Life in the Bubble: Condi vs. Romney
By Glenn Kessler
It's known as "the bubble." This is the strange netherworld occupied by senior U.S. officials and their staffs -- or presidential candidates and their staffs -- and the reporters who follow them around. We fly in the same plane, land several times a day in a variety of locations and are generally ignorant of the world outside the little aluminum tube that ferries us from place to place. Life is a jet-lagged blur.
As a diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, I usually fly around the world with the Secretary of State. Condoleezza Rice is in Afghanistan today, after a stop in London, but instead of heading out with her I instead spent three days earlier this week with the sputtering Mitt Romney campaign. For me, it had been a 12-year hiatus since I last covered a political campaign. Not much appeared to have changed -- except for the BlackBerrys, wireless broadband connections and digital video cameras.
Still, not all bubbles are created equal.
The Secretary of State flies in a government-issued Boeing 757 jet, with her own private cabin and fold-out bed. The reporters are in the back, ordered to never walk (unless invited) past the bathrooms -- an imaginary barrier otherwise known as "the line of death." Frequent bathroom breaks are sometimes necessary if you want to nab a particular staffer for an interview, and, when the Secretary of State comes out to brief the media, she uses a microphone to be heard over the jet noise. Television cameras are strictly forbidden.
It was much looser on the Romney plane. For most of our journey we had a chartered Boeing 737 jet, with plenty of room. Reporters were in the back, but there was no line of death. And Romney didn't mind if the cameras were on when he chatted with reporters -- though only reporters right next to him could hear exactly what he was saying.
Romney had no private cabin. When the staff added an unexpected stop in California, forcing him to travel through the night to reach West Virginia, the campaign purchased big pillows and soft blankets for everyone. There was enough room for everyone to get their own row of seats. Romney said he planned to sleep on the floor -- as Rice once did, when she gave her fold-out bed to her British counterpart during a flight to Baghdad -- but in the end he just stayed in his seat.
The Secretary of State has her own kitchen crew on board, and the menus have gotten better and more health conscious under Rice. The Romney campaign would order out sandwiches or pizza at various stops; hot food was never served, though sometimes it was hot food that had turned cold.
With the Secretary of State, the locations are certainly more exotic. Rice sometimes will go around the world, such as a trip that took her to New Delhi, Islamabad, Kabul, Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing over the course of six days.
During Romney's last stand, the candidate went to Glen Ellyn, Ill., Maryland Heights, Mo., Nashville, Atlanta, Oklahoma City, Long Beach, Calif., Charleston, W.V. and finally Boston.
Of course, reporters traveling with the Secretary of State sometimes remark that we might as well be in Kansas City for all of the touring we get to do in international capitals.
The pace in both bubbles can be punishing. On one trip, Rice left Amman, Jordan at 5 a.m., flew to Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, then to Cairo, and finally completed her trip in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia after midnight. Romney's final full day of campaigning day actually went from 5 a.m. to 5 a.m., hitting five cities.
The hotels are better with the Secretary of State, who goes first class all the way. The Romney campaign didn't get to a Secretary-of-State quality hotel until the very last day, when we stayed in a grand hotel attached to the Boston Convention Center, the site of his "victory" party. Before then, the hotels were rather dreary airport hotels -- though I'm sure their room charges will please Post budget-crunchers.
Finally, the Secretary of State never faces a mid-trip downgrade. Romney lost his 737 on his last day. The reporters and staff suddenly found themselves crammed into an executive business jet with so little space that the carry-on bags blocked the aisle, forcing the flight attendant to pass beverages down the line.
Romney said he needed to save money: "That's what happens when you lose some primaries."
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