The Sublime and Terrifying Inside Story of Obama's Final Campaign (A BuzzFeed/Blue Rider Press Book)
Council Bluffs, Iowa
“This food is for the national press only.”
I looked up from my plate of rice, beans, and a chicken breast with side of a green salad dressed in a light vinaigrette. I’d taken only two bites before the voice disrupted me. Obama hadn’t yet arrived to deliver his speech in a small, quaint park in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and I’d taken shelter from the rain, then sun, in a tent clearly marked NATIONAL PRESS ONLY and served myself from a buffet that was also clearly marked for NATIONAL PRESS ONLY.
“Sir, this food is for the national press only,” the young woman repeated, pointing to the multiple signs.
She was wearing an Obama volunteer badge.
It’d taken me only 15 minutes back on the trail to remember why I really hated it. Since taking the gig to cover Obama in April, I’d spent almost all my time in Chicago and DC and New York, putting off until the last possible moment the actual act of following democracy’s greatest roadshow across the country. That moment came after the fifth e-mail in as many weeks from Ben Smith, or @BuzzFeedBen as he’d been going by lately on Twitter, asking when I was actually going to get out on the trail and do the real job he’d hired me for.
Would love to see you out on the trail. . . .
True, I’d made a couple of failed attempts—a month earlier, I’d even thought about booking a spot on the White House press charter plane. Due to the incompetence of American Airlines, simmering labor problems at O’Hare, a flash thunderstorm on the East Coast, and, to cap it off, a mass shooting at a movie theater in Colorado, I ended up getting stuck in the Windy City and missing the trip to Florida. Not that I wasn’t looking for excuses not to return—diving into a story on a horrible hospital scandal in Afghanistan, sticking around New York to appear on cable television spewing bullshit, volunteering to spend a week editing, or making more calls for one enterprise story or another.
Anything to put off what I’d realized I did truly dread: being stuck, yet again, on what I had determined four years ago to be the most soul-killing reportorial beat on the planet, with hours spent in the most unsanitary conditions on worn-out buses and in filthy Port-o-Johns (I was once locked in a male bathroom and locker room with the entire Hillary press corps), shoveling catered food and cookies into my mouth, getting felt up and searched and prodded regularly by increasingly aggressive security forces from the federal, state, and local levels, and worst of all, surrounding myself with a group of journalists, known as the White House press corps, that I was positive I was going to hate, preemptively assuming they, too, would hate me; and getting hassled, directed, and ordered around by zealous Obamatron volunteers.
“Sir . . .”
This trip to Council Bluffs was a soft reentry, as I was still avoiding the White House plane and bus—I went unilateral, booking my own flights, renting a car, and getting credentialed for each individual event on my own. I’d arrived the night before, stayed in a Marriott across the border in Omaha, Nebraska, and drove the 20 minutes to what was the first event of a three-day bus trip for Obama across Iowa. It was a state the president won handily in 2008, but it had fallen into the swing state column in 2012. The bus trip—from Council Bluffs to Cedar Rapids to Des Moines to Dubuque—had started that morning. But since I wasn’t on the White House bus, that meant that despite the fact that my news organization was national, the identification around my neck said I was LOCAL.
“The food is for the . . .”
In the brutal caste system of campaign journalism, this was one step above being motorcade roadkill or the sugary scum on the bottom of an unwashed Fox & Friends coffee mug. Local press were kept at a distance from the grand pooh-bahs employed by national outlets; local press didn’t get wireless access; local press usually didn’t get a tent and were instead stuck on long fold-up tables in the sun; local press didn’t get a cool badge that said THE TRIP OF PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA; local press had to get to events hours earlier; and local press didn’t get any of the catered food, not even the bottled water and coffee.
“I’m national press,” I answered.
“Your badge says you’re local.”
“Probably a mistake.”
“But I was told—”
“Look, it’s fucking cool, okay?” I said. “I am fucking national press, there’s no need to escalate this shit, fuck me, Jesus.”
My expletive-laced tantrum ended the exchange, and the poor volunteer moved off, looking to bust other regional reporters or local news crews who’d perhaps snagged an illicit Diet Coke.
