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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Blogs from the buses

Globe and Mail
Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2003

Wednesday, October 1, 2003
Graeme Smith
With the Progressive Conservatives

Who knew that losing could be such fun? I've been travelling with the Tories since Sept. 11 and I've never seen better esprit de corps among the press aides than during the final days the campaign. They crank up the tunes, they stick silly decorations on the walls of the bus, they dance down the aisle. A press aide and a cameraman start comparing their Elvis impersonations, and the aide wins the competition hands-down when he puts on a pair of gold plastic Elvis sunglasses that he ordered from Graceland, Tennessee.

One Saturday morning, a few of the aides gather on Ernie Eves' bus while he's outside doing an event and write new lyrics to the song "My Favourite Things." That evening, during a flight from Toronto to Ottawa, they drag Ernie Eves and his partner Isabel Bassett to the back of the plane to join their a capella choir. The chorus ends with: "Despite what you think we are winning this thing / So please just throw us a bone."

A cynic might suggest that the good cheer is artificial, that the flacks are under marching orders to avoid media reports about unhappy Tories brooding over the party's languishing poll numbers. But I prefer to believe that they're feeling a certain kind of freedom, as if they realize there's not much they can do anymore. Like that R.E.M song: "It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine."

***

The most extraordinary thing about the Tory press bus is Bogdan, the young tech support guy. I've been told his last name but I can't remember it right now. He really doesn't need a last name anyway, because he's like those famous people who only use one name. His is a Romanian name, with the emphasis on the first syllable: BOG-dan. It gets compressed down to one syllable, a guttural bark, when the aides or journalists are desperate for help: "Bogdan. BOGDAN. BOOOGDAN!!!"

Our cries always bring this beefy, dark-browed wizard trotting down the aisle of the bus, where he patiently works his magic on our tangle of technology. It really is magic, too, his jury-rigged combination of satellite links and high-speed mobile phone connections that keep us connected to the Internet as the bus rolls across Ontario. The system slows down occasionally, but it's remarkably reliable. Even while we're passing through Hurricane Isabel's rain and dark clouds, we can still use our e-mail.

And he's a nice guy, too, our Bogdan. He never loses his cool in the overheated atmosphere of the press bus. He's the sort of guy who prepares music playlists for our flights, hauls a heavy battery, laptop and speaker onto the plane, and duct-tapes the speaker to a seat — all so he can blast retro 80s tunes at the press corps sitting behind the Premier. He's a legend.

***

Best shwag of the campaign so far: A blue Tory pin with the slogan, "Save the Kittens."

***

The bus is a rolling office. Every reporter has a pair of seats, with a built-in desk, reading lamp, and a powerful car phone. At the back there's a washroom, three mini-bar fridges stocked with pop, juice, and water, and always some kind of snack on the counter. There's even a machine that can make several types of coffee. This luxury sometimes lulls us into forgetting that we're on the road. Once I narrowly avoid dumping my dinner — which is usually served hot, buffet-style, on the bus — onto a colleague's head when the bus swerves.

One one occasion, the bus is running late for a reception with the Tory riding association in Essex, Ont. The usually smooth veteran driver is jolting along at high speed past fields of corn and soybeans. A truck driver ahead hits his brakes unexpectedly, forcing the bus to decelerate quickly. Waste baskets tumble on the floor and pens fly through the air.

Tory press aide Karen "Gordo" Gordon gets thrown down the centre aisle, trying to grab seats as she stumbles forward, hurtling dangerously towards the windshield. Another aide, Barry Wilson, leans out of his seat and catches her.

"Well," she says, with characteristic aplomb. "Chivalry is not dead."

"Barry," says a reporter, with characteristic crankiness. "You shouldn't have caught her."

***

Hysterical laughter comes from the front of the bus, where the Tory aides sit. They're reading aloud from their Blackberry devices, which contain e-mailed transcripts of the questions that reporters tossed at Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty. Some Tories have been privately complaining that reporters are going easy on Mr. McGuinty, lobbing him softball questions. Maybe that's why these Tory aides — and several reporters on the Tory bus — are in stiches as they repeat the questions in the squeaky voice of Ralph Wiggum, a doltish character from The Simpsons television show.

