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On The Trail And Off Their Rockers

CNN political correspondent Candy Crowley has taken to running through a checklist before bed. Every night she travels with the Obama campaign, she orders a wake-up call, sets one regular alarm and one back-up on her cell phone, which she places strategically out of slapping distance across the room. Then she writes down her vitals: What city is she in? What time zone? What time does she have to be out of the hotel room the next morning? What day is it? With that, she can drift off before the next day’s campaign coverage. Most of the time, though, Crowley is so scared to oversleep that she’s awake and waiting, long before the alarm--any one of them--ever rings.

“After the previous campaign, it took me a good month to stop waking up in the middle of the night in a panic that I’ve missed something,” Crowley says.

On most days, adrenaline is enough to get her through the “The Situation Room” and “Anderson Cooper 360,” but it’s all she can do not to zonk out in the car between events. At campaign rallies, Crowley, a self-described loner, is mobbed by “CNN junkies,” all of them clamoring for a picture or an autograph. (“That’s why I love my iPod,” she says.) Crowley was with Barack Obama when he declared his candidacy in February 2007, and has been going nearly non-stop ever since. She has heard all the speeches, covered all the campaign ads. She can’t remember her last furlough and her “strategic nice reserve” ran out two months ago. Now in the final lap, Crowley just wants to go home.

“After a while, you just miss your house, you know?” she said from Chicago on Monday. “I miss my back yard. I miss going to the grocery store.”

She’s not the only one pining for a more mundane life. “I haven’t seen a movie in about a year,” said New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny, also in Chicago with the Obama campaign. “I’m looking forward to getting reacquainted with civilians.”

Matt Bai, his colleague at the Times and himself a seasoned political reporter (who, with two young children at home, has mostly recused himself from intensive travel this year), speaks as if he’s watched his countrymen go off to battle. “There are guys who went out to the primaries in November, December, and thought they’d be done in February or March, and they just never came home,” he says with grave admiration. “They never came home.”

After the longest, most sustained campaign on record, political reporters are running on little more than the scant sustenance of yet another slice of pizza. Some are running out of energy; others are running out of ideas. “The one conversation I keep having with reporters is, ‘What the hell do we write about? What are the interesting stories left to cover in this election?’” says The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza (who used to be a senior editor for TNR). “There are a lot of people scratching their heads trying to find a new angle at the end.”

Others, like soldiers who have served one tour too many, are slowly losing touch with the world outside the candidate’s orbit. Bai, who is married to a Fox producer, has seen the strains of life on the road. “You lose contact with the outside world,” says Bai. “You call your spouse at home and talk about the trail and the person at home just doesn’t get it or care, because it’s the same story over and over again. It’s murder on relationships.” Every four years, Bai says, there’s at least one divorce or break-up. “It’s just not a normal human experience.”

And even if your relationship survives, your personality might not. Last week, Lizza, who was banned from the Obama plane in July, found his way back on and thought he had stumbled on a lost colony. “It felt like the Lord of the Flies in there,” he says. “The people who have been there for a long time have all of their little decorations and knickknacks all over the back of the plane. Everyone’s a little grumpy and territorial, and there’s this sense of people thrown together who have been with each other way too long. I got the sense that I was dropping in on a hostage-captor situation.”

“There is definitely a captives’ mentality on the plane,” Zeleny agrees. “These people eat together, drink together, work together, sleep together--in the same place, that is--every day for 18 months. Now that the campaign is winding down, they’re all taking pictures of one another, and you get the sense of summer camp coming to an end.”

Veterans point out that despite the length of this race, the reporters’ relationships to the candidates and to each other aren’t nearly as toxic as they had been in previous years. There’s been little of the high school cliquishness that plagued the Kerry press corps, and reporters don’t seem to loathe McCain or Obama the way they loathed Gore--who refused to hold a press conference for upwards of 60 days--in 2000.

Call it summer camp or Stockholm Syndrome, but some don’t want the madness to end.

“It’s so built into my system, that it’s going to be hard to stop,” says Politico’s Ben Smith. Smith, who started blogging about New York politics in 2005, is now seriously addicted to the pace and metabolism--a word many invoked to describe the election’s rhythms--of the blogger’s life. He finds himself especially energized by the intensity of his readers who, by 4 a.m. have posted dozens of comments to a 3 a.m. post and who are now some of Smith’s best sources, sending him scoops and stories and snapshots of a far-roaming campaign. His family, however, is eagerly looking forward to November 5th. Smith’s wife repeatedly threatens to flush his Blackberry down the toilet; his kids, jealous of his “running conversation” with his readers, regularly squirrel away the device in the off chance they find it unattended. But Smith can’t bring himself to stop. Recently, he returned at 2 a.m. from a fishing trip and “couldn’t not plug in after being off the grid for an entire day.” He stayed up blogging and answering emails until 6 a.m.

“It’s really pathological,” he conceded.

Like the lost souls in All Quiet on the Western Front who, home on leave, jump at the sound of a backfiring exhaust, campaign reporters eye the post-election lull with trepidation. “There is an inevitable come-down just in terms of the energy of the thing,” says Adam Nagourney, of The New York Times. “I mean, you’re going along at 100 mph and then all of a sudden it just stops. The transition to the White House is a whole different story than covering a campaign. It’s slower, more institutionalized. It’s going to be a big adjustment.”

Hendrik Hertzberg, who covered the Dukakis vs. Bush campaign for TNR and has spent 2008 anxiously cheering for Obama in The New Yorker, isn’t too excited about the transition either. He has, after all, only started enjoying the game a couple of weeks ago, when Obama pulled ahead decisively in the polls. “I don’t want it to end, but I always want it to be about to end,” he says. “If the election were always a week away and I was feeling fairly good about it, that would be nice--sort of like Groundhog Day. Because after the election, things will start to get really serious. Then it won’t be the game anymore. Governance is serious business.”

Younger journalists who came of age in this election are anxious for more personal reasons. Andrew Romano came to Newsweek to do long feature pieces but was conscripted as a blogger. “I’m not one of these crazy political junkies,” he told me after another long blogging shift, in which he struggled not to say, “Obama is winning today, too.” “It’s not my life. It’s just a story I was interested in. For a long time I was feeling like I’m looking forward to this being over and going back to writing long-form journalism as opposed to writing multiple stories every day.” But then a funny thing happened. His blog, long buried on Newsweek’s website, started drawing nearly four million hits a month, making Romano the site’s most-read author. “It’s kind of like, this is who I am now, so the idea of the campaign being over and not doing a politics blog is a little bit like, who am I after this election?”

Candy Crowley, on the other hand, can’t think of a single thing she’ll miss about the campaign. She’s long ago sent in her Maryland absentee ballot, and November beckons with lush vistas of sleep and TiVO.

“Look, I’m a political reporter. I love politics,” she said. “But after the election, there’s going to be a lull where everyone’s talking about governance and who’s going to be the Secretary of State, and can the President do all the things he promised to do now that he doesn’t have any money. It’s all governance. But honestly, how long do you think it’ll be before politics kick in in Washington? A day and a half?”

Julia Ioffe is a writer living in New York City.

By Julia Ioffe