As #election2016 kicks off here, Derryn Hinch recalls some Hunter S Thompson-type moments on the American presidential election trail.
It was the most exotic wind charm you could imagine. Hundreds of hotel keys, gaffer-taped to the overhead lockers of the chartered jetliner, that tinkled merrily during take-offs and landings.
Welcome to the whacky world of covering a US presidential election. Even without Hunter S Thompson’s drug-fuelled fear and loathing, there were some crazy memories.
I remember seeing a famed White House correspondent and author slurping on a Bloody Mary heart-starter while standing alongside a colleague’s seat. During takeoff.
And, at the start of one flight, an earnest, exotic, young CBS reporter (later award-winning anchor) named Connie Chung was dressed in a wetsuit and dropped in the pilot’s lap because “it’s his birthday.”
And why the key collection?
Every morning on the campaign trail, you had to leave your bag outside your hotel room by 6am. Somebody collected them all and you and your luggage were reunited when you found it outside the door of your assigned room each night. We didn’t even have to check in. In those days, pre-9/11, the bags weren’t even scanned.
It was all organised by a couple of grizzled old staffers who worked out of the White House basement. We knew they were charging more than a First Class fare (sorry, Mr Fairfax) but if you protested you wouldn’t make the hallowed list for the next trip.
Years later, we discovered they’d been getting huge kickbacks from airlines as well as they booked charters everywhere from Kennebunkport to Vladivostok.
The airline crews on such charters weren’t above lurks themselves. A flight attendant I knew (I’ll explain later) came home from one Moscow trip with a quart of Stolichnaya and a one-pound tin of Beluga caviar. It was supposed to be dumped at the end of the charter flight. Would have been a crime to waste it.
During the Watergate scandal for President Nixon, I was assigned by The National Times to do a cover profile on Vice-President Gerald Ford, “The president-in-waiting.” His ascension was imminent if Nixon were impeached or forced to resign.
Ford was out campaigning for the mid-term elections and scoring a seat on Air Force Two was quite a feat.
Obviously, Nixon didn’t want his eager off-sider to get too used to the presidential comforts. Down the back of Ford’s military aircraft we had no windows. Wouldn’t have mattered to one of the wire service regulars on such flights. He built himself a cardboard “office” which fitted above his seat.
One of my fondest memories, as a callow youth, was to sit next to Theodore H White who had written the trail-blazing political treatise, The Making of the President, detailing the boys on the bus’ story of the Kennedy-Nixon 1960 battle.
I had obviously been so enthralled by it that when I moved back to Australia and started a current affairs program on 3AW, we launched my arrival with banners on the sides of trams proclaiming: The Making of a Precedent. Clever pun, but pretty obscure for Melbourne commuters.
My favourite White House press charter story?
It wasn’t during an election campaign. Soviet leader Leonard Brezhnev was visiting President Nixon for a summit and was invited to the presidential summer retreat at San Clemente in California.
To impress him, Nixon put on a cocktail reception with Hollywood stars and, because the Communist leader loved western movies and guns, he gave him a couple of antique six-shooters and invited Tinseltown cowboy heroes like Ronald Reagan.
That was the day that chisel-chinned Chuck Connors, who stood about 6 foot 4, picked up the portly Brezhnev and gave him a bear hug in the reception line.
The star of The Rifleman later told us, in a well-scripted riposte: “You’ve heard of a card-carrying Communist? Well I’m a Communist-carrying card.”
As with any political stump speech, be it in Maine or Melbourne, the media pack gets to know the “ad libs” by heart.
In Bobby Kennedy’s case we knew we were getting near the end of his stock speech when he started to mention George Bernard Shaw. We knew it was time to head for the buses.
On one occasion, in Laurel, Maryland, where George Wallace was coincidentally shot and crippled four years later, it started to piss with rain.
A drenched Kennedy must have left any English scholar scratching their head, when he truncated his speech:
“As George Bernard Shaw once said: ‘Everyone head for the buses!’”
But, without a doubt, my all-time favourite moment came before the start of that Nixon-Brezhnev summit.
The White House Press charter always left Washington just after Air Force One, overtook it and landed before the presidential jet. I always assumed that was so that we’d be on the ground to report on it if the Prez ran into trouble on take-off or landing.
On this occasion, I was the first reporter to bound up the boarding stairs, and walking down the aisle to meet me was a vision. I think the flight attendants (“air hosties” in those days) were chosen for their looks.
Also on the flight was Australian expatriate, and doyen of the Washington foreign correspondents, Ross Mark, who wrote for the Daily Express in London.
He later nicknamed this hostie “the Gibson Girl.” (Google it. It’s a compliment.)
Her first words to me, as I boarded the plane, were: “That’s the worst tie I have ever seen.” Delivered with a radiant smile.
The undaunted Hinch reply: “You reckon? Wanna have dinner?”
Her name was Eve Carpenter.
I married her.
Hunter S Thompson, put that in your (hash) pipe and smoke it.