Bus tour by Clinton, Gore recalls trek by RFK in '68 ON POLITICS

Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

August 10, 1992|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

LACROSSE, Wis. -- The impressive crowds that turned out for Democratic candidates Bill Clinton and Al Gore on their second bus tour through small-town America bring inevitable comparisons with the past. And whenever the talk among political junkies turns to famous presidential campaign days, one stands out in the size and intensity of the crowds that flocked to see the candidate.

It was Robert F. Kennedy's bus motorcade across northern Indiana in early 1968, when he launched his insurgency for the Democratic nomination. Mr. Kennedy had just gotten into the race and President Lyndon B. Johnson had just gotten out, beaten in the primaries in New Hampshire and Wisconsin by Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota, running against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war.

From Fort Wayne in the east in the morning through Gary in the west and into Chicago after midnight, the crowds were incredible. Not only did they jam the downtown street corners where Mr. Kennedy spoke; they lined the highways between towns, stretching for miles along some parts of the route. As dusk turned to dark, young parents appeared along the highways with their small kids dressed in pajamas to wave at the passing motorcade. The entourage slowed to greet them, and to assure their safety in the crush.

The heavily emotional scene was all tied up with the loss of the romantic and romanticized days of Camelot after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Americans young, middle-aged and old looked to the brother of the fallen hero somehow to bring back those days and the spirit of a new generation taking over that had been shattered by the volley of shots in Dallas less than five years before.

Young enthusiasts ran for long distances alongside the buses in the hope of catching a glimpse of Mr. Kennedy. In days when members of the news media were not regarded as the general enemy, average folks waved and cheered the press buses as the motorcade ran three, four, five hours late on the relatively short trans-Indiana trip.

The spectacle was all the more remarkable because it occurred not in the heat of a general-election campaign but in an early party primary, at a time many voters traditionally do not pay much attention to politics at any level. In addition to the yearnings for Camelot revisited, however, disillusionment with the war and with LBJ stirred passions among the most committed.

The Clinton-Gore bus tours have not approached that memorable scene across the Hoosier state of nearly a quarter of a century ago. But they may come as close to it as American presidential politics has seen, especially for this early stage of the general-election campaign.

Part of the lure may be the novelty of a campaign that has been going to small-town Main Street in this age of jet travel from one "major media market" to another, with candidates seen principally as flat images on living room screens. Janet Winkleman, a farm wife at a highway intersection outside Wayland, Mo., said she was there "because he [Clinton] is going to be the next president" and seeing him in person was special. That is an old sentiment that hasn't been heard much of late in this era of television.

This is supposed to be a time of galloping voter apathy and disenchantment with all politics and politicians, but the size and enthusiasm of the crowds that have been meeting Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore belie that view. Mr. Gore optimistically took to asking audiences whether their presence and willingness to wait hours for the chronically late motorcade -- which made "spontaneous" stops when highway crowds gathered -- meant they had hope again that change for the better was possible. They always cheered their affirmation.

More than anything else, though, it may be the image of two young men and their young wives with a great deal of enthusiasm themselves talking endlessly of change and a new start by a new generation. One thing is certain. Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore have built up a head of steam surprising for what usually are the summer doldrums. And they have no intention of letting up, even during the approaching Republican National Convention.

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