Whoever said that hangmen, politicians, and journalists all do their best work after midnight was right.
A reporter hangs around the more popular political waterholes into the wee hours, then makes calls, runs traps, and follows up tips from the political chattering class. At the end of the day or night, the notebook is full. Full of questions, mostly.
So here's an inside look at one reporter's notebook and the questions the chatterers are asking about the 100 M.P.H. Republican primary:
- Are John McCain's forces planning to launch a "Bush Hedge Fund" in New York?
- How worried is Team Bush about press talk that their campaign has stalled, and that Bush is now in real danger of losing the nomination battle?
- How concerned are Bush's people about the buzz that by appearing at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, their candidate established himself as "anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and anti-African-American"?
- What about the fascinating proto-rumors that McCain and/or some of his most trusted operatives have been in recent contact with GOP superstars (and possible V.P. types) like retired U.S. Army General Colin Powell and New Jersey Republican Governor Christine Whitman?
- And what about reports of interesting contacts with Nancy Reagan?
This must be emphasized: These are not "news stories." They are some of the talk-about questions along the campaign trail. They aren't stories because so many of the key facts cannot be ascertained or confirmed:
- About McCain's "Bush Hedge Fund": McCain's money-raisers are said to "want to have some fun and at the same time raise some cash" by sending out communications that say, in effect, "We know that you support Bush and have contributed money to his cause. But why not protect the downside of your investment, in case Bush doesn't wind up with the nomination. Mail a check now to McCain. Just consider it covering your bet, as you sometimes do with your stocks' hedge fund." Pretty clever.
McCain's staff says they know anything about this. They say if it exists it is not "official". One high-ranking McCain adviser, while denying any "real knowledge," says he "wouldn't be surprised" if it were true.
- As for the binge of stories that the Bush campaign has "stalled" and that the Bob Jones U. appearance made Bush vulnerable to accusations he is, at the least, insensitive to the feelings of Catholics, Jews and Blacks: Team W. scoffs at the first and is furious about the second.
Despite the Michigan setback, they remain convinced that once the "Super Tuesday" votes are in and counted they will have proven that, far from "stalled," their campaign is on track to nail down the nomination.
Some of the "stalled" stories they write-off as simply press favoritism to McCain. And some of it they dismiss as a sign of how badly the press just wants McCain to do well because that would keep a good nomination battle story going. But the Bush campaign still has faith in is organization and wallet.
- The Bob Jones University spin is another matter. Team Bush is furious about it. They argue that any portrait of Bush as insensitive or prejudiced is inaccurate, unfair and just flatly untrue. They maintain that Bush's record as Governor and his whole personal and family history give the lie to it.
Their problem, and Bush's, is that they have yet to make a convincing case as to why Bush went there in the first place. And once they decided to go there, why didn't they clearly separate Bush from the distasteful policies of the school? Was it lousy staff work? Arrogance? A giant political miscalculation? Or was it insensitivity?
Bottom line: Bush the Younger is in the position of being seen as making the same mistake Bush the Elder made in losing the 1992 race against Bill Clinton. That is, courting and accepting support from the likes of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and much of the rest of what many in the country view as the worst of the Religious Right. Having former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed travel with Bush as a principal adviser hasn't helped with this. Neither have all the "down and dirty" anti-McCain phone bank operations that were busy in service of Bush during the South Carolina and Michigan campaigns.
To these arguments, the overall Bush camp response is along the lines of "We'll win the nomination and after we do, there will be plenty of time to grab the middle for November's elections, and we know how to do exactly that, specially for anyone as far left as Al Gore." Turns out, though, John McCain may not give them time to clear the dirty dishes.
- So what about the reports of high-profile McCain courtships? These types of rumors, first of all, are a sure sign a campaign is running hot. That's why there is so much speculation about who McCain or his top people have been talking to recently.
McCain is a long-time friend and admirer of General Colin Powell. But if he has talked to Powell any time in recent weeks neither he nor his staff are saying so. In fact, they deny it.
Bush the Younger also admires Powell and considers him a friend. Powell owes much to former President Bush and reportedly has remained close to him. But several friends of Powell describe him as "very much concerned about the appearance" of Gov. Bush at Bob Jones University, and by his perceived closeness to the more extreme members of the Religious Right. But if Powell has said anything about it to Bush or if it has strained his relations with Bush, Powell is keeping it to himself.
McCain staff members say they know of no direct or even significant indirect contact between the campaign and New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman. Whitman, too, is a longtime Bush family friend and supporter. She's on everyone's VP list, but almost everybody who is anybody in both campaigns cautions that it is far too early even to engage in "what if" talk about this.
- As for Mrs. Reagan, well, it is known that many of Ronald Reagn's old campaign hands are not inclined to have deep affection for any of the Bushes and are intrigued by the possibility that McCain could become "the new Reagan." This may be especially true of old top Reagan warriors in California. There are unconfirmed reports, for example, that Ed Rollins, once Reagan's campaign manager, may go to work for McCain.
Nancy Reagan is, as usual, a story unto herself. Long ago she was said to be disappointed in McCain over the way he treated his former wife, whom Nancy had befriended while McCain was a POW when he came back from North Vietnam. But in more recent years, she and McCain are said to be "good friends."
Mrs. Reagan and Mrs. Bush -- Barbara Bush, that is, the former First Lady -- are widely thought not to operate, shall we say, a mutual admiration society. Much has been written about this, but little confirmed.
What is known is that Nancy Reagan let it be known very recently that she would remain "officially neutral" in the nomination race between young Bush and McCain. Whether she has been or will be helping McCain in some quiet, private way is now the subject of some heated speculation, but no facts yet.
But certainly, it is not difficult to believe that she loves it when she hears McCain emphasize, as he has been doing constantly, that he is running as a "Ronald Reagan conservative Republican."
Journalism, they say, is the rough draft of history. However any of the above turns out, it shows what on the minds after midnight when politicians, journalists and hangers-on gather for some of their favorite work.
(Next: What's the insider buzz on the Democratic race and Ross Perot?)