Of course, she was entirely correct: according to the weird technicalities of the trail, I wasn’t supposed to be eating that plate of rice, beans, and chicken, nor sipping that soda, nor was I supposed to be sitting in that tent with wireless and power outlets and shade. I hadn’t actually signed up for the trip’s full package, which included air charter, bus travel, hotels, and, yes, fully catered meals at each stop along the way.
The 4,300-person crowd in Bayliss Park started to scream, while the music on the sound system started to pulse—“Higher and higher, your love keeps lifting me higher and higher”—and without wanting to draw more attention to myself, I left my gear and my half-eaten plate and wandered out to see the commotion.
President Obama had arrived.
A massive black bus—nicknamed the Beast—rolled up surrounded by about 12 other black vehicles and ambulances, sirens flashing. The custom-made monster bus—price tag $1.1 million—came from Hemphill Brothers Coach Company, a Tennessee family establishment with names like Beyoncé and Aerosmith on its client list. It looked like something out of a Transformers movie, as if one pushed button could morph it into some shoulder-fired missile system that could fly and lay waste to heavily populated urban areas.
The doors to the bus opened.
I caught my first glimpse this year of Obama in the wild—the last few times I’d laid eyes on the president, he’d been in the White House, or in the sterile confines of the NATO summit in Chicago a few months earlier. Now he was out among the people, sort of, in real America, asking for votes, exposed as a mere political candidate.
Dashing off the bus, he was visible in the open air and sunlight for about five seconds before entering a long line of about eight white tents, where he would be sheltered temporarily from the masses, meet local officials, and wait before delivering his stump speech.
I moved to a spot to take in the scene, settling in at a series of foldout picnic tables that were marked for local press and were closer to the stage. Obama’s top staff started to wander out of the white tents, catching a few rays of sun as the sky cleared up. The staff took up positions behind metal barriers, while the savvier reporters—most of whom I knew, or at least had bumped into before—began to approach them, making their moves, getting access.
I recognized the top staff immediately: Jay Carney, Jen Psaki, David Plouffe, Axe, and a handful of lower-ranking press staff who traveled everywhere with the campaign.
This was my moment to introduce myself to those White House and campaign officials I didn’t yet know, to begin to build relationships, the currency of political reporting. Smile, shake their hands, let them put a face to the byline.
Another kind of anxiety seized me, a paralyzing feeling at the acts of sycophancy any such conversations would require. Did I have it in me to suck up to them? Perhaps more terrifying: what if I sucked up to them, prostrated myself before them as one more willing journalist to carry their water, repeating their talking points in print and on cable television, joking and joshing my way onto the list of reporters handed authorized leaks, and they didn’t tell me anything anyway?
No, okay, I could do it—this was the job.
Who should I go to first?
How about Carney?
The blond, 45-year-old Carney, soft in demeanor, had been a particularly hard subject for me to make contact with. Over the past two years, I’d sent the White House press secretary a number of e-mails, and none were answered. I had the same luck on the phone; no calls returned. Yes, he was a busy guy, but that didn’t stop me from taking the slights as deeply personal attacks. Why hadn’t I even gotten a “no comment”? Or a “fuck you”? Or “Sorry, you’re never in your life going to get an interview with me or the vice president, or anyone else”?
With Carney there was also the unsettling feeling that I was looking directly at a regime collaborator. I’d seen what they’d done to collaborators in Iraq—ski-masked assassinations at the marketplace—or to Cylons on Battlestar Galactica or snitches on the South Side—bang, bang. And yet, in all cases, collaborators performed a necessary function, one that made society ease forward, if also one that made it difficult to make eye contact with them.
Carney, you see, had been a journalist once, too. He’d been one of the reportedly 19 members of the mainstream outlets who had left their profession to join the hip and cool Camelot of the Obama years. Dealing with ex-journalists—hacks turned flacks—was like dealing with ex-smokers. They were barely able to disguise their contempt for what they once were, convinced now of their superiority because they had tapped into a part of life that was so much more fulfilling and wonderful than hacking up a lung. Yet they still loved nicotine and thought about smoking all the time, and so in their contempt became the most difficult pains in the ass to fire up a Parliament around, or, in this case, to get a leak from, or set up an interview with, as they held such a low opinion of their former profession that they set out to prevent others from practicing it as well.
