Whirlwind waltz on the campaign trail. In mind-numbing rounds of canned speeches and `photo ops,' reporters scurry after the political minutiae from which to spin out the daily news
GEORGE BUSH cuts an inside turn on the first-quarter mile, and the pack swerves right along beside him. It's early morning on a practice track here at Georgia Tech. The vice-president is out for a jog, accompanied by Secret Service men, aides, and a few energetic members of the press corps in their whither-thou-goest pursuit of a man who is himself pursuing the highest job in the nation.
The morning run - like everything else on this helter-skelter, 2-day campaign announcement trip - is just another spin in a presidential candidate's ritual dance with the news media. Vice-President Bush's people have staged events, the press has been herded onto buses, planes, elevators, and led through each ``photo op,'' and the day's political news has been made.
A ride on the media bus (and plane) that chases a presidential candidate plunges one into what Time magazine columnist Hugh Sidey referred to in a recent telephone interview as ``the kind of fire-alarm, pell-mell system'' of political journalism in this country.
``I can't get over it,'' Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Scott Shepard said quietly as he stood on a small patch of grass at the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, airport with a crowd of other reporters, waiting for Air Force Two to land. ``It's personally amazing to me that a country of this stature selects its leaders in this way.''
Mr. Shepard, an experienced reporter on his first assignment on the presidential campaign trail, was stunned by ``the carnival atmosphere. The photo ops. Everything so controlled, so staged. I'm trying to find it not too comical, because I'm supposed to write these serious dispatches back.
``But it's a zoo.''
For better or worse, this ``zoo'' represents a critical link in the chain that binds presidential candidates to voters. In a political season with 12 candidates being chased by a press corps that faces new financial limitations of its own, the political campaign bus offers a telling metaphor for the cat-and-mouse game between politicians and the press - a game with high-tech strategies for the highest stakes in American political life.
THE game played on the campaign bus (and plane) and on the hustings has become as much theater as politics.
``Electronic journalists are in show business,'' observes Time's Mr. Sidey. ``They want controversy, they want tears ... they want the bizarre.'' The press's appetite for a mediagenic political story, and the candidates' exploitation of that appetite, have become ``super-heated. It has reached critical mass. It's soap opera, that's what it is.''
The latest episode in this continuing ``soap opera'' could be seen unfolding at a subway stop in a Chicago neighborhood last week.
Bush campaign aides had decided there was a need to get their man out among the people, so they staged a media event in which the candidate would greet voters on their way to work in the morning. The vice-presidential motorcade made its way through the Chicago rush-hour traffic, stopping long lines of cars at intersections along the way, and pulled up to an open bus and subway terminal, where the press waited behind a rope.
``Mooo!'' one reporter called out, as the candidate strode past the media herd. ``Hey, Bush, ever ride a subway?'' yelled another.
Then, as the press stood shifting from foot to foot in the morning chill, Bush shook hands with commuters. Lights burned, cameras churned. The candidate and Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson, who had come along as an endorsement, smiled broadly and joked with passers-by. Afterward, Governor Thompson stood alone for a while, until Washington Times reporter Ralph Z. Hallow casually walked up and started chatting with him.
During the conversation, Mr. Hallow took out his notebook to jot down a remark and suddenly found himself surrounded by about a dozen reporters. The sight of a reporter with a notebook, talking to a potential source, had stimulated ``the fear, the absolute terror, that someone else will get something you don't have,'' Hallow observed later. That's why they were all ``furiously taking notes they will never use.''
This fear drives the engine of the political press. Time and again, you could see it pushing reporters to find a story in the steel cocoon of a campaign bus or the breezy tarmac of a rural airport.
``A.J. Liebling once said the problem with daily newspapers is that they come out every day,'' Robert Shogan, a highly respected political correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, explained one night. ``There's a lot of pressure on reporters to write. Sometimes, I think they are straining for an angle ... exaggerating the importance of something. There's a tendency for all of us to do that.''
In fact, everything on this campaign swing seemed to encourage it. Aside from one press conference, and a couple of speeches in which Bush set out new ideas, the whole process quickly became a mind-numbingly homogenized stream of pre-programmed crowds, repeated slogans, and bumpy plane rides. In the noise and shuffle of the political-media machinery, you could see the business of political reporting become a matter of minutiae - details out of which the press hopes to make telling observances.
``Did you get me Republicans clinking their glasses?'' a woman TV reporter asked her cameraman during a pre-banquet reception on the first night.
After the banquet that followed that reception, the ``boys and girls on the bus'' sat at a table listening to speeches - ties loosened, 5-o'clock shadows showing, hair falling down, eyes slightly bleary. As Mr. Thompson made an off-the-shelf speech, reporters from the New York Times, Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, and other media made quiet cracks.
``We've got a real demagogue here,'' one said sarcastically. ``Pure passion.''
``This is the only speech I've ever heard that will make George Bush sound good [by contrast],'' another chimed in.
And when Bush began his speech, a third reporter added: ``I hear the lap of a lap dog,'' referring to the George Will column that branded Bush a lap dog.
