The Boy Who Fell Off the Bus

Posted February 10, 2004 at 6:26pm

“Now the press screened the candidates, usurping the [political] party’s old function. By reporting a man’s political strengths, they made him a front runner; by mentioning his weaknesses and liabilities, they cut him down. … The press was no longer simply guessing who might run and who might win; the press was in some ways determining these things.”

Those words could well be used to describe the power of the media in the 2004 presidential election. Just ask former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D).

But they were in fact penned by a 25-year-old writer for Rolling Stone magazine more than 30 years ago.

At the time, Timothy Crouse had no idea that “The Boys on the Bus,” his book about the press corps covering the 1972 presidential election, would be such a sensation. Even though Crouse is out of the political game these days, his writing continues to impact candidates and the journalists who cover them.

It all began with Crouse convincing his editors to let him tag along on the campaign trail with Hunter S. Thompson, the infamous Rolling Stone writer whose own book “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” is also a classic.

“He was always trying to keep Hunter in one piece,” recalled Jack Germond, who was then chief political writer for the Gannett newspaper chain. “He was his guardian in a sense. It was almost a full-time job.”

But Crouse, whose father Russel Crouse had been a newspaper reporter early in his career, wasn’t just content to babysit. He filed some vivid dispatches from the campaign trail. And through his book, he changed the way people look at the news media — and the way members of the media look at themselves.

“I wanted to find some vital political subject as yet unexplored, and I hadn’t been in New Hampshire for a week when it began to dawn on me that the guys around me on the bus were a fascinating and significant factor in the electoral process,” Crouse said in a recent interview. “The more I studied them, the more I felt there was to be said about them.”

Crouse first wrote a long piece on the reporters for Rolling Stone, and that led to a book contract. “The Boys on the Bus” is now, of course, a must-read in political circles, even all these years later. It was re-released last fall to coincide with

the 30th anniversary of its initial publication.

A congratulatory early-morning phone call from the 1972 Democratic nominee, then-Sen. George McGovern (S.D.), on the day the book was published gave Crouse the first inkling that it might do extremely well.

“That’s when it occurred to me that ‘The Boys on the Bus’ might get some attention,” he said. “In retrospect, it seems fairly obvious that the media are fascinated by the media, and that writing about reporters pretty much guaranteed a well-amplified response.”

Today, most major news outlets have reporters who cover the media full time. But Crouse is widely acknowledged as the first to detail the media’s influence on campaigns and elections.

Tom Rosenstiel, executive director for the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said Crouse’s book coincided with the opening up of the White House nominating process, when the decisions for the first time were left largely to the primary voters instead of the political bosses.

“It captured the sense that the press had reached a new level of influence,” Rosenstiel said. “Tim Crouse pulled back the curtain on the whole thing. He was the first to see it, and he saw it at the right moment.”

Crouse spent months observing how the reporters worked, competed and cooperated, how they were dependent on and manipulated by the campaigns, and equally significantly, how they played. The book is a funny, madcap, incisive portrayal of the agony and the ecstasy of the campaign trail, but it is also a cautionary tale about the perils of pack journalism and the corporate media. Many of its lessons still apply today.

The book also helped make famous the political journalists who were, and in some cases still are, giants of the trade (and staples of the political chat shows): Germond, David Broder, Robert Novak, R.W. “Johnny” Apple Jr., and many, many others.

Those who were there said Crouse captured the scene perfectly.

“It was a damn good book, I thought,” Germond said.

He said Crouse was “rough” on a couple of people, but noted that some of the reporters “tried to put on an act for him. It didn’t work.”

Jules Witcover, who was then a political reporter for the Los Angeles Times and is still on the trail as a columnist for The Baltimore Sun, recalled that some of the journalists were suspicious of Crouse when he turned up on the bus.

“When he was working on the book at first he was very mysterious,” Witcover said. “He didn’t tell anyone what he was doing. We kind of cornered him and told him we would be fine if he were open with us, and he was.”

Witcover said most everyone was pleased with their portrayals in the book, even if they were embarrassed by all the attention. After all, that was before every reporter clamored to be a pundit on TV.

“We came from the tradition that reporters should be seen and not heard,” Witcover said.

Crouse, Rosenstiel said, perfectly captured a moment in time, because the power of the printed press probably reached its zenith in 1972. Although television was an important part of the political process — and Crouse wrote about it at length — campaign footage was still being shot in film in ’72.

That meant news crews had to peel away from the trail early each day to dispatch their film to a TV studio. By 1976, news teams shot in video and had satellite technology available to them, making it far easier to transmit pictures to the evening broadcasts.

“That was the last great print campaign,” Rosenstiel said of 1972.

It was also the last time Tim Crouse spent any significant time on the campaign trail.

“Hunter Thompson said that he watched me getting hooked on politics, and was sure I would never miss a national convention for the rest of my life,” Crouse recalled. “In fact, I gradually realized that, although politics intrigued me, literature and the theater had a stronger pull.”

Just as he followed his father into journalism, Crouse took inspiration from his father’s later career.

From the 1930s until the 1960s, Russel Crouse was a successful playwright and Broadway producer, having a hand in dozens of hits, including “Anything Goes,” “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “The Sound of Music.” He even wrote the book for a musical called “Mr. President,” about a president and his family adjusting to civilian life after the White House.

In 1987, Timothy Crouse updated the book his father wrote for “Anything Goes,” and a successful revival of that production just closed in London. He also recently translated a version of French novelist Roger Martin du Gard’s 2000 book, “Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort.” And he is completing a collection of short stories.

“For many years now, I haven’t had a hooked-up TV,” said Crouse, who lives in North Carolina. “I haven’t been out on the trail, or in Washington, for quite a while, and I tend to follow the political news out of the corner of my eye. … These days, I find myself drawn to [magazine] pieces that take a longer view of the political landscape.”

While he praised the knowledge and work ethic of the reporters he wrote about, Crouse said he believes that some political journalists do not approach the job with the requisite skepticism.

“It seems to me that covering politics as a career requires taking the system to some extent at face value, and assuming it does what it purports to do,” he said. “Facts that don’t fit with this tend to get short shrift, from what I can see.”