WHEN George Bush's 1988 presidential campaign comes whistle-stopping through Iowa, his political baggage bears one label that stubbornly refuses to rub off. The label says, ``George Bush, lapdog.'' It was put there by George Will in a 1986 column that took out after the vice-president. Among the politically active, the tag stuck. While it has hardly unhorsed the candidate, now a front-runner who has amassed a $10.5 million campaign chest, the column epithet clearly remains a bur under his saddle.
The label ``probably has been cited more times by more people [of influence]'' than any other, says James P. Gannon, editor of the Des Moines Register, who has watched the presidential campaign unfold in his home state.
The incident illustrates the sustained influence of newspaper columnists, even in a television-dominated political process, as well as pointing up a worry raised by some observers of the trade: As newspaper columns have become more ideological, they have also grown more mean-spirited and shrill.
In the past 20 years or so, many observers say, the game has changed; and it has invited a far different breed of player.
``The last time we had an `open' presidency was 1960,'' observes Hal Bruno, political director of ABC-TV News, ``and you did not have trial by primary, the power of television, and Super Tuesday.'' The 1960 presidential election also saw the sunset of columnists such as Arthur Krock and Walter Lippmann and with it the decline of the centrist newspaper column.
``Twenty years ago, the system was built on what party leaders thought of you,'' observes John Sears, who directed the 1976 Reagan presidential campaign. Columnists' influence over the political elite in those days, he adds, was far more important. But ``we don't have that kind of system anymore.''
What we do have, he says, is a much noisier media-political arena, in which columninsts seem to be raising their voices in order to be heard.
``I see a lot of angry columns being written by columnists acting like Crazy Eddie selling things on TV,'' complains veteran journalist John Chancellor, who does a nightly commentary on the ``NBC Evening News.'' ``There's a kind of meanness to these columns, a basis in ideology, where they used to be based in journalism.''
``Syndicators and newspaper editors say they like something that is sort of predictable,'' comments former presidential press secretary Jody Powell, who until recently wrote a syndicated column. As a result, he adds, there is a tendency for columns to become ``more strident; and that is unhealthy, because it leaves out the reasoned, non-ideological positions that have sort of held the country together.''
Mr. Chancellor and others point to a golden age of columnizing in the '40s and '50s, dominated by journalists such as Lippmann, Krock, James Reston, and Roscoe Drummond.
Although he acknowledges that these columnists sometimes sought privately to influence the outcome of public policy, political columnist David Broder says flatly: ``I don't see anyone today writing with the clarity or authority of Walter Lippmann.''
``He camps neither with the liberals nor the conservatives, although he may take up the cause of one group or another,'' says Current Biography of the late Mr. Lippmann. And columnist Murray Kempton describes ``Scotty'' Reston as ``not so much a man of the left or right as he is a man of the Times.''
While he thinks ``it's good to hear from the extremes'' of the political spectrum, Des Moines Register editor Gannon acknowledges that ``you need thoughtful commentary from the center, and there is less of that.''
William Safire of the New York Times is given high marks by his peers for a nonpartisan zeal in pursuing truth, be it favorable or unfavorable to the conservative wing of the Republican Party, with which he is often associated. But Mr. Safire leaves little question in his writing as to where his politics lie.
The newspaper columnist most widely respected among journalists and political analysts is David Broder. ``Broder is not comfortable with the role of pundit,'' PBS's Robin MacNeil observes. ``He's more of an analyst, modest, reinforced with factual observations.'' And Mr. Bruno credits him with ``tremendous experience, a brilliant mind, thoughtful analysis with a sense of history,'' and no perceivable political bias.
Mr. Broder vigorously maintains that it matters little which way he leans or whom he favors, since, in his view, newspaper columnists have ``minimal'' influence over the political process. ``I don't think George Bush sits up at night wondering what David Broder is going to write about him in tomorrow's paper,'' he says.
Maybe not. But political experts agree that, when the next morning peeps over the windowsill, George Bush, the party faithful, and almost everybody in political journalism will be looking for what Broder had to say. And there is a handful of other columnists whom the political-media elite follow closely, especially those in the journalism trade.
``When Bill Safire raises a series of tough, pointed questions,'' says Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who has participated in three presidential campaigns, ``you know a candidate is going to go through an hour-long briefing, because he is going to hear those questions the rest of the day.'' And Bruno recalls racing down a New Hampshire highway in a limousine with candidate Jimmy Carter in 1976, ticking off a series of questions raised in a column by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. ``Evans and Novak will play a big part in the fight between [Robert] Dole, Bush, and [Jack] Kemp,'' predicts Karl Meyer, a member of the New York Times editorial board, who is compiling a history of newspaper columns.
The question raised by Chancellor and others is: What kind of role do these columnists play in helping to set the political agenda and frame the journalistic dialogue?
``What we have gotten is a politicization of the columns,'' Chancellor says. ``And it means that voters get their views of major issues from the extremes. I'm not sure it's a good thing for American politics or journalism.''