Here's a sampling of the questions that caused the hilarity. If you don't find them funny, imagine the contrast with the cut-and-thrust of the daily scrums in which Mr. Eves attempts to parry reporters' pointed questions. And you have to imagine Ralph Wiggum asking them.

"Mr. McGuinty, a couple of people in Lick's (a fast-food restaurant) were sizing you up and they said that uh, I said what was your impression and they said that you appeared to be honest and in good shape, what's the kind of impression you're trying to make do you think, what's the most important impression?"
(McGuinty Oakville Scrum 1 September 26, 2003)

"Why do you think women voters like you?"
(McGuinty Oakville Scrum 1 September 26, 2003)

"Do you think that Ontario is convinced that you are the man?"
(McGuinty North Bay Scrum 1 September 29, 2003)

"You've got wasps coming up to you, you've got cats coming up to you, are you more relaxed going into these last few days now?"
(McGuinty Embro Scrum 1 September 27, 2003)

"How much does it, what does it mean to you having your family with you?"
(McGuinty Brantford Scrum 3 September 27, 2003)

"You got a little more warm and fuzzy. Why did you do that?"
(McGuinty Empire Club Scrum 1 September 19,2003)

"You don't think it's because Mr. Eves is a laughing stock, I mean, you talk about the kittens now, when you talk about the kitten comment, you get applause all over the province, it's almost like you're laughing at Mr. Eves' campaign, it seems that the audiences are laughing at Mr. Eves' campaign, is he a laughing stock now?"
(McGuinty Empire Club Scrum 1 September 19,2003)

Friday, September 19, 2003
Graeme Smith
With the NDP

Ontario's strongest voice in favour of public infrastructure is being drowned out by the roar and clatter of public vehicles. It's the start of NDP leader Howard Hampton's first full day of campaigning and somebody has set up the microphone at his first event just a few metres from the traffic of Queen Street East in Toronto.

"We must make the thoughtful investments in renewable energy, the thoughtful investments that will ensure that Ontarians have clean air," the NDP leader says, and moments later a municipal water tanker rumbles past in a cloud of diesel exhaust, with the words "KEEP TORONTO CLEAN" painted on its side. Whatever Mr. Hampton says next is barely audible as transit buses and streetcars grind through this busy thoroughfare in the Beaches neighbourhood.

The noise subsides and the press briefing continues, but Mr. Hampton keeps holding a hand to his ear to catch the questions.

***

Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty's face smacks into the coiffed head of a broadcast reporter. The NDP media bus is somewhere on a highway between Toronto and the town of Aylmer, Ont. when a poster board falls off the wall and thuds onto a female reporter's skull.

It's an image of the Liberal leader with an empty speech bubble coming out of his mouth, and the caption "Pin the position on the Liberal," intended to reinforce the NDP refrain that the Liberals have vague policy positions.

The reporter puts the propaganda back on its duct-tape moorings, where it stands on the wall beside several other news clippings, funny photos, press releases, and other miscellanea that some NDP staffer with a quirky sense of humour has used to decorate the bus interior. (One resembles a Japanese monster movie poster, with the caption: "Deregulation isn't dead! Kill the beast!")

The reporter turns around and settles back into her seat. Moments later, the McGuinty board hits her head again. This time, it gets stowed away behind a seat. No need to get hit over the head with the party message quite so literally.

***

Reporters travelling with the NDP enjoy the comforts of a Quebec-manufactured Prevost motor coach. It's not exactly an ergonomic place to work on your laptop — most of the space inside is filled with couches, and the few desks available are way too high.

The bus does have a couple of huge TVs which get hundreds of channels when the satellite is working. The kitchenette is a nice touch, and there's a reasonably normal bathroom. And the sound system kicks ass.

Apparently the other bus in this convoy, Mr. Hampton's, used to shuttle a NASCAR driver between races. The Hampton bus is so modern that when one of the six rear tires goes flat on the highway between Toronto and Oshawa, the vehicle's suspension automatically adjusts the weight onto the other tires and Mr. Hampton is only a few minutes late for his union rally.

