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Washing Cows, Counting Zils: Working Advance for Gorbachev : Politics: Advance means checking every detail of an event--and never getting into the shot.

June 24, 1990|James R. Merlino | James R. Merlino is an attorney and project manager for Michael McCarty's Santa Monica Beach Hotel and Community Center Project. He was an advance man for Walter F. Mondale and Michael S. Dukakis

You get the call: "Can you be in Minneapolis for a week beginning next Monday?"

"What's the trip?"

"Gorbachev."

"He's going to Minnesota? Who's the lead?"

"Ridgeway and Gottschalk. Paula called. I'm here. It's 10 days out."

And so it begins. Advance is moving people through events advance creates. Advance is the world of a thousand details. Details about places you will see only once. Details about an event that may last only seconds but may be seen by millions. Details about events that will never occur and will only be seen by you and the people on the ground.

Advance is teamwork. Leads lead the traveling party/candidate/head of state through the scheduled events. Sites set the site. Crowds build the crowd. Press set and move the press.

Paul Ridgeway lives in Minneapolis. He and Paula Gottschalk at some point in their lives left jobs and families and joined a presidential campaign. They joined the world of advance for what I am sure they thought was one campaign. You cannot get away.

Paula had called my sister, Nell Merlino, who runs a public-affairs consulting firm in New York. Nell had been a desk person for Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and a lead for Michael S. Dukakis in 1988. She and Katie Whalen are site and press at the airport. Like Nell, Katie had been a desk for Mondale. A desk is the contact at the national scheduling office responsible for monitoring and coordinating the progress of a candidate's trip. Ten thousand details and the ability to keep bullheaded leads and site advance in line by sheer force of will. All over the phone.

"I can't get there until next Friday. When's the event?"

"Sunday."

"See if they still need me if I arrive Saturday morning."

The Ridgeway-Gottschalk contract was hot. When was the last time Democratic advance people had a chance to work with a foreign leader? Calls were answered quickly. Bo Martin, Kathy Nealy and Bob Bosch from Texas, Joe Lockhart from London, Dave VanNote from Vermont, Charlie Duncan, Ed Emerson, Molly Kellogg and Bain Ennis from San Francisco. Now TV correspondents, lawyers, production managers, p.r. consultants, they have all been leads.

I arrived at 6:40 a.m. on Saturday, June 2, off the red eye from Los Angeles. My day job had left me a week with a victory but little sleep. Mikhail S. Gorbachev's visit to Washington, which had passed without much notice on my part, was at full Gorbymania, Minnesota style.

The drill. Rent a car. Find the hotel. Contact lead. Go to the site. Start to work.

The advance team had been on the ground for 12 days. Long by the campaign standard of 3-5 days for any event.

Short meeting at the headquarters. Go to Nell and Katie at the U.S. Air Force Reserve Area at the airport.

The walk-through. First, a check on the black Soviet limousines, Zils, in the hangar. The six Zils are lined up in the white hangar as the Soviet drivers polish and tune-up the cars. A Soviet guard aims a Nintendo gun at the Air Force TV. "Dr. Strangelove" comes to mind.

A crisis is resolved. High-octane gas is found. Souvenir pins are exchanged.

The holding room--monitored by Scooter Nides of Speaker Thomas S. Foley's office, flatbed trucks--now press risers, the press filing room, the staff room, the Tarmac. Simple arrival. Four planes land. A few hundred people get off, jump into a waiting 50-car motorcade and speed off. The Gopher Band will play instruments that spent the morning being sniffed by local bomb-detection dogs.

Be at the arrival then go to the farm.

Charlie Duncan is working the farm with Katie Boran. Charlie had been working the cathedral site--until it got canceled two days out. The Brand's Brandelle Farm looks like a film set. Rolling hills, white house with black shutters, barns, tractors, cows and calves. The Brands have been preparing for three days. Members of the extended family have flown in. The faded, decade-old newspaper drop-box has been replaced by a new optic yellow version. Libby, a cousin, is washing the cows. A stream of casseroles and cakes feeds the mob of media technicians and advance people.

The visit will focus on milk production. Gorbachev, who holds a graduate degree in agriculture, and Farmer Brand are to discuss computer-generated milk production reports in front of the milking barn.

"Are all the satellite and ENG trucks hidden behind the barn, out of the shot?"

An injured bald eagle is offered for release. The best visual of the trip.

"Which press pool will be at position 5 for the calves and Gorbachev shoot?"

"Will 100 family members wreck the shot?"

In one day there are more changes in weather than I see in one year in Southern California. It rains hard and gets cold. The tractors are lined up. Cows washed, it's time for the countdown meeting in Minneapolis.

Forty advance people. Overhead projector for each site diagram. The Soviets are changing the press arrangements. The final briefing on the events of the next day. Radios are distributed. Schedules in the a.m.

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