Flight attendants play good cop, bad cop.

Politics on the road.
Dec. 14 2007 12:36 PM

Nasty and Nice

What I've learned about flight attendants this holiday season.

Slate's chief political correspondent, John Dickerson, is reporting from Iowa this week, three weeks before the caucuses on Jan. 3. In addition to his stories, he'll be filing Twitter updates and dispatches about life on the road. You can also follow his travels on the map below.Also, check out all the candidates' whereabouts on Map the Candidates.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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    Dec. 14, 2007

    Des Moines, Iowa, airport: 6:30 a.m. CT. Do flight attendants play good cop, bad cop? I've found in my travels recently that on each plane there's one Nice One and one Mean One. Unlike air marshals, they are easy to identify. The Nice One has all of the warm impulses we recognize from the books about manners that we read to our children. The Mean One has a heart like the in-flight snacks—dry, shriveled, and overly salted.

    Today, while leaving Iowa for a couple of days, I ran afoul of the Mean One as I scrambled on to the plane right before they closed the door. I was filing a story about the last Democratic debate and sent it just as Northwest officials were issuing the second page over the loudspeaker. (They probably could have guessed that the frantic guy typing was the joker they were paging, but they paged anyway.) In another forum, I would like someone to explain to me how I can harness the efficiency, initiative, and passion airline personnel deploy when insisting passengers rush to the jetway (so we can stand in line for 10 minutes) and have them apply all of that competence toward baggage handling and customer service.

    When I got into the plane, a couple of people stood in line at the doorway. So, I was not late, let's be clear about that. I was, however, a hurried mess, trailing my scarf, newspapers, and headphones. I was hugging my coat rather than carrying it. This was a moment to take pity on me. If I were on a sidewalk, someone would have given me a coupon for the mission. Yet Mean One did no such thing. She charged me with holding up the departure, offered no assistance with my blossoming chaos, and ordered me to zip up my backpack.

    I searched the overhead bins while I waited for the other passengers to find their seats. They were all full. Because Mean One was pressing her case, and because I'm a pleaser, I dove into my seat with everything. Then we sat for 10 minutes at the gate. We didn't move. The captain was filling out paperwork. I couldn't move if I wanted to because I had accomplished some kind of record fitting myself, my papers, and my computer into what airlines euphemistically call a seat.

    Then along came the Nice One. She took my coat and my blazer, offered meaningless but pleasing chitchat, and generally spread her cheer throughout the land. She is my candidate for president. (permalink)

    Dec. 13, 2007

    Johnston, Iowa, 3:00 p.m. CT. "We've got to make a path for spin," says the woman in the lime-green sweater set after the Democratic debate. She's pushing back the throng of reporters, photographers, and cameramen with her arms and lower back as if she's trying to get a rebound under the boards. It's not working, particularly because the Asian and French press are so pushy. (Qu'est-ce que c'est ce path de spin?!)

    The PBS station has not enlarged the space for the spin room, and today there are more press and more spinners than during the GOP debate. Once the lane is cleared, no one wants to go first for the cameras. Joe Trippi, working for John Edwards, stands just at the trailhead of the path but won't go in. Then the spinners for the other campaigns start piling up on each other. The Clinton folks are pushing what they say was Obama's weak answer on a question about the farm bill. The Obama people are happy to answer question after question after question about remarks made by one of Clinton's supporters in New Hampshire about Obama's drug use, because they know Clinton takes the hit for being a negative campaigner more than Obama does for his drug use.

     I lean over to a top adviser for one of the front-runner campaigns and ask, "Did anything change at all today because of this debate?" He whispers back, "Absolutely not." My view, too. Now, let's see if I can come up with 500 words about a debate that changed nothing. I've just gotten word it's not being promoted on Slate's home page, which suddenly makes me thankful for loony Alan Keyes, who turned yesterday's similarly sedate GOP debate into enough of a freak show that it gave the story a little zest. (permalink)

    Johnston, Iowa, 1 p.m. CT. Yesterday Alan Keyes was lighting his hair on fire, and today it's the supporters for the Democratic candidates who are going completely bonkers. Hillary's team has raised a mechanical platform high above the crowd. The Obama forces appear to have turned out in slightly greater numbers. People are banging thunder sticks and pushing and shoving, and amplified music blares. A gargantuan "JOE" sign has been erected. It could be seen from a rescue plane.

