The Boys on the Bus, Timothy Crouse

Random House, 1973 (2003 reprint), 383 pages, C$20.00 tpb, ISBN 978-0-8129-6820-0

My ongoing Hunter S. Thompson reading project is taking me to some fascinating places. Take, for instance, Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus, a book-length study of the media during the 1972 elections: I probably never would have been tempted to read it if it wasn’t for its association with Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.

It’s not a thin connection either: Hired by Rolling Stone magazine to, essentially, baby-sit and post bail for their star writer Thompson, Crouse not only played the straight man to his colleague’s impressionistic wildness, but also spent his time studying the press corps surrounding them. An article on the media snowballed into a full-length narrative and then on to an enduring classic that, like Thompson’s book on the campaign, remains just as readable and worthwhile today than when it was published.

Maybe even more worthwhile, even. Yes, political journalism has changed completely since 1972. The twin revolutions of cable-driven electronic news-gathering, and then the recent always-on pressure of the political blogosphere, have altered the field in ways that would have been unimaginable back then: One of the book’s first pleasures is in seeing the mechanics of reporting back then, with journalists depending on land-lines to report back to their papers, and the laborious process of (literally) cutting a TV spot every day to cover the campaign. Reading The Boys on the Bus, it’s not hard to imagine the all-male, all-WASP atmosphere of journalism in the early seventies, and to understand why alcohol played such an important part in their lives.

Crouse notably uses his book to profile some of the foremost political journalists of the time, most of whom are only passing footnotes today. This is one book meant to be read with access to Wikipedia, if only to get a quick summary of what later happened to the careers of the various personalities mentioned along the way. Some profiles take up nearly a dozen pages. Hunter S. Thompson himself is described during the latter half of the book, although the profile has as much to do with the rest of the press corps’ reaction to Thompson than Thompson himself. (Through those reactions, though, Crouse highlights one crucial distinction between Thompson and the others: The Rolling Stone journalist was writing for a specific audience and could dispense with the balanced approach that big-outlet writers had to use. A number of mainstream journalists envied Thompson’s freedom, but Thompson was not exactly playing by the same rules as they were.)

There are a number of highlights to The Boys on the Bus, but perhaps one of the most haunting ones are the two chapters dealing with the White House press corps which, at the time of the 1972 elections, had to contend with a Republican candidate who was barely campaigning and whose approach to the press was contentious at best. Where that chapter hits home is in comparison with the Bush-era press corps, which scarcely did any better than the cowered journalists that covered the Nixon administration. A number of White House official tactics described in the book are suspiciously similar to what occured during the Bush administration, and there is no comfort in reading Crouse’s explanation of why even the best reporters are neutered when they accept the White House beat: at the utter mercy of the President’s staff, they can’t do any serious journalism that would jeopardize this level of access for their organization. (In one of the bitterest ironies of the entire book, Crouse explains how and why the entire Watergate business was initially uncovered by crime beat reporters, with practically no input from political journalists.)

That’s only one of the many aspects of the book that remain curiously relevant today, cell phones and digital cameras and Twitter updates aside. I’m sure that the excruciating toll of the campaigns on the press corp is just as awful today as it was in 1972, and that many of the pressures that Crouse describes haven’t gone away in the slightest. Some of The Boys on the Bus has the same startling conclusions than the often-merciless dissections of journalism practiced by some of the most insightful political blogs. The description of “pack journalism” (how journalists never go wrong by saying the same thing as the rest of their colleagues) is still as accurate now than then. Nothing ever changes, really.

This being said, I’m not sure that the 1972 campaign -coming on the heels of the carefree sixties- has ever been equaled in matters of debauchery. If there’s a movie to be made about The Boys on the Bus, the screenwriters may want to begin with the lighter passages dealing with “The Zoo Plane”, the nickname of the aircraft carrying the technicians, backups, minor-outlet journalists or outcasts following the campaign: Hanky-panky at 30,000 feet (“The fourth [stewardess] had a thing for Secret Service men and entertained no less that eighteen of them before the campaign ended. [P.351]”), hotel key collections and prodigious amount of drugs and booze. The intensity of the campaign coverage is described just as well as the let-down once the last flight has returned to Washington and the reporters, now a band of brothers having been tested for months by an exhausting odyssey, part ways for the last time.

The sober truth, more accepted now than in 1972 but not by much, is that the sober just-the-facts reports we read are in fact written by fallible humans taking notes in the middle of a hurricane of events. Crouse is not unsympathetic to them, and the failings he identifies are so systemic that they can be perceived even today. Politicians and journalists come and go, but there’s a sense that the game remains the same. The Boys on the Bus, manages to capture that truth so well that it has sailed through the years with few wrinkles. No wonder if I had fun reading for pleasure a book that is still on the syllabus of journalism courses today.

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