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Tracking the next president: NPR's same old Don Gonyea

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Covering President Obama's first international jaunt in Prague in 2009, Don Gonyea stumbled across a bluegrass band called Druha Trava playing Bob Dylan songs in Czech.

That's the life of a political correspondent for National Public Radio.

Two years later in Iowa, covering the presidential campaign, he found the same band at a classic old downtown theater. Was he in Cedar Rapids, though, or Cedar Falls?

It was Cedar Rapids, but on the phone from his home in Washington, D.C., Gonyea can't quite remember — and that's the life of a political correspondent, too.

Now it's all starting again for one of the most familiar voices, if not faces, in American media, a tireless 58-year-old with Tigers games on his cell phone app and Vernors in his veins.

"I still think of myself," Gonyea says, "as a Detroit guy who happened to go to Washington" — and from there to New Hampshire, Nevada and Texas, where he recorded the plaintive mooing of a roaming cow with a connection to Gov. Rick Perry.

From here through Election Day 2016, it'll be 20 months with a suitcase and a microphone, away from his wife and two daughters four or five days a week, piloting an endless series of rental cars stocked with bananas, apples and a case of bottled water. It'll be 20 months of obfuscation from politicians and observations from waitresses and truck drivers.

These early stages of the presidential promenade, he says, are "meaningful in the way spring training is for a baseball team. It doesn't predict how things are going to play out, but sometimes it gives you clues about what the strengths and weaknesses are."

So last month, he sat in the balcony of a theater in Des Moines, Iowa, watching potential presidents give speeches at something called the Freedom Summit: Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina and on down through the Republican batting order.

"OK," he thought, "it's begun."

Worst DJ ever

It actually began for Gonyea at WVMO-FM, the Voice of Monroe, after he graduated from Michigan State and almost accidentally found a job as a country deejay.

"I did it for a year," he says, "and I was the worst one ever."

When the station's one-man news department left, Gonyea — pronounced gone-YAY — switched roles, and it was a far better fit.

He'd been the little kid who read newspapers and watched the TV news. Now he was recording NPR's "All Things Considered" on cassette tapes and listening to them in his car.

"People used to get sick of driving around with me," he says: " 'What, another earthquake?' 'No, that was three weeks ago. Listen to this lead.' "

He caught on with WDET-FM (101.9), the public radio station in Detroit, then made the leaps to Michigan Public Radio and NPR's Detroit bureau, all without switching desks.

In 2000, he left for Washington to cover the White House. Five years ago, he became the national political correspondent.

"He's been preparing for this his whole life," says WDET program director Joan Cherry Isabella, and if he wasn't a natural, he has learned to sound like one.

"He's in the catbird seat," she says: "So good, so prepared, so respected by NPR and the politicians and the public."

Dull moments are few

Isabella asked Gonyea not long ago how many presidential campaigns he had left in him.

"At least one more," he said, so he's doing his homework — updating his contact lists, plotting out dinners with sources and figuring which campaigns Mitt Romney's former staffers figure to land with.

Itineraries are rough at best, but that's part of the thrill of the chase.

Early in the last campaign, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry still mattered, Gonyea was profiling his tiny home town of Paint Creek.

He wound up dropping everything to track stray cattle with a farmer who'd been Perry's friend in Boy Scouts. They talked about Perry, but Gonyea also learned about the perils of working a dry land farm and why the governor might have veered toward politics.

Sometimes, Gonyea says, you look for cows and find insight. Sometimes you look for your seat at a rally and find Dylan songs being sung in Czech by a bluegrass mandolin player.

There may be dull speeches and dull towns, but there aren't many dull moments — even with 20 months to go.