters, the press, has become so large that it becomes a spectacle in itself.
SPOKESMAN: Please, I'm asking you, please scoot over.
GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: Seems like the number of cameras has increased mightily. I love the hardy band that stays with me through thick or thin. Guys?
ANNE KORNBLUT: Frankly, I don't think we see much more than the people at home would see watching him on television, except glimpses here and there.
TERENCE SMITH: Anne Kornblut, who was not even born in 1972, is covering George W. Bush for The Boston Globe.
ANNE KORNBLUT, The Boston Globe: We don't spend a lot of time interacting with him, but we all have his speech memorized. What we see is what is put before us by the campaign. We see him in front of a podium five times a day, saying the same thing.
TERENCE SMITH: Being part of the pack day after day makes original reporting more difficult than it used to be.
TIMOTHY CROUSE: They are all witnessing exactly the same event, they are all receiving the same handouts from the candidate's staff, they are all interviewing the same people, and there's going to be a kind of sameness. There is this kind of psychology of the crowd.
TERENCE SMITH: Reporters must constantly guard against identifying with their candidates.
EDWIN CHEN, Los Angeles Times: We become captives to whatever particular campaign we are covering. We fly on his plane, and ride in his motorcade, and we are pretty much insulated from the outside world.
TERENCE SMITH: Edwin Chen is covering the campaign of Vice President Al Gore for the Los Angeles Times.
EDWIN CHEN: The Stockholm Syndrome, it's hard to fight, because you are in a bus, surrounded by the candidate's staff-- press secretaries, issues people, logistics people-- who can make your life so much easier.
SPOKESMAN: C'mon guys, we've got more power bars up here, if anyone is interested.
EDWIN CHEN: And you become part of the entourage, whether you like it or not, by dint of physically being in this bubble.
TERENCE SMITH: There is, as there has always been, a certain suspension of reality on the trail.
MUSIC: Here I am signed, sealed, delivered -- I'm yours...
TIMOTHY CROUSE: There is definitely about the campaign a quality of summer camp, because you enter a world where you don't have to worry about getting your teeth cleaned, where you can put aside paying your bills until the indefinite future, where you are away from all the duties of family life. You know, it's a kind of prolonged adolescence.
ANNE KORNBLUT: The places we go to are blurred. It begins at 7:00 A.M. We have many occasions where we don't know where we are.
SPOKESMAN: Where are we?
SPOKESMAN: Yeah, Indianola.
ANNE KORNBLUT: It's a lot of cold turkey sandwiches in boxes. We've said we are not going to eat anything that doesn't have a lot of mayonnaise in it, if we can...
TERENCE SMITH: The food was no better in 1972, but there was a feeling of being off on your own, of being set free. Timothy Crouse traveled that year with gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson for "Rolling Stone" Magazine.
TIMOTHY CROUSE: There weren't any laptops, you didn't have a cell phone. There was a machine we had at a Rolling Stone that Hunter Thompson called the "Mojo," because it wasn't even called a fax yet.
JACK GERMOND: When you get on a bus now with a candidate, there's ten reporters talking on their cell phones or something, talking to some pale desk person back in the office.
MAN ON BUS: People keep calling me and telling me they've sent...
TERENCE SMITH: That immediate communication to the office-- and the world-- has had an impact on the news itself.
EDWIN CHEN: The spin cycle has so accelerated. It used to be maybe a 24-hour news cycle. Now you get something that happens early in the morning, you get a response from the opposing camp before lunch.
SPOKESMAN: Certainly need to move the picture by 3:00 this afternoon, central.
BRUCE MORTON: There is an endless cycle, a 24-hour cycle, in which somebody is always sticking a microphone in your face saying, "I need to know right now, I'm live."
SPOKESMAN: Is that right, Kevin?
GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: I second that.
TERENCE SMITH: But are instant answers by candidates who would be president necessarily a good thing?