    Yesterday's debate was the most panned debate in the history of presidential debates. We'll see if today's is any better. (permalink)

    Dec. 12, 2007

    West Des Moines, Iowa, 5 p.m. CT. Mike Huckabee has just concluded a thoughtful 45-minute presentation on health care in America. At its center was an intellectual tour through three generational public-policy campaigns against litter, in favor of seat belts, and against smoking. As he explained the oddity of asking a mechanic to install a seat belt in a car in Arkansas in the 1960s, he put on the accent of a car mechanic and suddenly he turned into Cooter. (Who, by the way, is supporting John Edwards.)

    Afterward, at a press conference, he turned into Shecky Hucklebee, the quipping jokester. (I would call him Shecklebee, but it's the kind of thing a wise editor would strip from the piece; since I'm not being edited [clearly] I'm pulling my punches.)

    Q: "Why are you rising in Iowa?" (asked a foreign reporter)

    A: "Because the voters of Iowa are very smart."

    Q: "Were you expecting to get attacked at the debate?"

    A: "We had a full paramedic kit backstage." (permalink)

    Johnston, Iowa, 3:30 p.m. CT. Mitt Romney loves peanut-butter blossoms. This he tells the dozen or so supporters after the GOP debate at the home of John and Sheryl Dutcher. The house is decked out for the holidays. White poinsettias dot the family room, and the cookies all seem to have a holiday theme. A bowl of peanuts is just out of reach for me.

    Romney is standing before a fireplace over which hangs a picture of the Dutcher daughters, dressed in green velvet. He's going on a bit about those blossoms until someone pipes up that the host has actually made one of the other cookie offerings. A challenge: does he flip-flop and pander to the host, or stay firm? The cameras are rolling. "There's no cookie I don't like more than peanut-butter blossoms," he says. This is a strong candidate.

    Ann Romney stands next to her husband, a vision in hot pink. He hands her the microphone, and she talks about their glistening family. Then she addresses concerns about his Mormon faith by noting this fact from his gubernatorial campaign: "It was a Catholic state, but a lot of Catholics voted for Mitt."

    Romney's main pitch is that people need to bring their friends to the polls. We are standing in the largest GOP precinct in all of Iowa. He also reiterates the same message his campaign aides are pushing about Mike Huckabee's rise. "There have been a lot of surges," he says, speaking about the polls. "I've survived them all. The McCain surge, the Thompson surge, and now the Huckabee surge. And then it's followed by the agonizing re-appraisal. Slow and steady wins this race, and I'm going to win." (permalink)

    Johnston, Iowa (some guy's lawn), 3:10 p.m. CT. "Are you going to see Mitt?" yells a man standing with his father on his frozen lawn, as I fall out of my rental car onto the frozen streets.

    "Tell him to seal the borders."

    "Okay," I say.

    "That other guy coming up wants to let them in."

    "Huckabee?"

    "Wants to give them college scholarships," yells the man standing next to him.

    "But Jim Gilchrist the Minuteman guy is supporting him."

    "I know. How can that be?"

    "He says he likes his current plan."

    "Tell Mitt to seal the borders." (permalink)

    Johnston, Iowa, 2 p.m. CT. The spin room after the Republican debate was no bigger than the pantries of most middle-class homes. This led to a piling up of bodies and jostling as reporters and surrogates for the campaigns tried to talk to each other. The frenetic movement of so many people in such proximity is the kind of thing certain candidates would have campaigned against in the past, but it's a whole different Republican Party now.

     "I haven't been through something like this since labor," said Mary Matalin, who was there as a volunteer for Fred Thompson. Spin rooms are silly. A candidate could disrobe and then expire behind his podium, and his people would go in the spin room and proclaim him the next president. This being the case, I was happy to leave. (permalink)

    Johnston, Iowa, 12:36 p.m. CT. I am now at the GOP Des Moines Register debate in a tiny, windowless room where I am shoulder to shoulder with my colleagues. Someone's computer is dying, or someone's making a margarita. The moderator of the debate is standing on a very precarious riser. If she steps back, it's curtains.

