The question has haunted me for more than a week. After I gave a talk about the presidential race at Yale University's Morse College, an undergraduate (and I am paraphrasing her words from memory) asked me, "Why exactly do we need political reporters when so much information is available on the Internet, television and from the campaigns themselves?"
It is not often that any of us are challenged to justify our life's calling -- and I recognize that the young woman at Yale spoke for many, including some Salon readers, who chafe at the way that political campaigns are covered. It was not enough for me to play greybeard and talk about how reading Theodore White's classic of the 1960 campaign, "The Making of the President," forged my ambitions. Nor was it sufficient for me to brag that I made my first pilgrimage to Iowa and New Hampshire in 1979 when such half-forgotten candidates like John Connally, Howard Baker, John Anderson and a former CIA director named Bush were all jousting for the Republican nomination for president.
Instead, I stressed my personal definition of reporting (political and otherwise): "It is talking to people with whom you do not necessarily agree." The Web is full of polemicists who are so certain that they can detect the hidden hand of fill-in-your-favorite-villain (Karl Rove, Hillary Clinton, the Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati?) that they apparently feel that it is pointless to make phone calls or actually go anywhere. They are akin to super-hawk columnist Joseph Alsop who during the 1960s covered the Viet Cong through what he described as "captured enemy documents."
For me, political reporting begins with a non-elitist, Frank Capra-esque faith in the voters, especially those in the early primary and caucus states. The reason why there are still so many undecided voters in Iowa and New Hampshire is because they take their first-in-the-nation responsibilities seriously and rethink their choices until the very end. Instead of sitting in my office, obsessively crunching poll numbers, I prefer to talk to people on the fringes of campaign rallies (the undecideds tend to sit in the back, mulling their decision from a distance). How they explain their reasoning, the adjectives they brandish, the issues they emphasize tell me far more about the meaning of the election than rote answers to a multiple-choice questionnaire administered by a pollster over the telephone.
Despite the way presidential contenders in both parties sometimes justify our cynicism, I remain convinced that the best window to envision them as possible presidents is to closely watch them in public before they completely enter the Secret Service-shrouded cocoon. (Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton currently have Secret Service protection, but each of them is far less packaged in bubble wrap than he or she will be after winning the nomination.) Yes, the repetition of campaign themes can be mind-numbing. And every candidate who has gotten this far in American political life knows the danger of speaking too candidly when cameras and tape recorders are present. Still, as Yogi Berra put it, "You can observe a lot by watching."
There is a legitimate scorn for the horse-race analysis that you constantly hear on cable television and often read in the press. Too many people mouthing off about politics go into hyper-drive and act as if the primaries were all being held tomorrow, when the evidence suggests that voters make up their minds at a far more stately pace. But it is also misguided to go to the opposite extreme -- and pretend that any coverage that veers away from the so-called issues is shallow and destructive to democracy. Political reporters are constantly hounded by friends and neighbors for predictions about who is going to win. The trick that comes with experience is a sense of humility and an awareness that those pesky voters with their independent attitudes can confound all the armchair analysts spouting off on the nearest TV set.
These were some of the answers that I gave at Yale -- and I hope they capture the philosophy and flavor that I bring to campaign reporting. Presidential politics can be fun (and a right to mockery is part of our democratic heritage), but choosing the next occupant of the Oval Office is ultimately a serious matter whose reverberations will be felt from Peoria to Pakistan, from Dubuque to Dubai.
All this bring us to (drum roll, please, maestro) today's launch of '08 Roadies, Salon's new campaign blog, where I will play ringmaster along with my talented colleague Michael Scherer. The name was chosen after a vigorous internal debate at Salon that rivaled the Democratic donnybrooks in its intensity. What the name '08 Roadies reflects is our on-the-road commitment to reporting rather than airily opining.
While the initial dateline for '08 Roadies is indeed "WASHINGTON," I am heading to Iowa tonight and will be posting on the Democratic race through the weekend. Michael will be posting regularly as well. And to you, the reader, let me express our hopes for '08 Roadies by quoting the final line from "Casablanca" delivered, of course, by Humphrey Bogart: "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."