A View From the Campaign Bus

Reporters on the Dole road show: If this is Saturday, it must be Visalia

They straggle in, foggy-faced and tentative in the way of people roused too early, casting about for anything that might serve as a signpost. Where's the baggage call? Where's the security sweep? Where's ... VISALIA?

So begins another day in another nondescript town on the campaign trail covering Bob Dole's effort to attain the world's highest political office. A buffet is set to one side of a ballroom just off the hotel's main lobby. Pods of round tables are set for breakfast, rows of long, rectangular tables for filing stories.

Gradually members of the national press corps spill in and fill the room with chatter of misadventures from a restless night in a cheap room where the rain leaked down in a continuous dull thud on the extra bed and the toilet hissed all night.

The only difference between presidential campaigns and traveling old-time revivals is the sermon. It's the same show played out in town after town, of which journalists are both roadies - setting up laptops, modems, sound mixers, tripods, and cameras at each stop - and groupies, because no matter how many times they hear his speech, they still scurry about as if they can't get enough.

It has been 25 years and six presidential elections since Tom Crouse chronicled the life of the campaign press with his fable "The Boys on the Bus." Much has changed. The tape recorders are smaller, the microphone booms more menacing. Women have joined in what was once an all-male game. Campaigns are slicker, more cynical.

A blur of events

But the grit and grime has stayed the same. For months on end, reporters leave all behind to follow the story.

It is a life of some prestige and privilege, but reporters often operate in a narrow cocoon, filing stories every day amid a long blur of bus and plane rides and hotel rooms that all look the same after a while.

As a result, it can be a tall task to offer something fresh and interesting from the daily drill of press operatives chasing media chasing candidate. The job becomes a traveling feast of skepticism and sarcasm, humor and friction, patriotism and irreverence.

Visalia seems to be living its motto on this autumn morning of Dole's arrival: "A fresh perspective." Warm sun draws the sweet smell of agriculture from the earth after a night's rain, and the townspeople are expectant. For the press, it is the opening round of a long day on the bus - one of six events up Route 99 in California's San Joaquin Valley.

Three buses pull up, and as the band swings into a Glenn Miller tune, the media, laden down with their tools, pour out and follow a barricaded path through the crowd to a huge white tent opposite the stage. Laptops pop open, modems buzz. Video cameras perch on tripods. The arrival feels like a chorus line's opening number. The candidate arrives, the crowd livens.

Within the white tent, keyboards click and reporters shout into phones to be heard by their editors above the noise. From the opening round, stories are forming.

A particular feature of the Dole campaign is the food. At each of these events, a buffet lines the back wall of the white tent. While reporters following President Clinton choke down cold cuts, Dole's Greek chorus samples fine regional cuisine. In New Orleans, it's spicy crayfish pasta and bread pudding. In Dallas, chicken-fried steaks, mesquite-grilled beef, and chili. Every stop a buffet, paid for by the accounting offices of the newspapers and networks represented.

Nuance is what keeps a reporter listening to the same speech several times a day, day after day. Did the candidate offer anything new? Mangle a phrase? Twist yesterday's musing into today's accusation? Small changes form the day's line of inquiry. The candidate concludes. The band plays. The crowd chants. Laptops go into cases. The bus loads up.

Ground travel, as a general rule, is despised. The plane offers room to stretch out in comfort. The bus plods along, and late in the day irreverence becomes a release. The candidate's speech lines become the fuel of jokes. It is the only way to break the monotony.

Campaign operatives and press generally get along. They sort out our hotel accommodations and answer questions; we get the word out. But it isn't always pretty. When news breaks, there is a frenzy. The campaign's effort to stay on schedule grinds against the public's right to know.

A rumor starts in Jacksonville that Dole is courting Ross Perot. The campaign's lips are sealed. Frustrations mount. One reporter, climbing back on the bus frustrated and incredulous, shouts: "They're getting some muffin back in Washington to fax us something. How about getting us Nelson?" Nelson Warfield, Dole's press secretary, is in the entourage but isn't talking.

Wearing out shoe leather

They should say to bring two pairs of shoes, because they will never dry out in the few night hours your feet aren't in them. Sleep is precious rare.

Swift cross-country travel means never being fixed in a single time zone. Or you're too tired to sleep and stay up watching CNN over and over. Or you toss and turn, panicking through the nightmare every journalist has: that he'll oversleep, miss the bus, and be stuck in nowhere with an editor screaming over a pay phone.

So goes the day. From Pensacola, Fla., to Montgomery, Ala., to New Orleans, to Houston, to Stockton, Calif. Each stop the same drill, until stories are done and the crowd disperses. And as the bus drives off into the night toward another hotel, fatigue settles into a nearby seat, and a joke forms.

"Remember," a voice says, imitating California Gov. Pete Wilson, "it's not just a pleasant bus trip through the Central Valley. This is the road to victory, and it goes through Visalia."

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