BRUCE MORTON: Eric Sevareid, the old CBS commentator, used to have a saying, which was "news every other day." And what he meant was sometimes, you just wanted some time to think about this.
TERENCE SMITH: And does the frenzy, the pressure of the road, reveal something about the character of a candidate?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Come on down. Let's get fired up here.
EDWIN CHEN: When you are President of the United States, sometimes you need to respond on the spot. Whether you are dealing with Boris Yeltsin, or Vladimir Putin, or Saddam Hussein, you can't sit back and take polls and talk to 32 advisors and develop an issues paper. And that is part of the test.
TERENCE SMITH: The new technologies may also be making the bus obsolete. Campaigns, more and more, can communicate directly with the voter.
BRUCE MORTON: Of course, in another four years, it may be a virtual bus, I don't know. Really, you may be able to do a lot of this on the Internet.
SPOKESPERSON: Ken, do I need to tell anybody in transmission?
TERENCE SMITH: ABC News, while covering campaign 2000 for television, is sharing costly newsgathering resources with its Internet site.
SPOKESPERSON: You know what Gore said at his thing, right?
TERENCE SMITH: Mark Halperin is political director for ABC News.
MARK HALPERIN, ABC News: How do you take all that content, all that knowledge, a lot of which in the past wouldn't have made it on to ABC News, but now can be used on abcnews.com on the Internet.
TERENCE SMITH: The network has created a central desk, staffed 24 hours a day, where reporters can share information on their internal campaign Web site.
SPOKESPERSON: To say that Gore will be making news...
TERENCE SMITH: Information too detailed for television, but nectar for political junkies, can be displayed on abc.com.
SPOKESPERSON: This is road to the White House...
TERENCE SMITH: With immediate access to news on cable and the Internet, there is a question as to whether most journalists need to be with the candidate at all.
JACK GERMOND: You could cover most stories without ever leaving Washington. But it wouldn't be any fun. (Laughter) it would be sort of bloodless, but you'd see all the stuff that everybody sees.
SPOKESPERSON: Editorial, Dana...
TERENCE SMITH: Being on the bus may indeed not be as important as it once was.
SPOKESPERSON: Here is Saturday's schedule, if anybody needs it.
TERENCE SMITH: And here is another reality: Except for close primary races like the current one, news organizations no longer give the campaign the same prominent play they used to.
MARK HALPERIN: The end of the Cold War means that covering presidential politics is simply less important. People are less interested in it. The stakes are not the same.
ANNE KORNBLUT: Our newspaper tries to reflect the way the country really works, and therefore, the White House can end up on page A27.
TERENCE SMITH: Jack Germond says that in modern campaigns, issues are not always the centerpiece they once were.
JACK GERMOND: Civil rights-- that was the decisive issue for many Americans for a long time. The war in Vietnam. For some people, abortion rights, choice, is a defining issue. But nobody is going to walk through a wall for the capital gains tax, you know.
TERENCE SMITH: What matters is the mettle of a man, who is, as Germond puts it, first and foremost good company.
JACK GERMOND: The dirty little secret of Reagan's presidency is that most people did not agree with Reagan on his programs. They liked him, you know. If they form this impression of somebody, it is based on what they think of them as people.
TERENCE SMITH: And in the 2000 campaign, personality, not issues, may matter more than ever.
EDWIN CHEN: Partly because of the whole Clinton scandal, people care more about honesty and character, I think.
TERENCE SMITH: In the end, despite all the turkey sandwiches and sleepless nights, for most of the boys and girls on the bus...
(Playing Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again") -- on the road again...
TERENCE SMITH: ...The romance of the road is still there.
EDWIN CHEN: As messy as it is, it's a way of measuring this person, who would be the most powerful man in the world.
TERENCE SMITH: As Timothy Crouse wrote a quarter century ago, "they were tired, cross, and so overworked that they could not stand another second of the campaign, and yet..."
JACK GERMOND: The only thing worse than covering this campaign would not be covering it.
TERENCE SMITH: "...They wanted it to go on forever."