By: Allan Wolper
Timothy Crouse was a coauthor of the recent revival of the Tony Award winning Broadway musical, “Anything Goes” and in 2005 received an O. Henry Prize for his short story writing.
But even if he won a Nobel Peace Prize for settling a war in the Middle East, he’ll always be known as the man who wrote “The Boys on the Bus,” the classic political book on the behavior, shenanigans, and talents of the reporters who covered the 1972 presidential campaign. That’s because every four years the White House press corps covering the presidential race begin buzzing about it, from Chris Matthews on MSNBC to reporters on Mitt Romney’s campaign plane.
Crouse smiles wanly when asked about it, but wants the world to know that he wrote “Boys on the Bus” in 1972 as a 25-year-old protégé of Hunter Thompson at Rolling Stone magazine to honor his father, Russel Crouse, who died six years before the book was published.
The elder Crouse was a journalist who made his bones on the Broadway stage, co-authoring a series of hit plays with his close friend, Howard Lindsay. Their successes included “Life With Father,” “The Sound of Music,” and yes, “Anything Goes,” which Tim and his co-author, John Weidman rewrote in 1987 and 2011, winning a prestigious Tony Award each time.
Tim got the urge to write “Boys on the Bus” at a retreat in Big Sur for Rolling Stone writers. Thompson asked if anyone wanted to work with him on the campaign. No one raised their hand except Crouse, who had begun to get an itch to cover the campaign.
“In retrospect,” Tim Crouse said in a series of face-to-face and telephone interviews, one of which was recorded on “Conversations with Allan Wolper,” a broadcast available online at wbgo.org, the Internet arm WBGO 88.3, an NPR affiliate in the New York area, “I think the thing that drew me to write ‘The Boys on the Bus,’ a book about reporters, was a way to be with my father. My father died when I was in my late teens and I missed him a lot.”
Russel Crouse, before he began writing plays, had been a reporter for The Kansas City Star when it was the Midwestern king of newspapers and Ernest Hemmingway was starting his career there. He worked at the sports desk and filled his son’s head with tales of sportswriters and their antics.
He had once introduced his son to Merriman Smith when they met one day in a Chicago hotel. Tim Crouse was struck by the way his father acted when the legendary United Press correspondent, who won a Pulitzer Prize for covering the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, came out of the elevator. “He knew him a bit and when he introduced me; I saw the respect in my father’s eyes,” Tim said.
But Tim Crouse’s home reverberated to the sounds of music, and close family friends Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, who co-wrote the score to the play, often visited. When his son was 12, Russel Crouse gave him a copy of the play, and Tim grudgingly gave it his approval, he recalled with a smile. Tim confessed he had dreams of an acting career, although his talent was obviously off stage. Lindsay Crouse, his sister and a talented actress, has carried on the family tradition.
When Tim finally got onto a campaign bus, he looked at the cream of American political journalism and decided that he was going to write about book about them. His father had co-authored a play, “The State of the Union,” about Washington politics and pundits that had won a Pulitzer Prize.
Russel Crouse had regaled his son with stories about Washington correspondents from his newspaper days. Now Tim could see for himself what their lives were really like. It was a way to be connected to his father. “I think that all the time I was working on the book I was in touch with him,” Tim Crouse said.
The young Crouse captured the great and the not-so-great of that world in 1972. He wrote about their successes, and their failures, mostly their refusal to give credence to the Watergate scandal that eventually forced President Richard Nixon to resign and made folk heroes of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post.
He wrote how the campaign journalists operated as a pack, known as “pack journalism.” In fact, political writers nearly always cite him for coming up with the phrase, credit he refuses to accept. “It was a phrase that had been used by other journalists,” he said. But no one in journalism made it as memorable as Crouse did in “Boys on the Bus.”
He vividly recalls the moment when he stepped on his first campaign bus. “I walked on to the bus and the world that my father had told me about,” he said. “There it was. It was as if it had been handed to me, and those poor guys, and they were mostly guys, they were trapped in the physical sense because I was on the bus with them and they couldn’t get away from me. I just observed them all day long and all night long.
“And they were trapped in a way in the moral sense, because given what they did for a living, they were fair game. To their credit, they understood that,” Crouse said.
He doesn’t follow politics the way he used to (partly because he is engrossed in collecting his short stories into a book), but he is puzzled by the willingness of correspondents to have their copy and sound bites edited by the campaigns of President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
He said the 1972 press corps he describes in his book was kept in check by the ability of President Nixon’s campaign to stonewall them, so they mostly concentrated their focus on the more open campaign of Democrat George McGovern.
But stonewall or no, he said the reporters back then would never have allowed the campaigns to become editors of their copy. He theorizes that the campaigns are nervous about the 24-hour blogging about politics by professional and not-so-professional bloggers.
Jeremy Peters of The New York Times wrote a piece headlined, “Last Word on the Trail? I Take It Back,” about the veto power that today’s campaigns have over coverage.
Crouse said the only time his quotes were checked was when he wrote for The New Yorker magazine. He said the then-legendary copy desk would call up people he quoted and read back the quotes to them. “They never called me about anything, so I can assume that they never changed a quote,” he said. “I was happy to have them as a backstop and I always used a tape recorder to make sure I had everything right.”
Crouse said that the New Yorker fact checkers were incredibly resourceful, recalling a time when that indefatigable desk (before the Internet) had tracked down and confirmed a site on a treasure map that Sugar Pops had offered for a box top and a quarter.
The young Crouse learned his journalism when he was just weeks old when his father would hold him in his arms and tell him about the news of the day, according to Crouse family lore.
“They said he would read the papers to me: ‘President Truman did this, General Marshall did this,’ and so news was instilled in me at a very early age. And he loved books. He had a reverence for them. He would always say books were your friends. He wanted to read them and I want to write them.”
At last report, Crouse was in Ohio with the touring cast of “Anything Goes,” but there is no evidence that he was checking out the politics in that very important swing state where anything might happen on election day.
Allan Wolper is a professor of journalism at Rutgers-Newark University and host/producer of “Conversations with Allan Wolper,” a broadcast on WBGO 88.3, an NPR affiliate in the New York area.