Washington — Not long ago Vice-president George Bush toured the drought-stricken lands of Africa. He flew to Geneva to deliver a plea for aid to famine victims. And back in the United States his pile of press clippings grew. Meanwhile, Republican Congressman Jack Kemp, also a potential contender for the 1988 presidential nomination, had to cope with a much less dramatic disaster.
Ellicott Creek, a troublesome waterway that has been overflowing its banks for a century, flooded again and wreaked an estimated $12 million in damage in Amherst, N.Y., a town in Mr. Kemp's district.
In terms of publicity, the times have been lean for Kemp, compared with the bountiful days of the Republican National Convention where he all but wrote the party platform.
``Your publicity goes in waves,'' observes Jim Roberts, director of Kemp's political action committee. ``Jack was on a very, very good and long publicity ride after the convention.'' Now Bush has the ride, he says. Kemp supporters hold that his time will come around again.
``The vice-president is the institutional heir to Ronald Reagan, and Kemp is the philosophical heir,'' says Mr. Roberts, who points to issues such as tax reform, the ``opportunity society'' theme, and lower minimum wages for youth workers as issues identified with both Reagan and Kemp. It is Bush, however, who remains on a high publicity roll.
Air Force Two recently carried the vice-president to Moscow for the state funeral and a meeting with new Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, followed by visits to Grenada, Honduras, and Brazil. News reports back home grew even more glowing as writers speculated about his strong position as the Reagan successor.
Kemp, who is also considered a likely candidate, was on the move, too, during March. He made 27 speeches on his proposal for tax reform at such events as the Oneida County Lincoln Day Dinner in Utica, N.Y., and the Southern New Hampshire Association of Commerce and Industry in Nashua, and traveled to a total of six states. ``That's more states than George Bush visited,'' says Kemp press secretary John Buckley.
Finally, on the same day two weeks ago, both Bush and Kemp dined with members of the news media. Bush sat in the state dining room of the White House at a March 25 breakfast listening to President Reagan tell reporters that ``I don't think there's ever been a vice-president that has been as much involved at the highest level in our policymaking and our decisions as George, or that has been a better vice-president than he has. He's been the best.''
Jack Kemp, on the other hand, lunched with reporters at a restaurant a few blocks away from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and held forth on the economy. When one reporter asked whether recent changes in the Bush staff meant the vice-president was preparing for a 1988 campaign, Kemp snapped back, ``Oh, I really don't have anything to say about the vice-president's staff.''
The congressman then apologized, saying, ``I'm sorry to jump on the question.''
The testiness is unusual for the normally upbeat Kemp, whose political ambitions have hardly been a secret. His political action committee (PAC) Campaign for Prosperity raised and spent $1.6 million last year to help GOP candidates. A side effect has been the building of national ties for Kemp.
At the luncheon, however, he was clearly in no mood to talk politics.
``Right now there is so much going on,'' and politics is interfering, he said. ``I have people asking me whether or not we're going to be able to get the enterprise-zones bill [a Kemp backed proposal aimed at helping inner cities] passed because it may do something for Jack Kemp.
``That really kind of discourages me a little bit that we can't get a bill through Congress because it's considered political.''
Press secretary Buckley traced the prickly response at the luncheon to what he called a ``transition period'' for Kemp.
Since December the congressman has come under more intense scrutiny as a possible candidate, said Buckley, a former Reagan-Bush campaign official who recently joined the Kemp staff.
``George Bush is a good person for flying to funerals and flying to other countries,'' says Buckley. ``He's not getting good press for putting forward a vision for what direction the country should be going in.'' While Bush performs his duties for the White House, Kemp untiringly travels the country explaining his plans for economic prosperity with lower taxes.
Meanwhile, Bush is pictured in the world press, and Kemp is saddled with the vexing problem of the Ellicott Creek flood. At one point last month a White House official informed Kemp mistakenly that his district had been awarded emergency assistance, and Kemp aides busily informed the local press. When the error was discovered an hour later, Kemp aides had to make more calls to cancel the announcement.
After high-level discussions, including a meeting with Donald T. Regan, White House chief of staff, Kemp won about $900 million in federal emergency funds for his district.
The final resolution may have offered him some consolation. ``He probably got the approval because he is Jack Kemp,'' said an administration official who asked not to be named. ``I think they bend over backwards in most cases'' for him, said the official.
But for the most part, as Kemp begins to gear up for a national drive toward 1988, the going has been rough. A top GOP official expressed surprise recently that the Conservative Political Action Committee, a group that includes many Kemp allies, recently gave the congressman only a narrow plurality over Bush in a straw vote. The official said he had expected Kemp to win the popularity contest easily.