Political campaigns are among the more difficult assignments for reporters, a matter of measuring fact against fiction, with a responsibility for telling readers which is which.
Campaigns can be a physical challenge as well. In other days, when reporters in Kansas followed candidates from one stop to the next, day after day, keeping up was a challenge for the mind, an assault on the stomach and a test of the bladder. Whoever christened it the rubber chicken circuit had been there.
On my return to Kansas for work at The Salina Journal, in 1970, my political assignments included the race for governor in which Attorney General Kent Frizzell, a Republican, challenged the incumbent, Democrat Robert Docking. Both candidates were capable and intelligent, good public speakers, quick in debates, and each carried unquestioned authority as spokesman for his party.
Docking became at that time the state’s most popular governor, serving eight years – but in those days a governor’s term was only two years, and Docking was elected and reelected four times. (The state Constitution was changed in 1974, extending the gubernatorial term to four years.)
Frizzell was handsome, engaging and lively. He would later distinguish himself in Washington as Assistant Solicitor General; after service in the Ford Administration, Frizzell returned to the plains to teach law at the University of Tulsa.
The Docking-Frizzell contest of 1970 become a template for the physical demands on candidates for statewide office. One late-summer day that year, I met Frizzell and his wife, Shirley, and their pilot at the municipal airport in Topeka well before dawn. We climbed into a twin-engine Cessna Skymaster and headed west. A large, single-engine aircraft – the “press plane” – followed, with reporters from the Topeka Capital, Wichita Eagle, and Kansas City Star among those aboard. At each stop, reporters would rotate, taking turns riding with the Frizzells from one place to the next.
There were receptions and speeches at Russell, Great Bend, Dodge City, Elkhart, Liberal and, near day’s end, a reception and meeting in Hugoton at the home of Don Concannon, state Republican Chairman. Concannon, lively, buoyant and shrewd, was a fierce advocate for rural and western Kansas. He reminded Frizzell that although he may have been trailing in the polls, he could win the governor’s race with heavy margins in farm country. (Docking was too popular. Frizzell would lose by a wide margin. Concannon would run for governor in four years later, losing a hard-fought three-way primary contest by less than 300 votes to the urbane Robert Bennett.)
The Frizzell campaign left for Ulysses, and the annual Grant County Home Products Dinner. This event was critical for any candidate seeking votes in southwest Kansas, a massive affair in a Fairgrounds building packed with more than a thousand people from the region.
Frizzell’s speech was scheduled first, in deference to the incumbent governor. Docking never failed to attend this event.
It had been a long day. I watched Docking sitting solemnly by the highway trooper as people filed into the building. Frizzell was not far away, grasping hands, put-ting his left hand on a shoulder, saying with a broad grin: “My, it’s good to see you.”
Docking’s shoulders sagged, only for a moment. The trooper told me this was the governor’s sixth speech of the day. Seven or eight for Frizzell, I replied, having lost count.
Docking straightened, looked up with a smile and moved away to another line, shaking hands: “My, it’s good to see you.”
I didn’t believe it.
And I didn’t believe either of them 45 minutes later after they had bounded up the steps to the rostrum two at a time (Rule 14 in the Candidate’s Notebook is Always Bound Up Steps Two at A Time) and told the crowd, “It’s great to be back in Ulysses.”
They couldn’t have meant it. They probably wished they were in the quiet comfort of their offices or having a relaxed meal at the club with some card-playing friends. They toyed with the food from the long buffet table and seemed to be thinking of all the assaults on their stomachs, from snack table to punch bowl to coffee klatch, all on the run, all a blur, one event running into the next.
You must smile, candidate, smile though your jaw may be cracking and a reporter has just stuck a knife in your back.
Wave at the people, and don’t display an ounce of your worry about the chowderheads who are helping run your campaign, or about the money to finance a last-minute TV splurge, or about the local oddballs who are ruining your image in this or that town. Most of all, never reveal your deepest worry, that you may lose.
Keep your fatigue camouflaged, too, until you reach the status of elder statesman. Head high, shoulders straight, up the stairs two at a time, and just pray there’ll be some-one to wave to when you hit the top.
An American election campaign is a carnival, an endurance contest, a spectacle, a Greek tragedy and a Shakespeare comedy. It has heroes and bums, tears and laughter, boredom and suspense.
Behind the man (or woman) running up the stairs are those called legion. The extras. They write the speeches, edit the web sites, massage the Facebook postings, bake the ham, drive the cars, wear the buttons, ring the door-bells, paste on the bumper stickers, grasp the microphone to “give you the man (or woman) … the next Senator from Hooeyall.” And they sit in the audience, too, cheering him or her on and breathing oxygen to his (or her) weary arteries, or chilling them with their silence.
There was another meeting after the long speeches at the Home Products dinner. Then to the airport for the long flight home, to Topeka. Ahead in the seats were the Frizzells, the candidate asleep, tie loosened, his head on his wife’s shoulder, her arm around him, her hand slowly stroking his hair.
Now and then I think on that time of political reporting decades ago whenever I see the TV clips, the snippets from speeches, the serious journalists crowded around a table interviewing each other, candidates bounding upstairs two at a time.
Things have changed, the campaigns more sinister, the assaults heavier, the battle lines razor-edged, the camps sharply divided, citizens and voters at odds and at loose ends. A basic goodness in people again faces a severe test.
Greetings, Kansas, and may fortune smile on you.
Note: This is a revised and edited version of my column, “The candidates’ travail…” published in October 2012.