Fresno, Calif. — As the George Bush presidential caravan rolled to a rally here, a young, local reporter asked excitedly: ``When do we talk to Bush? When do we ask him questions?''
``You don't!'' responded a veteran correspondent traveling with the campaign. ``We just listen to his speeches like everybody else, and then write.''
Indeed, as Vice-President Bush scoots about the country to rallies, fund-raising dinners, and ethnic breakfasts, reporters following the candidate seldom have contact with him.
Mr. Bush, running well in the polls, finds little benefit in chatting with newspaper, television, and magazine writers. His staff prefers a campaign where the day's events are controlled. Off-the-cuff comments are discouraged.
Even though Bush is followed everywhere by about 100 reporters and cameramen, his news conference last Friday was his first in 13 days. He blamed his reluctance to meet the press on ``some low-level hand-wringers who think I'm going to screw it up.''
Each day, the campaign staff develops a ``script'' that lays out every minute. Like a good trooper, Bush follows the script to the letter. On a recent day, the 25-page itinerary guided the vice-president through his part on a visit to Fresno, the nation's raisin capital. (See timetable, right.)
If all this looks like a touch of Hollywood, it is. Every action is planned with one major thought in mind: How will it play on the nation's TV screens?
The two presidential campaigns are in a ratings battle. Each wants to be portrayed favorably in people's living rooms.
It is a kind of ``news management,'' and it works. The Bush campaign is very good at it. The Dukakis campaign, slow to realize its importance, is now beginning to catch up.
There are, however, major disadvantages to this for the press and the public.
Reporters have little opportunity for give-and-take with the candidates. They can rarely test the candidates' mettle, to see how they perform on their feet.
Instead, the view of the candidates, both for reporters and the public, comes from staged events at which candidates read texts prepared by teams of well-educated speech writers on a variety of topics chosen by highly paid pollsters.
It's quite artificial - just like the movies. And that's the way the campaigns want it.
The best that reporters can do is besiege Bush's staff, people like chief of staff Craig Fuller, campaign manager Lee Atwater, chief economist Michael Boskin, and California coordinator Bill Lacy. But that's hardly the same thing.
Turning Bush loose on the press would do two things, neither good, in the view of his handlers.
First, without his script, Bush might blunder. That could require days of ``damage control,'' and set back the campaign dangerously.
Second, Bush might say something newsworthy, or controversial. That's also unwanted, because it would detract from the day's ``theme'' that his staff wants to emphasize. Each day, Bush's scripters decide on a topic, whether the environment, defense, education, or Gov. the Dukakis record in Massachusetts. The staff wants to stick to the plan.
Such was the strategy when Bush plane-hopped from Los Angeles to Fresno to San Francisco one day last week. The day's big event was in Kingsburg, a few miles south of Fresno, but everyone knew San Francisco could be troublesome. Mr. Dukakis is strong there, and many people in that city's large homosexual community strongly oppose Bush.
After finishing the Kingsburg event early enough to make the evening news programs back East, Bush flew on to San Francisco. There he arrived to speak at a Chinatown rally about 5:30 p.m., Pacific time, well after the evening television shows had aired in most of the country. Sure enough, the protesters were there, shouting loudly enough to detract from the vice-president's speech.
Later, as Bush appeared at a fund-raising dinner at the St. Francis Hotel, perhaps a thousand protesters railed against him outside. Some battled with police as TV cameras rolled. But it was too late for the popular news shows.
The next day, Bush began his day with a speech bashing Michael Dukakis's record as governor. When the major news shows came on that night, the unpleasantness of the night before was virtually forgotten, and the anti-Dukakis speech was the main story.
Once again, the campaign's news managers got their way. The press asked Bush no questions. And the campaign rolled merrily along. 95 minutes in Fresno
Every day, the Bush campaign staff produces an itinerary for the vice-president's campaign. Here's a look at one brief segment the other day for a visit to Fresno, Calif. 12:00 Noon. The vice-president arrives Sun Maid Plant and proceeds to Courtyard Area. 12:05 p.m. The vice-president arrives courtyard area and begins participation in greetings. 12:13 p.m. The vice-president concludes participation in greetings and proceeds to board room. 12:15 p.m. The vice-president arrives board room and begins participation in greetings. 12:25 p.m. The vice-president concludes participation in greetings and proceeds to holding room. 12:30 p.m. The vice-president departs holding room and proceeds to staging area. 12:35 p.m. The vice-president arrives staging area and holds briefly. 12:36 p.m. The vice-president, accompanied by Gov. George Deukmejian, is announced onto dais. 12:37 p.m. Governor Deukmejian is introduced for remarks by Mr. Bill Campbell. 12:38 p.m. The vice-president is introduced for remarks by Governor Deukmejian. 12:40 p.m. The vice-president remarks. 1:00 p.m. The vice-president concludes remarks and proceeds along ropeline. 1:08 p.m. The vice-president concludes participation in ropeline and proceeds to motorcade. 1:10 p.m. The vice-president boards motorcade and departs Sun Maid Plant en route Holiday Inn, Fresno, Calif. 1:30 p.m. The vice-president arrives Holiday Inn and proceeds to suite. 1:35 p.m. The vice-president arrives suite for private time. (Private time: 40 minutes).