Worse, Carney had once worked for a rival newsmagazine—I’d started at Newsweek, and he’d been Time’s political correspondent, then later their Washington bureau chief. In his 20-year career at the magazine, he’d done a stint in Moscow and diligently worked his way up the masthead. The right wing would seize on Carney’s transformation from Time’s DC bureau chief to White House spokesman as another sign of the liberal media elite not so secretly supporting Obama; the right, as usual, had it mostly wrong. Carney’s bias, even at Time, was never to the right or to the left—his bias had always been against news itself.
No one I spoke to could remember a single story Carney had written. No Watergates or Lewinskys or Whitewaters or awards or NSA wiretapping scoops or investigations prompted. I’d heard one anecdote about Carney. A reporter had gotten a story off the record from a White House official, confirmed it with another source, then went back to the White House official, who told him he couldn’t use it. The official directed the reporter to Carney to explain. “No, you can’t report it,” Carney told him. “There were many times in my career I knew information I couldn’t report, and there are things I learned in the Bush administration I still can’t report.” Another journalist who worked with him at Time’s DC bureau said Carney would wave him off serious investigative pieces. When Vanity Fair writer Michael Lewis requested full access to the president for a profile, it was Carney who tried to stop it from happening. “I do try to be ‘fair and balanced,’” he said in 2008, giving journalism advice to students at his high school, “but I also try to be smart. I’ll call somebody out if it’s appropriate, and I’ll occasionally take a stab at analysis.” A look at his write-ups and analysis from Time confirmed this. “Obama may speak beautifully and inspirationally about hope and change,” wrote Carney in a piece about the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as Obama’s first chief of staff. “But he clearly understands that you can’t just sit around talking about all the good things you want to do when you get to the White House and then expect them to happen all by themselves.” To get noticed while going unnoticed, this was Carney’s signature style, which he impressively turned into a highly effective method of career advancement, going back even to his college years at Yale. “Singling out Jay, I can’t honestly think of any story that sticks out,” one old friend told the Yale Daily News, in a profile written about Carney.
Watching him in Iowa be Jay Carney of the White House rather than Jay Carney of Time magazine, complete now with a Secret Service pin to show his true status as a campaign trail regular, I understood immediately why he officially crossed over: he’d developed a serious, $10,000-a-day habit of following presidents around the country and the world. It’s not a cheap fix to get global private jet travel. He’d got his first taste in 2000, when he covered the George W. Bush campaign for Time, which he described in the film Journeys with George in an uncharacteristically memorable cameo, alongside his then-colleague John Dickerson, now at Slate: “Hi,” said Carney looking into the camera, seated beside Dickerson in a press file room. “We don’t want you to get the impression from this picture that Time is completely staffed by white males with blond hair at all, because really we’re a very diverse organization.” He did campaign stints in 2004 and in 2008, before becoming Vice President Joe Biden’s spokesperson in 2009 and taking the top press secretary job in 2011.
Now he was the power, telling others what to print. It was perhaps a better position, and it certainly came with a more prestigious retirement plan: being a corporate spokesperson or university professor or high-paid speaker and talking head. Robert Gibbs, Carney’s predecessor, spent 2012 on the speaking circuit, booking some 40 gigs at an estimated $40,000 a speech; David Plouffe had reportedly accepted $100,000 for two speeches in Nigeria in December 2010. Few media types or reporters could command such sums. More generously, the temptation to see what it was really like on the other side was huge, though I did recall one writer’s comment that after 50 years in Washington, he’d never been offered a job . . .
Okay, I’d do it—I stood up and . . .
Ack! A correspondent from Time got to him first. The correspondent had Carney’s old job, and they stood around laughing at some inside joke.
How could I compete with a Time-on-Time reunion?
No, she’d been swarmed, and it looked like she was about to be called up on a press riser to do a cable interview hit.
Axelrod was also busy, signing autographs and posing for pictures. The last time I talked to Axelrod—at the one sit-down he gave me and two others from BuzzFeed in April—I didn’t get the impression he particularly wanted to talk to me. It followed coverage in which I had described him as a guru figure whose assistants helped him manage his Twitter account. He’d had his people try to get me to take out the references to this after the story was published, and he never replied to my e-mails again.
