NOBODY was quite prepared for the bus that practically whisked the Clintons and Gores from Madison Square Garden and sent them chugging for some 1,200 miles through the heartland of America.
This was to be the election year, pundits cynically promised, when campaigns would be fine-tuned to television as never before. The candidate with the best negative 30-second spots could be expected to win. Never mind counting votes; the contest would go to the side totaling the most sound bites on the evening news. The president would pose in the Rose Garden looking presidential while the challenger and his scriptwriters labored daily to deliver a one-liner too nastily clever for camera and microphone t o refuse. After all, wasn't the Democratic convention staged and cued with the controlled precision of a television special?
But then came the bus. Buses start and stop and even stall. Buses run late. Buses operate in the real, unpredictable world, and when they pull over, real, unpredictable people are waiting.
Before television was everybody's surrogate eye, presidential candidates spoke from the back platforms of trains. Maybe Clinton and Gore didn't quite conjure up Harry Truman, waving his hat and clenching his fist at a hundred whistle-stops. But here they were - in the flesh, meeting voters in the flesh in eight states, improvising as all travelers have to improvise. Here they were - "on the hustings," in that phrase coined long before those other phrases like "handlers" and "spin doctors."
The year that was supposed to make the election practically an automated event has produced its healthy surprises. Ross Perot crossed up the stereotype of the professional politician. Then came the astonishing new tactic of campaigning through talk shows, with candidates going one-on-one by telephone. And finally, that bus rolled onto the scene.
Sure, it was show business. Sure, it was political symbolism. But for a moment or two, on the potholes of America, the Clinton-Gore bus bounced politics '92 out of the hands of ad agency image-makers and back into everyday life. Voters and candidates across the political spectrum need more reality checks like this one.