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For 50 years, Howard Wilkinson has been covering the campaigns, personalities, scandals, and business of politics on a local, state and national level. He's interviewed mayors, council members, county commissioners, governors, senators, and representatives. With so many years covering so many politicians, there must be stories to tell, right?

Using The Grandkids Gambit On A Grumpy Campaign Bus Driver

Jim Nolan

When you are on the road with a presidential candidate, campaign press aides will promise you the moon and stars to make you happy.

They promise to make sure you are fed, that you have plenty of time to file your stories, that you will have dependable transportation to get from one event to another.

They may even promise you some quality time with the candidate.

After a while, though, you learn to take these promises with a grain of salt.

I've heard plenty of promises from presidential campaign staff people that they either (A) couldn't keep, or (B) had no intention of keeping.

A two-day swing with Barack Obama through southern Ohio in October 2008 – a tour that started in Dayton and ended in Columbus, with a half dozen or so campaign events in between – is a good case in point.

The Obama press people nearly left me stranded on a remote tarmac, with no way to back to downtown Dayton, where my car was parked.

All because of one stubborn bus driver.

Most of the press corps that followed Obama on this trip was based in Columbus, so they had no worries about getting home when we finally ended this grueling schlep that had taken us from Dayton to Cincinnati to Georgetown to Portsmouth to Chillicothe and, finally, to a couple of events in downtown Columbus.

All of us were tired – we were working on about two or three hours of sleep – and everyone was anxious to get home now.

I was covering the campaign tour for the Enquirer. The morning before, an Enquirer photographer and I drove in the early morning to Dayton's Fifth Third Field, where Obama was to kick off the campaign swing with a big rally.

You might recall that I wrote about this before – this was where, when we were going through security checks to enter the ballpark, a bomb-sniffing German Shepherd went nuts on my laptop and started scratching the keyboard. Keys were flying up in the air.

I lost all of my number keys and most of the ones for punctuation.

This created something of a challenge, as I was constantly writing stories, forced to spell out numbers and explain to editors where certain punctuation marks belonged.

A less-than-perfect beginning to a less-than-perfect trip.

But we got through it.

At the end, most of the Columbus-based reporters and national reporters hustled off the bus and headed for their cars, which were parked in the general aviation area of the airport.  

There were four of us left on the bus – yours truly, the photographer and two reporters from other metro newspapers in Ohio.

We were dead tired. A promise had been made by the Ohio press secretary the day before, when we joined the tour in Dayton: Don't worry, she said, the bus will take you back to your cars in Dayton.

A promise that would come back to haunt her.

There had been two buses on this trip – a lead bus that carried Obama and his staff, and a second bus that carried the traveling media.

Our bus was driven by a woman who looked to be in her 60s; she was a good driver, but clearly didn't know the territory and was simply following behind wherever the lead bus took her.

Both buses had been rented in Indianapolis and driven to Columbus for the southern Ohio swing.

We sat on the tarmac for at least half an hour, waiting for the bus driver to get the all-clear to pull out.

I walked up to the front of the bus and asked what I thought was an innocent question: You know how to get to Fifth Third Field in Dayton, don't you? If you need any help, I can guide you in. That's my hometown.

She scrunched up her face, as if I had just emitted a foul odor. (And believe me, the odor on that bus after two days of being crammed with media types was none too pleasant.)

She started yelling at me:

Dayton? Dayton? I'm not going to Dayton! I'm taking this bus straight back to Indianapolis and I'm going home!

I started sweating. Yes, I understand, but how are we supposed to get home?

She was unsympathetic.

Honey, I don't care how you get home. You can walk home for all I care! I'm taking this bus back to Indianapolis!

I used every reasonable argument that I could – that Dayton was just south of Interstate 70; it would only take about 20 minutes to dip into the north side of downtown Dayton, drop us off and be on your way. I even promised detailed instructions on how to get on to northbound Interstate 75 and back to westbound Interstate 70.

I even told her that the Obama press people had promised to get us back to Dayton.

She wasn't buying any of it.

I don't work for them! I'm going home! You people can go with me or get off!

My mates on board the bus were no help at all; they sat there like bumps on a log, as if a flying carpet was going to magically appear and transport them to Dayton.

I got on the cell phone and called the Obama Ohio press person who had made the promise in the first place.

Stay there; I'll get over there and talk to her, the press aide said.

Another half hour passed by. Finally, the Obama press aide got there. She was in a hurry; she had a flight to catch.

She tried to explain to the bus driver that they had promised to take us back to Dayton.

Not going to happen, the bus driver said. I work for the bus company, not you. I'm going to Indianapolis.

The press aide hustled off, promising me that she would figure out a way to get us back to Dayton and that she'd get back to me.

Another half hour passes. No word. I had no faith in the press aide getting us help. More begging from me to get her to move the bus. More refusals to budge.

Finally, I had a stroke of genius.

Sitting on the dashboard of her bus were two photos of cute little kids – one a boy in a Little League uniform, holding a bat; another of a girl in her soccer uniform, with a soccer ball tucked under her arm.

I decided to play the Grandchildren Card. This had worked years before with a recalcitrant board of elections official. I gushed for a while over the photos of her grandchildren on her desk. Within minutes, I had her eating out of the palm of my hand.

Are those your grandkids? I said to the bus driver. I think those must be the cutest kids I've ever seen.

Suddenly, she lit up; and started telling me all about them – how they were good at sports but smart in school too; how she always looked forward to having them come stay with her for a few weeks in the summer. She walked me through their lives, from birth to the present day. A very proud grandmother.

Gosh that's great; you're a lucky woman to have such great grandkids, I said.

Then, gingerly, I broached the subject: You think maybe you could swing by Dayton and drop us off? Just take about 20 minutes.

Are you sure? Do you know how to get there?

Absolutely, I said, and I will be up front here to guide you in every step of the way.

Well, alright, she said, firing up the engine.

Lo and behold, we were soon on the road. As we approached the State Route 4 exit near Dayton, I moved up into the stairwell of the bus, crouched down and started giving her directions.

In about 10 minutes, she was pulling up to the parking lot behind Fifth Third Field on Monument Street in downtown Dayton. She dropped us off; and I gave her directions to get back on to the highway and on her way to Indianapolis.

Thanks for doing this, I said, I know you didn't have to.

She smiled and said, My pleasure.

We hopped in the car and were soon headed back to Cincinnati.

It had worked again. The Grandchildren Gambit. One of the most useful tools in journalism.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.