Politically speaking

NPR’s Don Gonyea addresses Chico State

Voters have a real choice this election year, Don Gonyea says: “A lot is at stake.”

Voters have a real choice this election year, Don Gonyea says: “A lot is at stake.”

Photo By kyle delmar

Some 350 political junkies turned up at Laxson Auditorium on Thursday, Sept. 20, to hear Don Gonyea explain what’s happening as this year’s interminable presidential campaign grinds to conclusion.

If Gonyea’s name rings no chimes, you’ve probably got your radio preset to KPAY and not KCHO, the local NPR outlet on which Gonyea’s been heard for two decades. Half of his NPR tenure was spent as a White House reporter, attending presidential press conferences, waiting for nearly three years before the former POTUS, George W. Bush, ever called on him to take a question.

For a reporter, a decade in the White House press corps humanizes the people who hold the nation’s highest office. “When you see the president every single day,” Gonyea told the Chico Performances audience, “you do come to see a human being…. Some days you can just tell when they’re having a bad day.”

Gonyea was in the White House press room on Sept. 11, 2001, that traumatic morning when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center. He was one of the people evacuated when the fear hit home that 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. might be one of that morning’s targets.

After his stint at the White House, Gonyea went on to make what he calls “movies in sound,” short aural reports that tap into public sentiment in the toss-up states where political ads on television are ubiquitous.

“Compared to places like Ohio, it’s like Brigadoon here,” Gonyea said. “You guys don’t get that many political ads. In those eight swing states, the political advertising never stops.”

He’s pursued stories from Shanghai to San Salvador, and he’s spent time with lots of famous names, but he’s requested only two autographs from people he’s interviewed. Johnny Cash, who was nice to Gonyea when he was a country-music disc jockey in the early ’80s, was the first. The Laxson audience wouldn’t learn who provided the second autograph until the evening was drawing to a close. In the interim, Gonyea talked about “a strange place called Election 2012, a place I’ve been living since April of 2011.”

How strange is that place?

“Well, Herman Cain was once the Republican frontrunner,” Gonyea said. “Newt Gingrich was once the frontrunner. Even Donald Trump was briefly the frontrunner.”

Gonyea sees this as a vastly different election than the one in 2008.

“Last time was like an epic novel,” Gonyea said. “We had a war hero. We had Sarah Palin, who, no matter what you think of her, was a larger-than-life figure. We knew there was a chance for a historic first. First female president. First African-American president.”

It’s different this year. “Obama’s a little different. He’s bruised.”

Gonyea has spent a lot of time on buses and in Fairfield Inns. He’s thrust microphones into the faces of potential voters in diners and Dairy Queens, attempting to unravel the mystery of how there can still be undecided voters this late in the game. He’s been to the Iowa State Fair twice, and if you’re a devoted listener of his reporting, you may have heard him gag on air when he tried eating a deep-fried stick of butter. “I don’t recommend it,” he told a chuckling audience.

Gonyea’s view is that “Obama’s on a roll, and Romney’s struggling. At Romney rallies, it’s easy to find someone who will tell you they first supported Herman Cain, then switched to Rick Santorum. But now those people just want Obama to lose.”

If Romney loses, Gonyea predicts lots of recriminations among Republicans looking to assess blame. And he fully expects the campaign for 2016 to start around mid-November of this year.

During the question-and-answer session that concluded the evening, a woman in the audience reminded Gonyea that there had been two autographs he’d acquired during his career in broadcasting. Who was the second? That was Rosa Parks, whom Gonyea described as a civil-rights hero and whose signature he clearly prized.

Jared Carter, a 15-year-old Inspire charter school student, closed out the evening by asking the reporter if he saw any prospects for compromise between the warring political factions once the election was over. “I don’t see anything changing in the near future,” Gonyea sighed. “Moderates would be required, and I don’t see many.”

Earlier, Gonyea had addressed the seriousness of this election, for people who are old now, and for those like Carter, who will be 65 in 2062.

“It’s a different vibe from four years ago,” he’d told the Laxson audience, “and some people find it boring. But here’s where I think it’s not boring. So much is as stake. Both candidates say they’re going to send the country in fundamentally different directions. In 2001, you had people saying there was not much difference between Gore and Bush. This year, no one is saying there’s no difference between Romney and Obama.”