Episode 23, with guests Time Magazine’s Mark Halperin and Advance Legend Mort Engelberg

Mark Halperin and Mort Engelberg are our guests this week.
Show produced by Katherine Caperton
Original Air Date: August 20, 2011 on SiriusXM Satellite Radio “POTUS” Channel 124
Listen to the show by clicking on the bar above.
Show also available for download on Apple iTunes by clicking here

Nearly twenty years ago, when I worked around the country as an advance man for Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, his trips would always start at the local airport, when a chartered jet carrying the governor would land at the FBO. In those earliest days of the campaign, the plane would carry only a few passengers along with the candidate.

One passenger was Mark Halperin, then an off-camera reporter and producer for ABC News.  That made sense.  Mark was there to observe the sights and sounds of the campaign, understand what made it hum, and report all that he saw and heard back to Peter Jennings and the members of the political unit at World News Tonight.

Another passenger was Mort Engelberg, and that made less sense, at least on its face.  Mort was then — and is today — best known as the producer of Universal Pictures’ Smokey and the Bandit and a host of other films.  None of the titles in Mort’s filmography merit consideration for honor by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, but they all, collectively, provided a royalty stream which would underwrite Mort’s new role as volunteer advance man for life (but don’t think about taking away his per diem or frequent flyer miles).

Indeed, the reported box office gross for the Smokey series now stands at around $200 million, and the producer’s cut will keep an advance man in clean clothes and pizza indefinitely.  And if you look closely behind the scenes, you can still find Mort a few steps away from Former President Bill Clinton on choice trips around the globe.

Twenty years later after they found themselves beginning the trip of a lifetime on Governor Clinton’s plane, Mark Halperin and Mort Engelberg are reunited — at least in adjoining segments — in the latest episode of Polioptics as guests of Adam Belmar and me.

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Mark Halperin on MSNBC’s Morning Joe

Getting an update from Mark Halperin on the 2012 campaign-so-far — which Adam and I do in this episode of Polioptics — is like slow-sipping a vente latte with the entire cast of ESPN’s Sports Center for a private breakdown of all the unreported intrigue of the MLB Pennant Races (if that’s your thing).  You can ask Mark anything, and get a perfectly-polished, wide-ranging report on who’s up, who’s down, and why, and what the future might hold.

That unique perch and perspective on the political process is why Mark is featured many mornings on Morning Joe as an MSNBC Contributor and is Time Magazine’s senior political editor, responsible for, among other things, The Page.

The Page is just the most recent reporting innovation of Mark Halperin who, way back when, greeted most Inside-the-Beltway players each morning with his compilation of the stories driving the Washington agenda known as “The Note” from ABC News.  The Note is now carried on by the current political unit of ABC News.

As he sat down with Adam and me, just back from ten days on the road in Iowa and elsewhere, Mark had a lot to review. The August, 2011 political season, which included the obligatory deep-fried-butter-on-a-stick from the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, and reached its apex with the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames, served to hit the Reset Button on a campaign that has yet to galvanize the interest of voters outside the legions of activists in the early primary and caucus states.

  • There was the results of the straw poll itself, which (briefly) catapulted Michele Bachmann to top-the-fold headline status and (permanently) dismissed Tim Pawlenty from the national scene.
  • There was the entrance in the race of Texas Governor Rick Perry, which set up the national narrative that seemed to be written overnight by the punditocracy pitting the tough-talking Lone Star Perry against Moderate Mitt Romney, the buttoned-down businessman from Massachusetts (and New Hampshire, and Utah, and Michigan and La Jolla).
  • Finally, there was “the response” from the President in the form of Barack Obama’s Rural Bus Tour, which seemed to push the definition of official White House business to the extreme.


The New Secret Service Bus and its primary passenger

Interweaving these narratives is Mark Halperin’s stock in trade.  On our show, Halperin offers some expert and needed perspective on how the narratives will unfold in the final months of 2011 and play out on 2012.  He also offers some hint on the intrigue that these events will contribute in 2013 as they form the opening chapters of Game Change II, the working title to the sequel that he and co-author John Heilemann (who appeared in an earlier episode of Polioptics) are writing to Game Change, their 2010 New York Times bestseller about Barack Obama’s triumph in the Political Final Four Bracketology that first pitted him against Hillary Rodham Clinton, followed by the pair of John McCain and Sarah Palin.

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And speaking of bus tours…

Once upon a time, a campaign bus tour was really the stuff of political magic.  It was a long, long time ago, in a political galaxy far, far away from the scorn from the blogosphere over the purchase by the U.S. Secret Service of matching armored “buses” — if they really rise to that definition — to ferry presidents, nominees and other protectees in safety from Point A to Point B.

Yes, once upon a time, the idea of throwing a candidate and his running mate into a lightly-retrofitted rock and roll tour bus emblazoned with campaign branding was considered novel.  The year was 1992, and the idea was the brainchild of Hollywood producer Mort Engelberg — though he will quickly pass the credit onto others.

For a sense of how the Bus Tour entered the zeitgeist of American popular culture, screen this earlyish David Letterman “Top Ten” List from 1992:


And to remember how the mainstream press played it, take a look at thisthis and this.

Bill Clinton had just received the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States at Madison Square Garden in New York City.  He chose as his running mate Senator Al Gore of Tennessee.  Together with their wives, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tipper Gore, their staffs, the combined political press corps of both candidates and one notable stowaway (which Mort discusses with us on this episode of Polioptics), “the Bill and Al Show” captured global attention for the first time as Engelberg’s caravan made its way from the Manhattan skyline along rural byways through small towns, from New Jersey to Missouri, and every major media market along the way.

It took an impresario with a producer’s eye, like Mort, to imagine the potential positive outcome when you combined the alchemy of two young candidates and their wives; the fact that they had never spent much time together before; a ravenous press corps hungry for a new story; the backdrop and optics of small Rust Belt towns; and the conveyance of a cavalcade of Greyhounds that gave a modern twist to the image of a long train of conestoga wagons heading west.

After 12 years of Reagan and Bush, four years of Bush and Quayle, this new duo, and the buses banded together by Mort Engelberg that took them hither and yon, provided the imagery that matched the vehicles’ branding: “On The Road to Change America.”

Most advance people begin their careers as political operatives of one sort or another.  Mort Engelberg came from a different mold.  When he arrived to begin orchestrating Governor Clinton’s trips, he was more of an artist (and that’s only a bit of a stretch, according to Josh) who focused more on “magic hour” — that time of day when the sun bathes a candidate in warm orange light — than genuflecting before the county political machinery of the hamlets through which the busses rolled.

Luckily, a thorough Goggle search preserves some of the classic behind-the-scenes stories from the White-House-Press-Corps-of-old that make Mort Engelberg Almost Famous.  You can read some of the great tales here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

And there’s even one good recollection from Mort’s collaborator on Smokey and the Bandit, Director Hal Needham, which sheds light on how the original Engelberg cross-country tour was born.


In a rare on-the-record interview, Mort also joins us to recall how the 1992 bus tour changed the calculus of poltical image making and how that magic relates, or doesn’t, to the 2011 variety served up to support President Obama and his Ground Force One.


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