Plouffe had bolted back behind the tents.
Who was left?
“Hey,” I said to the campaign official, whom I’d become friendly with over the years. “Great to see you!”
“What are you doing here?”
“Have to write some bullshit story about bullshit. Want to help?”
While this was happening, Obama bounded onto the stage to give his speech.
“Hello, Iowa,” he said to cheers. “It’s good to be back!”
He went on for about 35 minutes; his staff watched, chatted, or checked e-mail. This was the first time I’d seen his stump speech live—though by the end of the election, I’d be reciting lines along with everyone else—and he seemed much more fit and energized than the more grim and gray-haired, drone-firing, kill-list Obama I’d encountered in 2010.
The speech ended and the president hurried off the stage and back into the motorcade. The journalists in the national press ran off to the press bus (nicknamed Bus Force One); I grabbed my bags and returned to my rental a few blocks away, a red midsize Nissan sedan.
The next day, the scene repeated itself, first at Oskaloosa and later at a wind farm in Haverhill. I was running late and showed up after the national press had arrived. The first event of the day was at the Nelson Pioneer Farm and Museum. Obama had become obsessed with the idea of wind energy in Iowa, which he said created 7,000 jobs for the state.
It was at that farm in the middle of a massive cornfield—one of the cornfields that was spared from a nationwide drought (the worst the country had seen since 1956) in which 55 percent of the contiguous United States that summer suffered through what the National Weather Service classified as moderate to extreme conditions—that I was checked in at the press desk, again as a member of the local press, and struck up a conversation with a volunteer.
“National press here?” I asked him.
“Yeah, but they told us not to talk to them.”
“They said don’t bother them,” he said. “Like, we can look, but we were warned not to say anything to them or bother them.”
This volunteer pointed to the cornfield, green and gently swaying in the breeze.
“It was pretty weird,” he said. “They got off the bus and a few of them ran over to the cornfield and started taking pictures and tweeting about it, doing their Field of Dreams moment.”
“It was like,” the volunteer said, his voice now in a whisper, “they had never been in a cornfield before.”
At the event, the separation of locals and nationals was equally stark, with one press tent air-conditioned and the other outside in the open and positioned a few hundred feet away. I didn’t even try to sneak in—just crept by the door, where I’d catch glimpses of Carney leaning back in the cool interior, while other reporters cornered him.
I positioned myself to hear Obama’s speech, as two Secret Service members, wearing short-sleeve button-down shirts with body armor underneath, positioned themselves in front of the stage. One spoke to a small group of audience members who’d taken out their cameras and phones to prepare for the president’s arrival.
“Look,” he said. “Take your picture, have a moment with the president, look the man in the eye. Put your cameras down.”
The audience members nodded. Obama came out, gave the same speech he’d given the day before.
Then he started talking about beer. “It was good also to be back at the Iowa State Fair,” said Obama, remembering his trip in ’08, when he rode the Big Ben coaster. “Secret Service does not let me do that anymore. But I was still about to get a beer and a pork chop”—applause—“so I was pretty happy about that. I was pretty happy about that.”
That, to me, was the most interesting part of the speech—at least the most interesting part of the speech to produce an item of reportage from the trail that people might want to read. (Beer became the joke of the trip. Chants from supporters became “Four more beers” instead of “Four more years.” “I might have another beer today,” Obama would say on the next stop, in Marshalltown. “Just one. Just one.” And later that evening, in Waterloo: “They were saying ‘four more beers.’ So I bought him four beers!”)
As Obama talked, I wandered around the event site, still hoping to make an introduction to a senior campaign official—Carney was off-limits, chilling in the air-conditioning; Psaki again seemed extremely busy.
Then I saw Plouffe, in the parking lot behind the barrier, where he was talking to another journalist I vaguely recognized. I walked up, listening in on the interview, likely breaching etiquette. “This is real, this is what he’s going to do,” Plouffe was saying. “It’s all connected to jobs.” After she finished asking what seemed to be her final question, I introduced myself.
“David, just wanted to introduce myself. Michael Hastings from—”
“Hey, good to see you,” he said, then turned around and walked away.
