Another Monday morning, so time for a trip to the mailbox. But what was this? Yes! The Water Cooler Caucus was convening once more. I hastened across the newsroom to take up my customary position beside the spigot

One member of the caucus hadn't been seen much lately. He'd been off covering the presidential campaign. That lasted for about 11 years and eight months, or so it seemed, especially to him.

Then this poor scribe had gone Somewhere South for a few weeks, to burn both his skin and the unused 1977 vacation time that the accounting department was threatening to cancel. So The Caucus had much to catch up on.

"How was it, man?" asked the youngest among us.

"Mondale or Martinique?"

"I know how Martinique must have been, wise guy," came the sighing reply. "How can you hate the beach, or the female creatures you see on it? I'm talking about the campaign. Everybody back home here thought it was the most tedious thing since Howard Cosell explained the intricacies of the infield fly rule. True?"

"True," said our brown-as-a-berry buddy. "I used to pine for an assignment like this. I mean, this is the ultimate in newspapering, right? But now, I'm not so sure any more."

"Exactly what I think," said a second caucuser. "Covering a campaign is actually a torture test designed to frustrate newsies. We live by access to our sources, right? Well, the one thing you never get any more is access to a candidate on your terms. You get the side of him that he wants you to see. How can you do your job that way? And how can you feel good about the job you do?"

"It's more fun on the state level," said Newsperson Three, who (surprise!) covers governors and legislatures. "You're dealing in a more manageable arena in Richmond or Annapolis. I'm not saying the food is any better, or that the walls of the Holiday Inns are any thicker. But TV dominates presidential campaigns so totally that you don't feel you belong. You may as well be carrying the bags to the press bus."

"All nonsense," I chimed in. "It's still not news to the TV reporters until a newspaper person writes it. What really happens on a campaign is that nobody wants to get beat. Why? Because nobody wants his boss to call up and ask why he didn't have what the competition had. TV reporters are under excruciating pressure not to get beat. And the standard by which they judge whether they're beat or not is newspapers. We're still Checkpoint Charlie."

The Mondale veteran took another swallow from the fountain. "I'll tell you one thing," he said.

"What's that?" asked one of us.

"I can't wait for '88. I'm working on my technique. Some TV sound man kept elbowing me at every press conference, and I promised him I'd practice for the next four years and get him back."

"Elbowing TV sound men," clucked the youngest among us. "I knew the campaign trail rotted minds, but this is ridiculous. Wonderful to have you back, man." And off we went to the four corners of the room, wetter and wiser, as always.