NPR Reporter Don Gonyea on the Campaign Trail

Correspondent’s Course: NPR reporter and metro Detroit native Don Gonyea is a coast-to-coast road warrior this year as he provides ‘reality’ radio coverage of the race to the White House

In town for the Republican debate at Oakland University, National Public Radio’s Don Gonyea paused to chat between a Herman Cain candidate appearance at the Big Sky Diner in Ypsilanti and a Mitt Romney campaign stop at the American Polish Cultural Center in Troy.

A metro Detroit native, Gonyea lives with his wife, Laurie, and two daughters, in Washington, D.C., where he’s based as NPR’s National Political Correspondent. Sitting down, Gonyea reflexively pulled out his reporter’s notebook, a habit from 25 years in broadcast journalism, a career that included Detroit’s WDET-FM.

This time, however, it was his turn to answer a few queries.

Gonyea, who is of French heritage, has roots here that date to Detroit’s founding. That, and his deep Downriver connection as one of nine children growing up in Monroe, prompted the question: Has he dined on muskrat? “I ate muskrat at my grandmother’s Sunday table,” he says. “I remember it being a little dark, a little strong. My dad grew up down there and they used to catch them and eat them all the time. My dad liked it, so I liked it.”

He fosters a metro Detroit affection in his daughters by, among other things, listening to Tiger baseball on SiriusXM Radio.

“I’ve always really loved this city,” he says. “It’s a fabulous news town.” Today, his beat stretches across the country and takes him to Iowa for the Jan. 3 caucuses.

What are you doing on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day?

What I did on New Year’s Eve four years ago: work on a story about how people involved in the caucus — reporters, candidates, or campaign staff — spend News Year’s Eve away from home in Des Moines, Iowa.

How do they spend it?

Four years ago I spent it watching Hillary and Bill Clinton host a New Year’s Eve party, which was actually a campaign event. I wandered to a couple of downtown restaurants and talked to people about how having the caucuses affects the holiday spirit. It’s fun. You know you’re in the center of the political universe at that moment.

It’s very exciting and fascinating and the Iowa caucuses seem like they’re always up for grabs because the polling is a little complicated in the caucus. It’s not quite as clean as regular polling because you don’t know who’s going to participate, and it matters who their second choice is.

President Obama on The Tonight Show show mentioned candidates being “voted off the island.” Does the campaign take on a reality-TV feel?

More so this year. I think the debates are the reason. There have been so many of them. They’ve been produced this year by the networks that sponsor them in new ways. You get countdown clocks, you get a level of hype and promotion during the days and weeks leading up to the debate, and it really struck me [during] the CNN Tea Party debate [when] Wolf Blitzer thanked ‘our partners in the Tea Party.’ The CNN Tea Party debate started with this very dramatic opening. It gave you the plot lines, it gave you the characters, and with the dramatic music and the deep, very serious voice. I’ve never watched Survivor, but I can imagine that that’s what the opening to the show looks like. Everything gets that full production, full promotion treatment. So it all fits in that kind of model, and that’s not lost on the networks as they promote these.

Is it your role to counteract that somehow?

I do what I’ve always done. It looks more like a reality show than ever, but it’s real. These are real people running for a real office. Certainly, they all bring their pre-approved story line, the pre-approved story of them that they want you to see and want you to buy. But your job is to look at who they are and what they do. Look at what they’ve done, how they’ve responded to this question or that, and then provide context.

Do you wish that you had never had the view behind the curtain?

I love the view behind the curtain! And I love having a front-row seat to history, which is the other cliché that I toss out now and then.

Have you seen George Clooney’s movie The Ides of March?

I did.

It portrays the run for the presidency as a blood sport. Was it on target?

The plots always take a leap — even West Wing, which I think was really, really good. When I started covering the White House, I couldn’t really watch it anymore because they would do things that you have to do when you tell an hourlong TV drama. Even the good ones, you can’t help but go, ‘Ah, I don’t think so.’ I certainly thought that about Ides of March. But I can tell you that I thought that movie really got the character types right. The two dueling political operatives — Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman — I know these guys. I see ’em all the time.

How do candidates sustain the pace?

They have to be on and they do put in long days. I think probably the most grueling part of their day is all the time they have to spend on the phone raising money, trying to keep the money coming in, to keep the cash flowing so they can keep the train going. It’s like they’re a railroad building the track ahead of the train.

Are we too hard on candidates? Are we judging them by the wrong standards?

[They] have to be able to articulate a vision and be able to stand up in front of people and tell them what [they] think. That’s all part of the art of persuasion. But you also need to judge them on the other things: How feasible the things they’re proposing are and if they’re rooted in reality.

What do you eat on the road? Does health go out the window?

I don’t eat anything that I consider junk. I always have a bagful of granola bars, power bars, and protein bars in the car. My colleagues tease me about that. I’m very fussy about getting a firm, crunchy granola bar because, that way, I can put it between my teeth. You can be typing and listening to interviews and hold it between your teeth. That was kind of my pose on the Obama campaign bus — on the bus with my headphones on with my laptop typing my story for All Things Considered while eating a granola bar.

When you travel all around, do you become a bit of an expert on regional food? Do you have any areas that, when you have to go there, you’re really happy?

Just like I tell people when they come to Detroit they need to go to Lafayette Coney Island … or to the Middle Eastern pastry place in Dearborn, Shatila, when I’m in Texas, I know where to find the barbecue. And you know what the best restaurant in Des Moines is.

What’s your favorite there?

I like a place called Centro.

Obviously, you have to eat on the road. You also know that, when you’re in Detroit, you stop at the DIA and see the murals. If you’re in Chicago and you have a spare hour, you shoot over to the art institute and look at the Edward Hopper or the Grant Wood. You find little ways to feed your soul. I remember on Super Tuesday four years ago, it was a huge day and a potentially decisive day in the Obama-Clinton primary battle and I was with the Obama campaign. We had about four hours to kill before what was going to be a really long night, [so] I went to the Art Institute of Chicago. I swear, it was better than even the longest nap. I try to do things like that. I know where there’s a really good minor-league baseball park and I check the schedule. I’ll watch three innings and then I’ll go write my story. It helps me feel like I’ve been in these places and not just in the hotel and in the local diner.

Do you find as you travel around the country that perceptions about Detroit are changing?

They are. You can see people suddenly wanting to know more about the city. There is a sense that Detroit is a place where cool stuff is happening.

You covered the Obama campaign. Is there anything you can say that’s a common misperception about him?

He’s a pretty low-key person. He’s very serious. During the campaign, people would see those speeches. He can deliver a speech; in fact he’s mocked for that. I think a lot of people thought that was him, that he was a walking mass of charisma.

Has this campaign year been more headline and story-rich than others?

I can objectively say this has been a really, really bizarre year. It hasn’t been the biggest year. It hasn’t been the most exciting year. It’s just been really unusual.

Is there a book in your future?

I haven’t ruled it out. I don’t know what it would be yet. And I wouldn’t write your typical insider reporter’s view of campaign X or White House X. It’s not the kind of reporter I am. I’m a radio guy. I write stories that are designed for me to tell on the radio. They’re written for me to say them. That’s different from the words on the page.

When the campaign comes to an end, what do you look forward to getting back to?

A vacation will be good. I don’t have a place in mind yet. But it might be back here [Detroit]. And it might be a time when the Tigers have a long home stand.

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