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Reporter's Notebook

May 19, 2012

Back when White House hopefuls didn't fear reporters

Tall, thin and with steely blue eyes, the candidate breezed into the gym for a staged rally in his honor. A few Secret Service agents milled about. The walls were adorned with red, white and blue bunting and helium-filled balloons bumped against the ceiling.

The year was 1980, the place was Rutland, Vt., and the man of the hour was George Herbert Walker Bush, then on the lower half of the GOP presidential ticket topped by Ronald Reagan.

I was a wide-eyed young reporter working for a paper called the Burlington Free Press, lugging around a cassette recorder the size of a breadbox. When Bush concluded his spiel, a campaign aide tapped me on the shoulder and said the candidate would now meet with me privately in a side room.

Moments later, Bush strode into the room and told me quite candidly that he was not concerned with the gaggle of national reporters waiting outside. He explained in ribald terms that could not be printed in a family newspaper that they couldn't get anything in their papers about the event unless he goofed up. He said he was willing to take my questions because he was in Vermont to get his message out to the people of Vermont.

I fired up the cassette deck and proceeded to ask him how he could countenance being on the same ticket with a guy he had accused of "voodoo economics." I asked how the GOP was dealing with the gender gap, which, according to national polls at the time, cast Democrats as the preferred party of female voters. I asked about environmental regulation, an important topic then and now in Vermont, and then got to rattle off a few other questions, before an aide came in and said the candidate had to get going.

And that was that. I had my story. And the man we could not have known would go on to become the future 41st President of the United States was on the front page of my newspaper the next morning.

The memory of that day came back to me last week while I was up in Albany sitting 120 yards away from a podium on which stood President Barack Obama. Reporters these days, with occasional exceptions, generally do not get prolonged access to a member of a presidential ticket unless they are anchors of national television networks.

Getting access to even local politicians can require some acrobatic work.

In Albany, there are 262 press secretaries, and that's just for members of the Assembly and Senate. To get them or state agency press aides on the phone, oftentimes a secretary will insist on screening your call.

Three decades ago, before cellphones and the Internet existed, I could call a governor of a small state or a U.S. senator at home, and it was no big deal.

Call me a fan of greater access and less spin. The politicians who avoid us live in trepidation of saying something that would make their consultants cringe. The consultants insist that their clients stick to the talking points.

In the meantime, I'm hoping I can locate that old cassette tape so I can donate it to the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas. Perhaps it will serve as a relic of a time when national candidates deigned to speak to local reporters, without fear of tripping up.

Joe Mahoney can be reached at jmahoney@thedailystar.com or 432-1000.

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