Covering the "No Talk Express"
October 2008

by Stephen Crowley

Editor's Note:

Stephen Crowley has been a staff photographer for The New York Times since 1992, and has covered Washington, D.C., since 1986. His editors look to him to provide insightful moments in the midst of breaking national and international news, moments that can sometimes define in a single image, politics and culture. He was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that covered the war in Afghanistan in 2002. The same year, he was cited as "Photographer of the Year" by the White House News Photographers Association. In 2005, American Photo included Crowley on its list of the "most influential people in photography."

Most days a campaign will put out the same bowl of fruit for us to interpret---accuracy, of course, is paramount---and some will paint it, sculpt it, or wax poetic in the hope of making it more interesting than it looked the day before. But lately, John McCain's campaign schedule has been as erratic as a gold mine penny stock I've been watching.

This is a very efficiently run operation; some of McCain's staff worked in the Bush White House and brought along their expertise. If there's a downside it's that they run it like the White House, forgetting that the idea is to expose the candidate to the public and to energize the base. McCain fills his schedule with television interviews and lately there have been very few opportunities for the traveling press to ask a question or take a picture. If reporters can't get to the candidate they can turn to a dozen surrogates. Photographers, of course, need to see it. In seven days since I rejoined the campaign last week after a break, we traveled from Washington, D.C., to three states where we covered one debate, one rally, one round-table discussion, one press statement, one speech and a moment of silence at the foot of Harry Truman's grave and spent dozens of hours idling in the motorcade or in a hotel meeting room looking for a glimpse of reality.

Things are a lot different from when I joined the McCain campaign in September 2007 during his NO SURRENDER tour through South Carolina.

At that point McCain was polling badly, low on money and had lost some of his key staffers. There was a paucity of supporters at that point and he concentrated his campaigning in diners, where sometimes lunch was more important than meeting a politician, and in VFW halls where he always found enthusiastic supporters. Reporters liked to sit with him in the back of the campaign bus, the "Straight Talk Express." He's smart and funny and he'll fill up your notebook with great copy. Photographers, for the most part, are invisible on the campaign. I've covered McCain for 20 years and we've never so much as said hello to each other – except for a rally in Iowa last January that was so poorly attended that he marched into the small crowd, looked into my eyes, shook my hand and thanked me for coming out.

But being invisible worked fine for me. At that point access was reasonable and the moments were real--and he didn't mind if you photographed him eating junk food, even though Cindy McCain worries whether he takes care of himself when she's not around.

Once he became the presumptive nominee, and Sarah Palin joined the ticket, the crowds swelled. They've added another layer of staff and now a curtain hangs in the campaign plane to shield the candidate from the cameras on what one reporter has dubbed the "No Talk Express."

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