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Zan Thompson

Clearing the Way for a Campaign Trail

January 03, 1988|Zan Thompson

Bill Craycraft sent me a Christmas card and it sent the calendar pages in my memory flipping, the way they used to in the motion pictures to show the passage of time. I haven't seen or talked to Bill since 1984, but the card warmed me like electric socks, taking me back to hotel rooms, pressrooms, press buses, television studios, rallies, rolling platforms and high-school bands.

Bill and I saw a lot of it together, from different angles. We were both working in the Reagan presidential campaign and we shared hysteria, exhaustion, missed meals, temperamental and inept political functionaries. Even a few "ept" ones.

There is a bond between people who share an assignment that is tough, demanding, admittedly impossible and who get it done somehow so that it works pretty well. A campaign is thousands of details and if one of them is left dangling, the whole, silly, ersatz creation can crumple up and disappear.

If you're lucky you find two or three people in the campaign who are good at what they do, and do it, instead of telling you how big they were in Chillicothe. If you're lucky, you meet and work with a Bill Craycraft. I never heard him raise his voice or saw him lose his steady pace.

One of the things I enjoyed most about Bill was that he knew the whole thing was just slightly ridiculous, the old smoke-and-mirrors dodge. Best of all, he knew it was all pretty funny, and two of the funniest things were Craycraft and Thompson. We would be sitting in a large hotel room in a work session--assignments being handed out, protests lodged, options examined, possibilities suggested. Then someone would make a remark so pompous, so flamboyantly wrong, and I would take a quick look at Bill and see his eyes twinkling with held-back laughter.

It wasn't all wasted motion. A great deal of it was necessary. When you're moving the President or the vice president of the most powerful nation on Earth from place to place, it takes a lot of factotums, limousines, buses, Secret Service (and theirs is the final word--make no mistake), dry ham sandwiches, speech writers, advance men and media people. Bill was an advance man and I was in media. At least, I answered the phone, "Zan Thompson, press office," which it was, whether it was a hotel room, a bus, an airplane, a helicopter or, once, a ship.

Advance men come in two kinds, good or impossible. Bill was one of the good ones, far outnumbered by his arrogant brethren. Jerry Bruno wrote a book called "The Advance Man" some years ago and a great deal of it was accurate. Advance men make things happen. They go into town ahead, just as if they were promo-ing a circus. Often, they are. They find a reasonable place for the candidate to make a speech, where there are people, roads, transportation, access and egress and a welcoming feeling.

They get the proper clearances from the local authorities and they get a crowd--that is, they talk to and woo those locals who can turn out the citizens. This is as important as the motorcycle escort and the blocked-off intersections. Ask Gary Hart about that auditorium in New England a couple of weeks ago before he again declared himself a candidate. Ask him about those yawning rows of empty seats in the darkened auditorium.

The trick is to get the local folk to help without stepping on their toes. If they've been planning an event for weeks and some crisp young man comes in and cancels everything they have planned with a gesture and no explanation, it does not make for happy campers. It makes for a bunch of people who are ready to jump ship for another candidate who at least will treat them as if they were of the same world.

I have never seen Bill bobble a job or infuriate a local citizen. I have seen some of his brethren salt the earth.

One black day in another presidential campaign, I drew an advance man of the type opposite to Bill. He was a young lawyer. Ed Cox, who was engaged to Tricia Nixon, was touring the West. We had a plant tour set up, and I was traveling with Cox. The advance man was one of those who enjoyed calling secretaries and saying, "This is the White House calling."

When we reached the plant, Cox was greeted at the front door by the president of the company and we went in for Cox to shake hands and talk to the employees. We walked upstairs into a vast room full of huge machines and not one person. The young man who liked to say White House had made a tiny mistake. He had not checked the plant's schedule, and the entire work force was at lunch.

I said something wonderful like, "Gee, Ed, nobody's here."

The young lawyer was babbling excuses and backpedaling and still managing to say "White House" in every sentence. Cox was pleasant and seemed mildly puzzled, as if he had been trapped with a bunch of certifiable nuts. He had. But we took him to a county fair that night and things got better.

This is again an election year when all of the campaign piece workers will surface. In the real world, Bill Craycraft is a marketing consultant with an office in Mission Viejo. At least he was last time I talked to him.

Would I care to handle the media assignment for a presidential tour in 1988? Is Craycraft aboard? OK, throw me the wig and the part and get ready for a roller-coaster ride so full of laughs you won't get your breath back until Election Day, Nov. 8.

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