Presidential campaign veterans (from left) Erin Easter, Mike McDaniel and Adam Wren shared stories and insights during the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site’s “Off the Record: Blazing the Campaign Trail” event on Wednesday in Indianapolis. (Photo/Theresa Skutt)

By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

May 2, 2024


As preparations were underway for Ronald Reagan’s speech to a joint session of the Indiana General Assembly in February 1982, word was sent that the president would want a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice before he gave his remarks.


Mike McDaniel, who at that time was chief of staff for Indiana Lt. Gov. John Mutz, did not ask any questions. Excited to have Reagan coming to the Indiana Statehouse, he would get the juice. He had already done the advance work of collecting for the Secret Service the date and place of birth of everyone who would be in the House chamber when the president spoke, so providing a beverage would be, comparatively, a much simpler task.


On the historic day, McDaniel and a few others were waiting in a small room off the House floor when Reagan entered. He shook hands and bantered with the group as McDaniel eyed the two carafes of orange juice nestled in a cooler filled with ice. All of the sudden, the president plunged his hands into the icy water and then ran his wet fingers through his hair before walking onto the floor of the House to address the Hoosier legislators.


Reagan regularly employed that old actor’s trick, McDaniel said, to make his hair look dark and lush whenever he gave a speech.


“They didn’t want to tell us he wanted ice water to slick his hair back so they made up the story about the orange juice,” McDaniel told the crowd.


The anecdote was one of several stories and insights shared during the Benjamin Harrison President Site’s panel discussion about presidents and campaigning on Wednesday at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. “Blazing the Campaign Trail” was another installment in BHPS’s “Off the Record” series, aimed at building a better understanding of government by taking behind-the-scenes looks at the executive, legislative and judicial branches.


McDaniel, who began his career in politics as an intern in the Statehouse in 1974 and rose to become the Indiana Republican state chairmen from 1995 to 2002 as well as the Indiana chairman of the George W. Bush for President Campaign in 2000, was joined on the panel by West Lafayette Mayor Erin Easter and Politico national correspondent Adam Wren.


Easter took a six-week unpaid internship with Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 and stayed to serve as one of the campaign’s field organizers for the state of Ohio. She won the West Lafayette mayoral election, as a Democrat, in 2023.


Wren began his career as a Republican staffer in the Indiana Statehouse during the 2009 session, which went into overtime as lawmakers haggled over the state’s biennial budget. He left to pursue a journalism degree at Northwestern University and received national recognition for his reporting about former Indiana governor and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, former South Bend mayor and current transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg, and former president and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.


Led by moderator Morgan Snyder, senior director of public relations for Visit Indy, the panelists talked about how they got their starts in politics and what they find fascinating about candidates and campaigning.

Off Record sticker
The Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site established the “Off the Record” series to promote a better understanding of the functions of government. (Photo/Theresa Skutt)

The panel discussion took place as the current race for the White House has a historical antecedent in Benjamin Harrison’s run for reelection in 1892. This year, a sitting president, Joe Biden, and a former president, Donald Trump, are running against each other, which has not happened since Harrison faced off again against Grover Cleveland, who had been president from 1885 to 1889. Cleveland beat Harrison the second time around and served another term from 1893 to 1897.


History does not always detail the gritty, grueling work that political campaigning entails.


When the Obama campaign was battling then-Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Easter was pulling 16-hour days in Ohio. She would arrive at the office at 8 a.m. to coordinate the volunteers, who would be canvassing that day, attend events to meet and greet voters throughout the day and review the upcoming activities with the national campaign at 10 or 11 p.m., before going home at midnight. Easter pretty much kept that schedule seven days a week for six months and even continued the pace for a couple more weeks after Obama won the election.


Her motivation was fueled by her grandfather’s struggle with glioblastoma, a cancerous tumor. As the country was having a national debate about the accessibility and cost of health care, Easter would occasionally pack her car and head west on I-70, returning to Indiana to spend a little time with her grandpa.


“That was a really important conversation happening when hearing and watching my grandfather die of brain cancer and then struggling with what health care looks like in the United States,” Easter said, adding she learned her experience was one that many shared. “Those same stories come from every single volunteer that you interact with.”


The human side is what Wren said he focuses on when he is profiling a public figure or covering a presidential candidate.


Wren was writing for “Indianapolis Monthly” in the spring of 2015, when Pence ignited a national outrage by signing Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was widely seen as permitting discrimination against members of the LGBTQ+ community. He was tapped to turn a national piece on Pence and RFRA, after Politico called his editor, looking for a local reporter who could cover the crisis on the ground.


Pulling an all-nighter at a Steak ‘n Shake restaurant, Wren crafted what he thought at the time would be Pence’s political obituary.


Other of Wren’s political stories included a trip to the Iowa State Fair, where he witnessed massive crowds following Donald Trump as the self-styled real estate tycoon motored around in a golf cart caravan and flipped pork burgers while wearing French cuffs. Also, Wren covered Buttigieg just as the speculation was taking root that the Democratic mayor was aiming for something higher than leading South Bend for a third term.


“I think of these politicians as people and how would you treat someone fairly,” Wren said, explaining covering politics and campaigns is really about covering people.


Building a relationship with the candidates is important, Wren said, but that can be very difficult if the articles are perceived as being unfair. He tries to avoid “a gotcha piece,” he said, by letting his subjects know, in general, what is going to be said, before it appears in print.


“You think about what it would be like to see your name in the newspaper or on the national website, and you try to give them as much due course as possible,” Wren said.


Asked which campaigns they wish they could have been part of, Easter answered the 2000 race between Al Gore and George W. Bush, while Wren chose the match that did not happen: former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels against Obama in 2012.


McDaniel interjected that Daniels actually called him and asked whether he should run for president or commissioner of baseball. He advised the governor to go for the box seats, instead of the Oval Office.


“He said, ‘You’re the only one who’s said that,’” McDaniel recalled Daniels telling him in reply. “I said, ‘Well, I’ve been to the White House but I haven’t been to the World Series.”


Dwight Adams, a freelance editor and writer based in Indianapolis, edited this article. He is a former content editor, copy editor and digital producer at The Indianapolis Star and, and worked as a planner for other newspapers, including the Louisville Courier Journal.


The Indiana Citizen is a nonpartisan, nonprofit platform dedicated to increasing the number of informed and engaged Hoosier citizens. We are operated by the Indiana Citizen Education Foundation, Inc., a 501(c)(3) public charity. For questions about the story, contact Marilyn Odendahl at






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