Mitchell Tucker has made his name as consistently the best-informed, hardest-working man on the politics beat at the Des Moines Register. Always the man with the choicest sources and the scrappiest demeanor, his byline appeared on articles that blew the lid off of some of the biggest stories of the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. Michelle Bachmann's use of taxpayer money to fund an emergency health spa retreat, Ron Paul's admission of having had his blood entirely swapped out in the 1970's, Rick Perry's holiday moon bounce filled with poison; nothing escaped the keen eye of the man who could well go down as the greatest of his era of news jockeys. In March 2012, Season in the Abyss, his memoir of the 2011 pre-election cycle, will be released by Little, Brown. We present here an excerpt detailing his time reporting on the Gingrich campaign.
"Beep beep!" I could hear the former House Speaker make his way forward from the rear of the Newtmobile, the unofficial name of his Van Hool T2145 touring coach. "Comin' through! Oh hey watch out Melissa, I almost spilled this all over your blouse! Haha!"
The tray of cold cuts was quite cumbersome and difficult for Gingrich to maneuver through the narrow confines of his campaign bus. Vacuum-sealed as it was in cellophane, however, I felt confident that Deputy Communications Director Melissa Behan's latest Coldwater Creek purchase would remain unmolested. Nonetheless, she scurried out of the way, relieved perhaps to take part in at least this one moment of levity. It was the third week of June 2011, deep in the darkest hours of the Gingrich campaign's post-resignations period.
When his staff and many of the reporters on the bus first saw Gingrich cradling the tray of salted meats, we exchanged worried glances, fearful that he would consume the entire thing himself. A notorious stress-eater, Gingrich had lately been ignoring his doctor's orders and continuing to help himself to large helpings of fried food and rich desserts. The burdens of a flagging campaign and seemingly nonstop church dinners and cookouts certainly did not help. It had been weeks since anyone had seen a fruit or vegetable pass between his lips.
So it was cause for relief that, rather than locking himself in the bathroom with the deli spread, he swung wide the front door of the Newtmobile, shouting out, "Hey Dave [Parsons, Gingrich's chief aide], watch this!"
Easing himself onto the front steps, Gingrich addressed the considerable throng that had gathered at this latest stop in New Hampshire.
"I just wanted to thank you all for coming out today and showing your support," he said, a raspy tone in evidence from a morning spent defending his campaign on talk show and cable news interviews. "I know it's hot out here and you guys'd rather be down at the pool or cooking up some dogs, but you came out to show your support for building a better future for this country, and I know that's what's going to help make all the difference next November!"
Robust applause followed. Gingrich withdrew the plastic lid from the deli tray.
"Now I just want to say," he said, "and I think you'd all agree with me, that we stand at a great precipice. This country's economy is in the toilet, and it's not getting better anytime soon, and President Obama is ready to press down on that handle any day now!" More applause, along with a few grins.
"But I'll tell you what I think," he went on. "What Obama doesn't understand, and what you and I know about this economy, is that we need to inject a little red meat into the system! And I think that's what everyone out here needs too! A little meat injection!"
Before the crowd could entertain any notion of a double entendre, Newt had plunged his fist into the latticework of cold cuts, extracting some ham here, some salami there, a little turkey. He began tossing the meat into the crowd, laughing jovially, calling out an occasional "Here ya go!" or "I know you're hungry!" The crowd put forward outstretched arms, snatching the treats from the air and eagerly gobbling them up.
Soon people started approaching Gingrich.
"Mr. Gingrich," said a woman of about fifty, "I just think it's wonderful that you would come down here to the Shriners Hall. We really are glad to see you and we're hopeful for 2012."
"Great to see an old snake charmer like you back out on the trail," said an excited young man. "This country's going to hell in a handbasket unless you can show 'em the way!"
"That's great, haha, thank you." Gingrich was gradually building a rapport with the crowd. We had all seen this routine before. Usually he would win the people over, sympathize with them a bit about lost jobs or blown retirement funds, then delve into the wonkish policy talk that was his stock in trade.
"You know," he said, "that meat is from a local deli not far from here. And boy is it delicious, I never tasted smoked ham like that. The guy who ran the place, he said to me, 'Newt, I just don't know whether I'm coming or going anymore. I've been running this place for fifty years and it seems like I struggle just to keep my head above water.' And I see where he's coming from, I really do. You see, small business is the engine of-"
"Mr. Speaker! Mr. Speaker!" The insistent cry came from a few rows back in the crowd. Gingrich attempted to plunge ahead.
"...the engine of our economy," he continued. "And it's the current administration's failed policies that-"
"Mr. Speaker!" The young woman had jostled her way to the front of the crowd and was now standing before Gingrich on the asphalt beneath the Newtmobile. She looked a bit haggard, and the glimmer in her eyes could have betrayed either devotion or desperation. She cradled an infant child in her arms. "Mr. Speaker," she said, gesturing to the baby, "this is Colin."
"Oh, heh heh," Gingrich responded, a little taken aback and perhaps hesitant to fully commit himself. Nonetheless, duty called. "Well, let's see what little Colin has to say!"
Scooping the child up in his arms, he lofted him above the gathered masses. The baby seemed confused but intrigued, and not at all upset. Gingrich spun the child around, so that he and Colin were face to face.