***

"Looks like Weekend at Bernie's," somebody says, and all eyes turn to NDP Leader Howard Hampton, who has fallen asleep on the airplane between Sudbury and Wawa.

It's Friday afternoon, the end of the campaign's first week. The reporter's joke refers to a 1980s movie about a dead guy who gets dressed up and carted around by two insurance clerks who are pretending he's alive. It's a cruel description, but Mr. Hampton does look almost dead as he slouches in his seat, slack-jawed, eyes closed, brow furrowed, seemingly comatose despite the rattling of the Dash-8 propeller-driven airplane and his advisers chatting beside him.

He wakes up briefly when the captain speaks over the intercom, and for just a moment he seems confused about where he is, looking wildly around the aircraft. Then he notices somebody watching, snaps back to reality, rubs his face with his hands, and closes his eyes again.

The NDP Leader wakes up again as the plane begins descending towards the scrubby landscape of Northern Ontario. He begins bantering with the reporters, a bit hesitant at first, but relaxing quickly.

A reporter for CBC radio tells a story about hitchhiking. Mr. Hampton laughs at the punch line, and offers one of his own: "Did I ever tell you my story about hitchhiking in Wawa?" he says. Reporters shrug and shake their heads. "Don't," Mr. Hampton says, with a self-deprecating grin. Laughter fills the cabin.

***

After a few days, the NDP campaign gets nicknamed the "bread-and-water tour" by the ravenous media pack. Daily rations are meagre sandwiches, fruit, and bottled water. Not bad, really, but the reporters are left salivating by their colleagues on Tory and Liberal busses who describe hot lunches on China plates. After a typical meal of ham-and-cheese sandwiches and fruit juice, the bus rolls past a strip of burger joints. "I need grease," one reporters moans. "Yeah," says another, "It's like they're taunting us, going past all these fast-food places." Their pleas eventually get answered: in the second week of the campaign, Mr. Hampton takes reporters to dinner at one of the best restaurants in London, Ont. The roast beef is tender, the apple dumplings are hot and crispy, and Mr. Hampton's stories about playing amateur hockey are pretty entertaining.

Thursday, September 18, 2003
Gloria Galloway
Liberal campaign bus

The bus ferrying Dalton McGuinty around Ontario is emblazoned with a picture of the Liberal Leader wearing a blue dress shirt and red tie.

"It's the uniform," he says.

Mr. McGuinty has worn the same clothes - or replications thereof - every day since the campaign began. Aides are seen in the hallways of the hotels where he stays, carrying freshly pressed blue shirts of hangers. Presumably there are several identical models in the McGuinty suitcase.

When the shirt is worn, the top button is never done up. The sleeves are always rolled to the elbow. And it is tucked in to gray wool pants.

Contrast that with Ernie Eves. Reporters on his bus say the Conservative leader has yet to wear a tie - an effort, they say, to look like a man of the people.

The bus carrying the media following Dalton McGuinty around Ontario developed a strange quirk on the second week of the campaign. The horn honked every time the driver turned the wheel to the right.

The noisy vehicle earned some strange looks from the people of small-town Ontario. But Liberal handlers had an explanation: The bus had been reconfigured to prevent Mr. McGuinty from making any hard right turns.

Dalton McGuinty has been a strong advocate of physical fitness over the course of Ontario election campaign and promises, if elected, he would require that all school children get 20 minutes of physical education each day.

The Liberal Leader says he sets aside time each day to work out. During a break in Windsor, Ont. he tossed around a football in the city's waterfront park with his brother, his son and policy advisor Gerald Butts.

When the television cameras arrived they were initially waved off. Pictures of political leaders dropping balls make for bad visuals. But Mr. McGuinty eventually relented, the game was caught on film, and he caught almost everything that was thrown to him.

So did the other members of the McGuinty clan.

But, based on his park performance, it's a good thing Mr. Butts is not running for office.

 



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