Shrugs and `nyet' on US campaign trail

The Monitor has invited foreign correspondents in the United States to describe, in a series of occasional articles, how they cover the presidential election. This reporter is from the Soviet Union. COVERING an American presidential campaign can be frustrating for a Soviet journalist. I learned this from experience soon after coming to work for the New York bureau of the Soviet news agency Tass 18 months ago.

Wishing to gain some firsthand knowledge of the candidates' positions, I came up with an idea of sending them a short questionnaire dealing with the significance of the Soviet policies of perestroika and glasnost, US-Soviet relations, and problems of arms control.

``Sounds great,'' said my friend Vladimir, who has spent the last five years working for Tass here. ``I don't think any Soviet reporter has ever done this before.'' That should have served as a warning. Instead it just spurred me on, and the carefully composed list of questions went out to the seven Democratic hopefuls. (I decided to skip the Republicans for the time being, because the positions of their leaders were better known.)

My seemingly reasonable plan ended in a flop. The only response I received was a fat envelope from former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt's campaign. Even this did not contain any direct replies, but rather a couple of stump speeches on foreign policy. The other candidates took no chances whatsoever. Their press officers, when I managed to get them on the phone, cheerfully informed me that ``the request is being considered.''

I realize that there was probably nothing personal in this unwillingness to have anything to do with a Soviet reporter - although Sen. Albert Gore Jr. grew visibly stiff when I approached him with inquiries on the subject after one of his campaign appearances in New York. Still, I was more than a little disappointed, probably because I had come to regard American political and public leaders as outspoken and easy to reach.

Aside from this unexpected setback, the presidential campaign came surprisingly close to what I had thought it would be like. I had assumed that in American politics money is the key to every door. Nothing I have seen so far has proved this wrong. Almost all the candidates who dropped out of the race did so in part because of financial troubles. Those who have the largest campaign chests invariably do well.

This in turn reinforces another popular notion. Apparently the success of a candidate depends not so much on his character or ideas as on the strength of his power base; that is, people and special-interest groups that, in a manner of speaking, ``invest'' in him.

The indifference of many voters to the primaries turned out to be a fact as well, and not a figment of Soviet propaganda. I had a chance to witness it on the day of the New York primary. Thinking naively that I should be able to pick my way to a polling station near our office in Manhattan by special street signs, American flags, or some other markers used to identify such places on election days back home, I wasted about half an hour wandering around the streets. Police officers, cabdrivers, and people in the street seemed to have very little patience with my inquiries about elections.

When I finally found what I wanted at a school in the neighborhood, my stay there lasted hardly more than five minutes. Upon learning who I was, the two police officers on duty promptly showed me the way out. ``You're not supposed to be here,'' one of them said. ``Only authorized persons are.'' ``Could I have a closer look at the polling machine in an unoccupied booth?'' ``No, I'm afraid you can't.'' ``What if I just hang around in the back for a while and watch? I'm not going to bother anyone with questions.'' ``No, sir, it's not permitted.''

In the end I had to content myself with studying a poster on how to pull the right levers, and later that night laughing at a joke on the ABC ``Eyewitness News.'' A woman voter complains to an election official that one of the levers in the machine is stuck. ``So what,'' comes a phlegmatic answer. ``Can't you pull another one?''

Soviet mass media often present American elections as a kind of political show. The reality has not only borne that impression out for me, but made it stronger. Just take the Gary Hart-Donna Rice affair and the hullabaloo raised around it, or look at TV ads ``selling'' candidates like cars or bath tissue. By the way, Tass did report on the changing political fortunes of former Senator Hart, but we tried to put the emphasis on the political ramifications of his twice-aborted campaign.

In general, our agency gives extensive coverage to the presidential race in the United States. Aside from our New York office, where we have five correspondents and the chief of bureau, Tass has a number of people in Washington who cover the federal government. A couple of reporters based in San Francisco take care of the West Coast. Together we cover all primaries and caucuses, as well as major opinion polls, and write political profiles of the candidates. A Tass correspondent will attend each national convention this summer.

For the past two years, international journalism in the Soviet Union has waged a losing battle against domestic competition. Soviet media are now preoccupied with policies of perestroika and glasnost and with rediscovering the nation's past. Still, news of the presidential campaign in the US finds its way to Soviet readers - even if, in the process, stories that we file shrink to just a few sentences.

Now that Vice-President George Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis seem assured of their parties' nominations, the Soviet people are naturally mostly interested in one thing: what the Soviet Union can expect from the eventual winner. I don't think anyone in the US can definitely answer the question at this stage. My personal opinion is that neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Dukakis has yet formulated a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union.

The most encouraging fact is that both men seem committed to further progress in arms control and the demilitarization of relations between East and West. The problem of halting and reversing the arms race is clearly perceived as the most important issue for the two superpowers, and ultimately for the whole world.

Andrei Sitov is a Tass correspondent in New York.

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