Since 1902

By Jeff Mason in Scranton, Pennsylvania

On one campaign flight in August, I was finally getting some rest when a familiar baritone woke me up.

I looked up, startled, to see Democratic candidate Senator Barack Obama next to my seat, speaking to another reporter across the aisle.

Obama held press conferences on his plane, but rarely came back for casual chitchat. After that incident, I made a note to myself: No more catnaps.

Since January, I have travelled with Obama and his Republican rival Senator John McCain, as well as with Senator Hillary Clinton in her race against Obama for the Democratic nomination.

On the ground, Obama sometimes offered reporters food during campaign stops at local diners.

During a trip to Hawaii, where he was born, he advised reporters about the best way to eat ‘shave ice’, a local version of a snow cone.

"Well I got lime, guava, and cherry. Solid flavours," he said, brandishing his treat and cautioning against a local custom of adding beans and ice cream to the concoction.

"As a purist though, you don’t do the beans, you don’t do the ice cream. You just do the shave ice."

McCain had a well-deserved reputation for accessibility from frequent chats with journalists on his Straight Talk Express bus, especially in the early months of the campaign.

During one of those rides I asked him if he supported changing US law to allow foreign-born citizens, such as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, to run for president. He mused before saying it wasn’t really a priority.

When I told him, jokingly, that the question was actually selfish because I was born abroad, he didn’t skip a beat: "I’m for it! I’m for it!" he quipped.

Life on the trail

The Arizona Senator cut off access to reporters in the final months of his campaign as his aides tried to keep their freewheeling candidate on message.

All the presidential contenders had gruelling schedules.

During the primaries and the final days of the campaign, 14 to 18-hour working days were often the norm.

A typical day begins with a security sweep by the Secret Service.

Then reporters board vans and careen in speeding motorcades to stadiums or gyms for campaign events. These were followed by short or long flights, sometimes hitting several states a day.

One plus: We never have to go through airport security.

The chartered planes became a second home. Reporters hung pictures on the walls and pitched oranges up the aisle in faux bowling games. Writing articles on the aircraft became a crucial component of the job, as did overcoming motion sickness.

Obama exercised daily but could not escape the occasional bug. His supporters didn’t mind. At a Texas rally in February the crowd applauded when he paused to blow his nose.

Travelling reporters can’t call in sick either. One day last spring, before tighter security prevented reporters from leaving the security ‘bubble’ around McCain, I went, nursing a cold, to a nearby supermarket where a kind employee warmed up a container of instant soup.

Both McCain and Obama have a cast of characters to keep them sane on the trail. Reggie Love, a former college athlete, serves as Obama’s ‘body man’, performing a range of duties from carrying his coat to playing morning basketball.

As it draws to a close, many of the reporters look back nostalgically at the exciting life we have lived these last months. But normalcy beckons. Soon there will be a return, for most of us, anyway, to commercial flights.