Not just clean -- it actually smelled good. No stink from the bathroom at the back. No sticky messes in the aisles. Reporters and photographers were not forced to wallow in their own filth. Heck, there were even cans of soda and packages of Skittles on board. As far as buses go, this one was almost paradise.
On the other hand, there were two press buses. I was only on the one. The other might've sucked.
None of this would be worth reporting, except that the care and feeding of reporters became a minor campaign issue just a few days before Obama's four-stop barnstorming tour of Philadelphia. Dean Reynolds, a CBS reporter who has spent most of the campaign covering John McCain, jumped over to follow the Democrat for a few days. He didn't like what he found.
Reporters on the Obama campaign, he wrote Wednesday on the CBS News website, were being forced to wake up too early in the day for no good reason. They weren't being given enough time to file their stories. The McCain campaign, Reynolds wrote, was much nicer to reporters. Better organized. And cleaner, to boot.
"The McCain campaign plane is better than Obama's, which is cramped, uncomfortable and smells terrible most of the time," Reynolds sniffed. "Somehow the McCain folks manage to keep their charter clean, even where the press is seated."
"In politics," Reynolds concluded darkly, "everything that goes around comes around."
That last line set off a predictably angry response from the liberal blogosphere. But it also raised the stakes on Barack Obama's trip to Philly. Could he delay the inevitable media backlash just one more day? Maybe he could at least buy some air fresheners?
A breakfast buffet awaited the press at the campaign's first stop, Progress Plaza. Pretzels and pretzel dogs on the bus after the second stop at Mayfair Diner. Cheesesteaks and other sandwiches were laid out during a break after Obama's speech at Vernon Park in Germantown. And in between times, plastic tubs were in the back of the bus containing beverages and snacks for the ravenous traveling press.
"Snacks in the back, snacks in the back," a photographer announced as he walked toward the front of the bus, clutching bags of candy. Just then, an Obama staffer got aboard.
"More sandwiches here, guys," the staffer said, dropping a box into the front seat.
Lest anyone think the Obama campaign was little more than a movable feast, there was a lot of work going on, too. But these were odd working conditions. There's always a lot of talk about how presidents -- and presidential candidates -- are in a "bubble" that caters to their desires and worldview. To a certain extent, the traveling press is inside that bubble.
During Obama's day in Philadelphia, the press bus was part of his motorcade -- a Secret Service agent checking us on board, a motorcycle cop riding along side us between events to clear traffic out of the way. Traveling I-95 north was never so easy. And everywhere we drove, people were alongside the road, waving at us and jumping up and down -- under the mistaken impression, perhaps, that Obama was hanging out with us instead of in a Suburban a few cars ahead.
"They love us!" a reporter joked as the crowd surged around our bus as we left Germantown.
Once we arrived at the events, reporters were walled off behind metal barricades. That made it easier to get some writing and photo editing done on the fly -- tables and power outlets were provided everywhere we went -- but it also largely kept reporters away from the crowds at each stop. Some journalists -- like the Inquirer's Larry Eichel -- interviewed people over the barricades. Others typed furiously on their laptops and checked their BlackBerries every five minutes.
There was only so much to report. Obama gave a nearly identical speech at each of his four stops. There were variations, depending on the audience -- he echoed Malcolm X to the mostly-black audience at Progress Plaza, warning them not to be "bamboozled" by McCain's campaign ads. To the heavily union crowd at Mayfair Diner, though, he quoted Ronald Reagan, asking if Philadelphians were better off than they were four years ago.
Otherwise, though, there was not much variation. At all four stops, Obama told a story about having pie in Ohio at a diner owned by a Republican. Reporters quickly beaome weary of the repetition. The job was to get off the bus, listen to a speech, then get back on the bus. We were little more than a professional audience.