    Alan Keyes is participating in this debate, which makes me feel like it is 1996. It also means anything could happen because Keyes is very far off the beam. I was not aware the presidential race in 2008 needed more wacky long-shot candidates. (permalink)

    Urbandale, Iowa, 11 a.m. CT. I spent the morning interviewing an official from the Clinton campaign. The strategy for the last 22 days: women and health care. They're going to push hard on Clinton's appeal to women and talk about health care as much as they can. Democrats care about that issue above all others (except, perhaps, for the war), and it's a good issue for Clinton because voters trust her on it. They also think they can put Obama on the defensive on the issue of universality.

    Then it was off to watch John McCain briefly at a Bennigan's in Urbandale, Iowa. All the other candidates took the morning off to relax before the debate. McCain relaxes by going to rallies. His campaign has found that he's better in the debates if he's had a warm-up event.

    He was introduced by Bud Dale, one of McCain's cell mates in Vietnam, who told of their time together. "When I saw him, I was positive he was going to die the next day," he said. "He was emaciated and filthy." There's no other candidate who has this sentence uttered during an introduction: "His right arm was pretty boogered up."

    It was slightly odd hearing this stirring story of personal courage with the backdrop of Bennigan's flair. On the walls hung hockey sticks, trumpets, skis, and ersatz tin signs of oil and gas companies. It was also odd to see Phil Gramm, the former Texas senator, campaigning for McCain, only because it gave me flashbacks to the 1996 race. Gramm's slow, plodding speech is like syrup. He lost in Iowa and had to pull out of the race before New Hampshire. McCain called him "the smartest economist in America." This is not a widely held view. (permalink)

    Des Moines, 9 a.m. CT (mentally in Marshalltown). I thought I had filed impressions from the Edwards event at Marshalltown Senior High School, but perhaps the exciting trip there caused me to have a mental lapse. So take a trip with me back to Monday night into the windowless library at Marshalltown Senior High School, which one voter said looked the same as it did 40 years ago. The sounds of a swim meet filter in from down the hall as 100 or so supporters wait for their candidate to appear before an American flag draped across the bookshelves at the back of the room.

    Edwards was late, which meant that all of the reporters interviewed almost everyone in the place. There were at least 30 of us there. When the candidate did arrive, he looked a little distracted. He wore a zipper jacket and oxford shirt. He could have been in Tulsa or Reno. (The rest of us are all bundled up—or at least wearing flannel.)

    Edwards started by poking fun at his opponents, which really meant Hillary. He brought up Hillary's kindergarten attack on Obama (which may go down as a turning point in the campaign if she falters, even though it was just a press release). "Some of the criticism has become a little silly," he said. "I have a confession to make: When I was in kindergarten, I wanted to be a cowboy or Superman."

    Each of the candidates is moving into the so-called "closing argument"—that final pitch to voters—and Edwards' is this: Don't trust Hillary. He puts it this way when explaining to Iowans that they will be responsible for picking the next president and how they should make their decision: "I'm going to be fine. Hillary's going to be fine, and Obama is going to be fine. But is America going to be fine? America will be fine if you pick someone who is honest and sincere. … Trust is something that's in your gut. Is that particular candidate telling you what they believe or what they're supposed to say? If you trust them, the odds are that America will trust them." (permalink)

    Dec. 11, 2007

    Outskirts of Des Moines (Still. Damn it), 2:15 p.m. CT. We knew this would happen. I got into the car dressed in enough layers that I looked like the Michelin man and piloted the Ford Fusion with the good brakes over the fully covered streets. Just then came word on my BlackBerry from the Huckabee campaign that he too was folding for the day. All events, even the ones in Des Moines I could walk to, were canceled.

    My colleague Chadwick Matlin tells me that Ron Paul is indeed going ahead with his events, but they're too far away. (Yes, if I had a thimbleful of Ron Paul's dedication I'd just walk the several hundred miles to get there, but I'm not going to do that.)

    For my sins, the phone rang just as I was heading back to the hotel. It was an interview I'd scheduled and didn't want to miss. I pulled over and conducted it in my Michelin-man outfit, scribbling as best I could on my notebook. It was a very slimming exercise as I was extremely warm in the well-heated car. I opened the door for air, which challenged a passing car. I am now going to interview the snow. (permalink)

    Outskirts of Des Moines, 8 a.m. CT. This morning started with a dose of exfoliating freezing rain as I made my way to the Huckabee events in Western Iowa, but then I received this e-mail.

