Writers on the Storm

Flying around with the Bill Simon press corps

* * *

Poolside at the Hyatt, Ackerman and Newport Assemblyman John Campbell gab on the patio, and I raise my disposable camera to snap their picture. The two start to pose. "No, no!" I say. "Candid!" They fake a meaningful conversation. "Grrr! Poor people!" I prompt, but they don't buy it. "For the kids!" Ackerman tells Campbell. "Yes, for the kids!" Campbell agrees.

* * *

With the exception of McPherson's guy Adam, who's friendly with all of us, Simon's staffers chill the press. His press department is run by survivors of Bill Jones' losing gubernatorial campaign, including his young daughter, Andrea. They're all nice to me but cold toward most of the other reporters, and I decide this is absolutely retarded. Schmooze us. Stroke us just a little. Make us feel like bad friends if we have to write bad things.

On the plane, nobody asks questions, nobody talks politics; reporters type or read the paper.

* * *

Nine hours, six cities, one private jet, 17 cigarettes, five hangars, 82 passengers, two press avails, one Coors heir. At 8 p.m., we fly into San Diego, bus to the Hyatt and try unsuccessfully to party.

Sunday morning, Arizona Senator John McCain joins the party. McCain looks frail, and I worry about him standing so long in the sun. Afterward, they're actually doing a press avail—these are rare—when the most dramatic tiff between press and politico emerges.

"One of the PR guys told one of the print reporters to shut up!" an ABC affiliate cameraman tells a small group. The others sniff and sneer.

I ask Finnegan who told whom to shut up.

"Craig Turk told me to shut up," he answers.

On the bus, Jimmy sits next to me and whispers, "I have a Michael Finnegan story."

"Already heard it. Craig Turk told him to shut up."

"Finnegan hit [Simon's son] Griffy in the head with his microphone while they were trying to take a family picture!" Jimmy says with contempt.

"Was he hurt?" I ask, feigning stupidity. It's a very small microphone.

"Maybe we shouldn't talk about this right now," Jimmy returns in a clipped voice. We're silent for the rest of the bus trip to LA.

I turn to the campaign manager of Anaheim's own Kathy Smith, a sweet, genuine lady running for superintendent of public instruction.

Why does she call herself an educator when the last time she taught was in the '70s? And then as a sub?

Clearly, she has been influencing education for six years on the Anaheim school board, he answers pleasantly.

What about her "Stand in Respect" program, in which the goal of education becomes teaching military manners?

They had a pilot program on etiquette last year and didn't have enough room for all the kids who wanted to take it, he rejoins easily.

We start arguing about unions and phonics—actually, I argue; he's unfailingly easygoing. It's terribly unprofessional. The real reporters hide smirks. "Where does Kathy stand on Creationism?" I ask.

"I honestly don't know," he answers. "Do you want to talk to her when we get to Olvera Street?"

Yes, please.

* * *

At Olvera Street, I ask the other reporters—on the record—if I'm correct in thinking relations between Simon's staffers and the press are unusually bitter. John Wildermuth, who has been covering politics for the better part of 20 years, most recently with the San Francisco Chronicle, says, "If people aren't yelling at me or actively working against me, I'm a happy guy. You don't have to schmooze me or stroke me." Werner walks away.


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