Asked if such remarks, and the prevailing attitude of the press corps, signify a ``them vs. us'' approach to the candidates, Hallow answered, ``Yes. Which is both healthy and unhealthy. The skepticism is intelligent. But the cynicism can be destructive. It can lead to a disrespect for the system.''
If political reporters sometimes succumb to a lack of respect for the system they cover, they themselves have a right to Rodney Dangerfield's complaint about not getting any respect.
``Voters see us knocking off Hart, pushing over Biden; ... a lot of people resent the role we play. But these are news stories - what are we supposed to do, ignore them?'' Mr. Shogan asks. Maybe not. But he acknowledges that the people who cover these stories and the way they do it don't often win high honors from many of the members of their own profession.
``A lot of people look down on us,'' he admits.
``I've never really thought of political reporting as the high calling of journalism,'' Sidey observes. ``It's imprecise. You can get away with saying many things that can never be disproved. It's a business filled with leakers of all types. It's very appealing to a lot of nomadic characters in our trade.
``I do think that at the top of the field there are about a dozen people, like David Broder [of the Washington Post], who have elevated it. But I also note that they are the ones who are the most modest and troubled about these things.''
Bush being the vice-president and current Republican front-runner, the bus that follows him is filled with the best and brightest reporters. The best of the baby-boom generation of technology-wise, sociology-conscious political reporters is represented by, among others, Margaret Garrard Warner, who did Newsweek's cover story on Bush last week, and Gerald Boyd of the New York Times - both enterprising journalists, known for casting their reportorial net wide beyond the confines of the campaign bus.
Still, as good as they are, many of these journalists admit to being captives of the campaign bus - this year less than ever before, however, because media organizations are cutting back on the amount of time their reporters spend on the bus, with the meter running up more than $2,000 a passenger for a modest 2-day swing.
During this journey, one sees just about as much of the world outside the campaign as a journalist on a state-controlled trip through the Soviet Union.
``It is a black hole'' from which little light escapes, Mr. Boyd of the New York Times acknowledges. But he adds that enterprising reporters get on the phones and infuse their stories with outside perspective. They also expect their coverage during off-travel weeks to give a larger perspective, drawn from a wider range of sources.
``I don't want to be judged by what I write in one two-day campaign trip,'' says Walter Robinson of the Boston Globe, bringing up the wide range of sources he taps in his day-to-day coverage of the race.
Perhaps more troubling than the potentially limited number of sources from which political reporters draw their material, however, is the degree to which they look to each other for confirmation of a basic viewpoint.
``This is like a reunion for some of these people,'' Shepard comments. After each speech and event, you could see reporters huddled together, ``trying to decide what the news was today. I mean, you go to every town and you find a McDonald's. If you cover politics this way, you go to every newspaper and you get the same lead.''
Shepard may exaggerate the extent of the problem. But the editor of his paper, Bill Kovach, former Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, says he decided to send a reporter like Shepard, with no previous experience in national politics, on the campaign trail because there's ``always a trade-off'' for the experience a reporter accumulates on the campaign trail. ``Experience gives you a head start, but for every step it gains you in that direction, it ties you up in obligations.''
These ``obligations'' seem to have greatly unraveled in an age when the mutual understanding of confidentiality - or going on ``background'' - between reporters and sources has become shakier. ``I wouldn't background a reporter I hadn't known for years and years,'' comments J.Kenneth Klinge, campaign director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
``You tell somebody something and, the next thing you know, it's on TV or in the newspapers.''
This feeling has created what one journalist describes as ``far more distance now'' between candidates and the press. ``When you can destroy a man in 18 seconds, as we did with Edmund Muskie one night, it becomes a dangerous business.''
That may be why the whole experience is so controlled, so programmed, so carefully staged - for maximum exposure at minimum risk.
At the Cedar Rapids airport, for instance: The press plane had hurried, making swooping turns and an almost diving descent, to get the media to the tarmac before the candidate arrived. Reporters and cameramen stood in a tiny roped-off area. A thick smell of manure from the surrounding farm country hung in the air. Reporters joked and talked among themselves.
Then, Air Force Two made a sweeping turn overhead and landed. It pulled around to within 50 yards of the assembled press, jets roaring and vice-presidential insignia gleaming in the sun. Two Air Force sergeants stood at attention, as Bush came down the steps and greeted local officials.
Finally, he sauntered over to the press and took a few quick questions, before everyone was swept away in his wake to another string of events.
Scott Shepard stood among the moiling press, wondering how much he had gotten from this kind of event:
``I couldn't tell, based on these two days I've spent in this pack - I mean, I just don't know who George Bush is. I've got a 30-minute interview with him tomorrow, one on one. But is that enough?'' Two days later, after his interview, Shepard decided that, indeed, it was not enough that he hadn't gotten a look at the real man, or many clues as to what he should think about him.
But then again, maybe he wasn't supposed to think.
``If you stop to think,'' NBC's Tom Pettit said one afternoon as he ran after a press bus, ``you lose track of what you're supposed to do. Which is to get on the bus.''