    Due to the weather conditions in Iowa, the Huckabee campaign events this morning, Tuesday, December 11, 2007,  in Council Bluffs, Red Oak and Creston, Iowa have been cancelled.

    The end-of-day events are still on, but maybe not for long. "Let's keep in touch," Huckabee's Iowa campaign manger told me by phone. "They're losing power lines out there in Osceola, and we don't want you out there in the worst of it."

    The weather is screwing with everyone's schedule. Bill Clinton has canceled three planned stops on behalf of his wife. John Edwards has canceled his first event of the day in Clinton, Iowa. Ron Paul has several stops in Iowa planned starting this afternoon, but for now there's no word on whether they're still on. I bet they are. The freedom train rides no matter what the weather. (permalink)

    Dec. 10, 2007

    Marshalltown, Iowa, 6:15 p.m. CT. I have been spoiled by the GPS locator in my rental car. Some of the rural addresses here in Iowa are very odd. They seem more like FedEx tracking numbers than addresses. The digits and dashes are arranged in ways that don't seem quite right, but the Hertz Neverlost system can handle the task. I punch in the location, and the brassy lady narrating my trip directs me with confidence.

    In the old days, I had to press the atlas against the dashboard while driving with my knee. I still have my sturdy Iowa map from the '96 and 2000 races, with its highlighted routes and coffee and french-fry stains, but I left it at home this trip. There's a certain romance in the old method, but it wasn't terribly safe. The Neverlost system, by contrast, is always looking out for my well-being, chiding me when I try to type in directions while driving.

    With satellite guidance, I don't have to watch every passing street sign. I can do interviews while I drive, check in on the kids (my son's handwriting is excellent, the teacher says), and eat McDonald's food which, despite my doctor's prohibitions, I feel is required on a day spent following Bill Clinton. It's like method acting, but different.

    Driving in the dark to Marshalltown to catch an Edwards town hall, I am really grateful to my guidance from above. There are no lights on the road. I'm surrounded by miles of corn, and there are no other cars on the two-lane highway. When cars do appear, they have an air of menace. Something happens to gentle and welcoming Iowans after dark when they get behind the wheel. They drive very fast, and before they pass, they bear down on you like they want to skin you and turn you into a lampshade. One minute you're enjoying the gently illuminated Rural Iowa Water Tower, and the next you feel like you're in a dramatization on America's Most Wanted.

    Sometimes however, the Neverlost Lady loses her mind. At a crucial moment in the progression, just as she should be telling you what turn to make, she is overtaken with vapors. The screen goes blank, and she chimes, "Recalculating route." This is the equivalent of getting the spinning beach ball of death on your computer or the dreaded hourglass. If you think that's annoying on your desktop, imagine what it's like when you're moving at 80 miles per hour. Sometimes she acts like a man, insisting she's right about a location when she clearly isn't. A month ago, when I tried to find an Obama event at the local rodeo grounds in Fort Madison, Iowa, she put me in the middle of a cornfield. I typed in the address again, but she would not move from her position. I raised my voice. It didn't work. It was like we had pulled over in the darkness to have a marital spat.

    Monday we were getting along fine. I followed her every direction as I headed to 1604 South Second Avenue in Marshalltown, where I expected to find the local high school. "You have arrived," she said confidently. (I take this as geographical as well as psychological validation.) I had stopped among the gently twinkling Christmas lights of a small suburban neighborhood. The snow frosted the trees. I expected to hear carolers or a host of angels. What I did not hear was the loud whooping of a campaign rally or the idling rumble of John Edwards' campaign bus. I hadn't doubted her as she piloted me into the little cluster of homes because sometimes schools can be found tucked into little neighborhoods. That was not the case here.

    I typed in the address again. No luck. I dialed 411. I had the right address, but looking at the street sign, I saw that she had taken me to Second Street instead of Second Avenue. She refused to accept this. I used harsh words. I looked to the heavens, but it was overcast. There were no stars to guide me. An SUV rolled up next to me, and a young man rolled down his window. It was another reporter. "Do you know where Marshalltown Senior High School is?" he asked. He held up a PDA on which Google maps had misguided him.