"You wanna join my campaign?" he asked. "Are you gonna help me fix this country?"
The audience duly charmed, Gingrich began to hand Colin back to his guardian. The woman, though, had vanished as if into thin air.
"Ah hell," I heard Gingrich mutter under his breath. Then, speaking to Colin and to the crowd at full volume, "Well, where'd your mommy go? We gotta find her! We'll take care of you though. Here ya go, Dave."
Gingrich handed the child off to Parsons, who withdrew with Colin in hand to a black Chevy Suburban parked fifty feet away. Neither was seen again for the duration of Gingrich's speech.
I forgot about the Colin hand-off for a good while. Disasters were occurring seemingly left and right in Gingrich's camp, and it was all I could do day-to-day just to keep up with the latest cataclysm. It fell from my mind until later, when I was getting the damage report from Parsons.
"All in all, today wasn't so godawful," he was saying. "Oh, except for that goddamn kid at the Shriners Hall, God I hate when that happens."
I told him I didn't know what he meant.
"You serious?" he responded. "You haven't been on this beat long, huh?"
"Does Gingrich really hate dealing with kids that much?" I asked.
"That's got nothing to do with it," he said. After mulling it over for a moment, he said, "Come with me. I want to show you something."
Parsons and I hopped into one of the campaign vehicles, another Chevy Suburban. The town where we were staying wasn't far from Hanover, and it wasn't long until we were pulling into the parking lot of the RNC's regional office.
After we had checked in, Parsons led the way down a long, drab corridor to an unmarked door.
"I wouldn't be showing you this if any of the staffers were here," he said. "Lucky for you it's two a.m."
Swinging the door wide, Parsons ushered us in. The room was silent except for the shuffling of papers and the hum of an air conditioner. It was a large re-purposed office with old computer monitors and fax machines hustled over to one corner. Long plastic folding tables stretched in rows down its length. Stacks of glossy brochures and other campaign literature were heaped onto the tables, along with even larger stacks of envelopes. Sitting along each row were groups of pasty, undernourished children of varying ages dejectedly stuffing and sealing the envelopes.
"Look alive people!" he shouted. "Outsider! Outsider!"
Some of the children looked up, bleary-eyed. Most continued their work as if nothing had happened.
Parsons turned to me. "Well, this is where they all end up," he said.
One of the more junior staffers approached us. "Mr. Parsons," she said, "All we have to eat is graham crackers and water, some of us are falling asleep a lot-"
Parsons cut her off. "Sarah," he said, "can't you see that I'm talking to Mr. Tucker about the race to the White House?"
"Mr. Parsons," Sarah said, "Tommy can't sit up straight anymore and he says he sees sparkles in his eyes."
"Sarah," Parsons said, "do you remember what Papa Newt said the last time he stopped by to see you all?"
Sarah thought for a moment. "That was a long time ago, Mr. Parsons," she said. "Where is Papa Newt?"
"I would venture a guess that he's a bit upset with his helpers, Sarah. Papa Newt doesn't want to come here anymore, if it means that he has to hear little titterings and yammerings and have his helpers tell him they can't do their tasks."
"Were trying," Sarah said, getting frustrated. "But we're tired and there's not enough room for us all to sleep in the kitchen before the big helpers get here in the morning and-"
"Sarah." Parsons was done negotiating. "I want you to sit your little behind down in one of those chairs and get back to putting those special documents into their envelopes. If Papa Newt is going to be able to race for the White House for another day, he needs you, needs you, Sarah, and all of you, to send out these special documents. No one else can do it in all the world!"
Sarah had clearly heard this before, but she was too weary to put up an argument. She let her arms fall limp by her sides and plodded back to her chair, where she set about folding another "NEWT FOR AMERICA" pamphlet into threes.
Seeing that I still didn't get it, Parsons took me aside. "Hell," he said, "I thought it was an open secret at this point, but I guess not. It's 2011, buddy, Presidential campaigns are veritable traveling caravans of lost or abandoned children. Either they hand them off to us, like you saw today, or they just leave them behind after campaign stops for the staffers to round up afterwards. Tamara, our intern, that's pretty much all she does these days."
I must have looked aghast. Parsons tried to reassure me.
"I know how you must feel," he said. "I remember when I first started in this game with Dole in '96, I couldn't believe my eyes. You get used to it though. We put a roof over their heads and keep them busy enough so they stop asking about mommy. Better than leaving them in foster care and letting them become leeches on the system, am I right?"
He went on: "I just wish we had a deeper roster, y'know? Romney, after he ran in 2008, he managed to set up a whole office staffed with the little guys, I think it was the Houston office. Anyway, we're scrambling just to catch up, because he's got all of them this time around again, and they're old enough to use the Internet now and social network and all that, get the word out and all.
"Wondering if it's legal, huh? I don't really know myself. This is just the way we've always done it, and no one's stopped us yet, so Santa's workshop here just keeps chugging along."
We left the envelope stuffers to their work and quietly stepped out of the room.
Mitchell Tucker continues to write for the Des Moines Register. You can also follow his Tumblr account, a season-long enumeration of items stolen from the hotel rooms of various members of the Minnesota Vikings.