The Bush Campaign

"Get off the plane, get on the bus, go to the speech, hang around, get on the bus, get on the plane, do it again . . ."

This litany, shouted with the tuneless cadence of an amateur drill sergeant, was a staple of the press corps that followed George Bush around during the primary season this year, summarizing the endless exercise in repetition that is political campaigning.

Back in those days when there were primaries almost every week, when campaign planes were sometimes big, sometimes small and sometimes nonexistent -- depending on the political fortunes of the candidates and the generosity of his contributors -- a little excitement clung to the Bush campaign, a sense that something would happen to break the monotony.

Now George Bush is the Republican vice presidential candidate. He flies in a specially equipped Boeing 727, christened "Leadership 80" complete with Xerox machines, telecopiers, telephones and hot and cold hors d'oeuvres. An entourage of 15 or 20 staff members travels with him, searching issues, briefing, scheduling, coordinating, writing speeches, typing. At least a dozen Secret agents fly along to protect him. And 20 to 25 press people -- reporters, camera crews, producers and an occasional columnist -- are along to watch.

Now everything about the campaign exudes the aura of high-stakes politics -- the motorcades on highways that have temporarily empitied to let him through, the motorcycle escorts, the hovering helicopters, the curious onlookers and the breathless advancemen.

But somehow, what was an air of excitement a few months ago has been replaced by sense of inevitability. Inevitability and incongruity.

George Bush, who has run two successful campaigns for Congress, who has made two unsuccessful bids for a U.S. Senate seat, who headed the party during the depths of its Watergate depression, is in the big one now. Yet what awaits him is, at best, only a consolation prize.

So this time around, when he makes his standard stump speech (SSS for short), Bush is not only saying things he has said before but things Reagan has said before too. And the reporters who once chanted about their boredom, hoping for something better, now just yawn. Worse, they get the feeling that the world out there is yawning with them -- if in fact anyone is paying any attention at all.

Take the case of a veteran reporter who drove halfway across Iowa before dawn one morning, met the Bush entourage in Illinois and listened to a day's worth of speeches before flying back to Des Moines with the campaign.

There, he sat down on his hotel bed to call his editors to try to figure out what to say about the day's events.

The phone rang in his office. An operator answered.

"Political desk," the reporter requested, leaning sleepily against the headboard and cradling the phone receiver between his ear and shoulder.

"Just a second," she responded and put him on hold.

Six hours later, he woke up. He was still on hold.

The boredom of the press is little more than an annoyance to the Bush staffers, who are working doggedly to do a professional job with their campaign. Minute-by-minute schedules govern the movement of the 50-person army as it whisks from town to town, from hot farms to factories to exclusive clubs. In some cases, Bush is presented with capsule life histories and genealogies of the people is about to meet.

And only the weather -- or perhaps a wayward paper towel finding its way into the plane's air pressure valves and clogging them -- keeps the campaign from being on time.

"I've never seen a candidate who cares as much about the schedule as this one," said Bush chief of staff Dean Burch. "He really wants to hold to it."

Thus, when Bush is scheduled to speak to Republican at a San Antonio party at exactly 9:39 p.m., it is 9:39 when he speaks. Or, if he is scheduled to receive a kiss from Miss Florence, S.C., at 2 p.m., it is precisely 2 o'clock when the promised embrace is executed. Little is left to chance.

The schedule, after all, is half the strategy.It may no indicate what he is going to say, but it does indicate to whom he is going to say things and in what settings he's going to be photographed. These days when thousands of dollars and weeks of research go into which voters the Republicans should woo, these are no means concerns.

Inevitably, where there is so much seriousness and such unending scramble, silliness occasionally creeps in to break the tension.

At these old moments, you get a glimpse of the out-takes of campaign life: the candidate, with a pained look on his face, mimicking what it's like to be on the receiving end of "groinkicking campaigning"; the birthday party with wind-up toys and toy helmets; the takeoff ritual, when rubber balls or oranges magically appear, rolling in the plane's aisles as it leaves the runway and heads aloft.

"It is always like this?" queried one bewildered newcomer during this first takeoff.

No, not always. Only when the monotony gets to be too much.