Obama finished his speech, and everyone scrambled again. I moved out to my car, which was parked on the grass—the next leg was from Oskaloosa to Marshalltown, a two-hour drive, and I wanted to get out ahead of the motorcade. I put the coordinates of the next event in my GPS. My car was blocked by two volunteers and three local police officers.
Can’t go yet, I was told; have to wait for the motorcade to roll first.
Fifteen minutes later, it did. Then I was held for another five minutes. Then I was given permission to leave.
Apparently my GPS was using the same route as the Secret Service, as I caught up to the motorcade a few miles down the road.
The presidential convoy must have stretched for a good two miles along Iowa’s single-lane country roads. The convoy had all the trappings of the authoritarian state: tinted windows, classified technology, visible firearms, and the ability to demand complete obedience from citizens swept aside as it passed through with flashing lights. As the motorcade rolled through small towns, it created the motorcade effect: all streets and intersections were blocked off, cars on the road were forced to pull over, and families with children and cell phones were waving and taking pictures as it passed. There were 20 or 30 vehicles in the motorcade—the president’s monster bus, the press bus, a couple of ambulances, black SUVs, state police cars, and sheriffs’ cars. In the SUVs, the back windows were popped open for automatic rifles to peer out, ready to open up, Nisour Square–style, on anyone who got too close.
My red Nissan was the last car, just behind a local sheriff’s car that was bringing up the rear.
For two hours I rolled slowly along, sometimes accidentally breaching the convoy’s security perimeter, sometimes almost getting left behind. I started to daydream. In Theodore White’s original campaign book, The Making of the President, 1960, the security apparatus surrounding Kennedy doesn’t get mentioned until page 346, and, as it would turn out, Kennedy could have used some better security. As I drove through rolling Iowa fields, with the sun out, blue skies, and an occasional cumulus cloud or two, the presence of the massive and well-armed group of men and women in front of me lulled me into thoughts about the life and safety of the president of the United States. What did it mean that even in Iowa—a state ranked 32nd in crime, with a rate of 1.3 murders per 100,000 residents—traveling two hours across the state required almost as much paramilitary muscle as if the feds were about to raid a compound of Branch Davidians?
For one, it said what we all already knew—there were lots of people who wanted to kill Obama. An agent had told me that they received at least 10 credible security threats a day; I was surprised the number was so low. I’d learned that at least a handful of the men and women in the motorcade had first gained experience overseas in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—from IEDs outside Bagram to the campaign trail in Council Bluffs. The convoy included the latest bomb-jamming technology, or so I was told. What was it like for them, spending their days now thinking about how to prevent the president from being killed? What ghosts did they spot in those cornfields? What did they make of the potholes? Or a man with a video camera standing at an intersection?
The president arrived without incident.
Over the next two days, I’d hit a few more Obama campaign events across the state. I’d file a story called “Obama Recharges on Beer-Soaked Iowa Nostalgia Tour.” But I hadn’t made contact with my real subjects. I hadn’t been able to bring myself to corner Axelrod in Marhsalltown, Carney had evaporated back into the presidential bubble, Plouffe, too, and I was left having spent three days getting nowhere closer to the information I was on the line to find out—what was actually happening inside the Obama campaign? Before leaving the trail in Dubuque, my friend in the Obama campaign pulled me aside.
“You’re not going to get access like this,” she told me.
I nodded. I’d put in requests for interviews that weren’t going anywhere, and my request to ride along on Air Force One was both simultaneously dismissed and mocked. She explained that in two weeks, the White House Correspondents’ Association and the campaign were going to begin what was called the “dedicated press charter” for the last two months of the campaign.
“You need to get on the plane,” she said. “You need to be on the bus.”
Michael Hastings is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. He regularly covers international affairs for the magazine, including the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. In 2011, he received the George Polk Award in journalism for his Rolling Stone story “The Runaway General.” His work has appeared in Newsweek, GQ, Men’s Journal, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, Salon, Foreign Policy, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, and a number of other publications. In 2010, Hastings was named one of The Huffington Post’s Game Changers of the year. His GQ story “Obama’s War” was selected for Best American Political Writing 2009. The author also of I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story, Hastings lives in Vermont.