Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro

A weeklong electronic journal.
Jan. 26 2000 9:30 PM

Walter Shapiro

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The legendary Jack Germond, among the last of the campaign reporters whom you could imagine wandering on stage during The Front Page, calls his autobiography Fat Man in a Middle Seat. Well, this "Diary" installment might be dubbed "Well-Rounded Man Twisting Into Contortions To Type on a Crowded Plane." After nearly 24 hours snow-stranded in the Twin Cities, I will, if all goes perfectly, be blessed with maybe as many as 150 minutes at home in Manhattan this afternoon before (a chorus, please, of "Up in the Air, Junior Birdmen") flying to New Hampshire for tonight's all-debates-all-the-time two-party talkfest.

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Earlier this week, I mentioned the way serendipity influences campaign coverage and my paralyzing oh-my-God-I've-become-Willy-Loman fear of eating dinner alone on the road. Both themes were at work in what turned out to be my only face-to-face human encounter Tuesday, not counting airline personnel and the room-service waiter at the Saint Paul Hotel.

Yesterday, luxuriating in a hotel room with two phone lines, my gallant-warrior's return from the Iowa caucuses interrupted, I made a series of calls to people I'd better identify only as "campaign sources." (Enough with the Bob Woodward-type air of mystery; they ranged from Bill Bradley supporter Senator Paul Wellstone to Steve Forbes pollster John McLaughlin, a man who should not be confused with the loathsome, like-named, leather-lunged TV windbag.) After leaving a message for the pollster with his assistant, I got a quick call back from McLaughlin, who was--guess what!--also unable to get out of the Minneapolis airport. I recommended my hotel, and we, to our mutual lonely-guys relief, agreed to have dinner there.

Writing a newspaper column, which was my task Tuesday afternoon, remains for me an oddly mysterious experience. I liken it to the title of a World War II song, whose sheet music I have framed on my office wall, "Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer." No matter how far in advance I choose my topics (pre-planning generally doesn't work at the height of the campaign season, since today's epiphany is tomorrow's bromide), no matter how many interviews I conduct, no matter how long I futz with my lead, it all seems to come down to a burst of adrenaline at the end. Since my column, called "Hype & Glory," runs in the news section of USA Today rather than on the Op-Ed page, I try as much as possible to mix the flavor and the feel of an actual event with my honed-to-a-razor's-edge opinions. (If I got out of this section without sounding too pompous, I will consider myself lucky.)

Writing the column for today's paper (my deadline, incidentally, is 6 p.m. Eastern time) provided a daunting challenge in that regard.

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The only color where I was consisted of the blue of hotel-room bedspread. My old break-glass-in-case-of-fire ploy of turning on the TV and commenting on the campaign spots wouldn't work, since Minnesota, which will hold March caucuses, is not currently worthy of any candidate's ad buy. My best leftover reporting from Monday night was the hour that I spent racing between the Democratic and Republican caucuses at a middle school in a working-class precinct of Des Moines. The trick for me was finding a graceful conceit to deploy these hopefully intriguing Iowa leftovers while still reserving the bulk of my commentary for the New Hampshire primary, half a continent away.

With my plane now on its approach into New York and my battery light flashing, I had better use extreme brevity in recounting my dinner Tuesday night, especially since publicity-shy John McLaughlin would prefer it that way. Probing the inner sanctum of the Forbes campaign was not really on my mind, anyway, since this is no-secrets week on the campaign calendar: All candidate strategies quickly manifest themselves in TV ads and there are--in the greatest overdose of questioning since the Inquisition--literally nine or 10 published New Hampshire polls every day.

Instead, McLaughlin, a dedicated conservative, and I, with my left-of-center leanings, discussed our forebears who were active in New York City politics some 70 years ago. The Irish Catholic GOP pollster's lineage includes Tammany ward-heelers committed to Mayor Jimmy Walker. In contrast, two of my uncles in my all-Jewish family worked on the Seabury investigation that brought down Walker and actively campaigned for Republican Fusion Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

You could write much of the social history of New York since World War I just by following the political and ideological migrations of these two families.

Enough with the urban past; it's time to plow on to New Hampshire.