    It was a human that saved us in the end. At a gas station, I left the Neverlost Lady prattling on in the car—she was telling me to take U-turns to go back to the It's a Wonderful Life neighborhood. I asked the woman behind the bulletproof glass for directions. "The school is just over the way there, she said pointing. That's something the GPS could never do. (permalink)

    Highway 30 heading to Newton, Iowa, 2:07 p.m. CT. "They like their drink early here in Iowa," I thought as I watched the white Ford behind me on Highway 30 swerve from lane to lane. Another reason to keep liking the people of Iowa, I thought. Still, he probably shouldn't be driving so fast. The car was getting bigger in my rearview mirror as it pinged from side to side. Maybe he was having a coronary event. I eased into the right lane, which had a shoulder I could use if it came to that. The driver zipped past and didn't even look up. He was too busy text messaging on his cell phone. (permalink)

    Somewhere in Ames, Iowa, 11:30 a.m. CT. "I'm headed on Lincoln Way, and I'm looking for the Fisher Theater," I said to a very helpful-sounding woman at Iowa State University. I was late and lost as I drove into Ames trying to catch up with Bill Clinton. She asked me to name the buildings I was passing and the streets to help her guide me. I named them. It didn't work. I kept naming places faster, my voice getting more urgent as my car zoomed in what I was certain was the wrong direction. I kept naming the cleaners and tire shops and video places and it still wasn't working. "I know Ames," she said. "I've lived here since '62."

    "Really," I said pulling over. "Tell me about that? What brought you out here? Was it the weather? And what made you stay? Do you have family near? It's nice to have family close this time of year. Have you put up your tree yet?"

    I didn't say or do any of this, but I don't think that would have fazed her. She was picking up none of the urgency cues in my voice. This unhurried, considered, and pleasant aspect is what makes Iowans wonderful, though at the time it took me a few beats to remember that.

    Finally, we came to an agreement that I was headed east and should have been headed west. I swerved into a parking lot, skidded in the snow, started in the right direction, and made it to the theater and raced up the stairs.

    Clinton was an hour late. I was 55 minutes early. (permalink)

    West Des Moines, Iowa.4:45 a.m. CT. It's just me and the trucks on the 15-minute drive to the television studio to appear on CNN. Bud Light, mattresses, and punditry. (permalink)

    Dec. 9, 2007

    Des Moines, Iowa, hotel room, 11:30 p.m. CT. I didn't find any Teddy White in my bedside table, but I did find the GOP primary. Next to the ruby-red Bible placed there by the Gideons I find the Book of Mormon (presumably placed there by the Marriotts). Mitt Romney argued in his speech last week that Mormonism is merely another form of Christianity. The first page of the Book of Mormon explains why this is a problem for Mike Huckabee and some evangelicals who believe that the Bible is the only word of God. "I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth," says prophet Joseph Smith, "and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book." (permalink)

    Des Moines Marriott hotel bar, 10 p.m. CT. I am in Des Moines but in the bubble. On the flight out here nearly everyone on the plane seemed to be reading poll numbers or political magazines. As I eat my burger, I can hear the woman at the next table talking about the White House Correspondents Dinner. Cameramen at another table tell stories about padding their expense reports. The woman in the corner praying into her BlackBerry works for one of the networks, I think. On my way back to my room, I run into Joe Klein coming in off the road. I'm going to go up and check if they've put a volume of Teddy White in the bedside table. (permalink)

    Des Moines Airport, 9 p.m. CT. Des Moines is cold, dark, and snowy. My plane arrived two hours late because in the modern world, you must pay a penalty for flying. On almost every campaign trip this cycle my plane has been delayed, or my bag has been lost, or I've been sat in the last row where they keep the prisoners. If something didn't go wrong on a flight, I think a representative from the airlines would meet me at the gate to knee me in the groin.

    Because I'm late, I won't be driving three hours to get in position to see Joe Biden tomorrow morning. Yes, Joe Biden. My colleagues on the flight mocked the idea of covering him because he's a blip in the polls, but after the orgy of Oprah coverage over the weekend, Biden seems like the perfect antidote. He has all that Washington experience that Oprah is trying to drive out of fashion. (permalink)

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