Huff, Puff, Pant, wheeze, groan

June 23, 1996|By Karen Hosler

WASHINGTON -- I have discovered a new form of cross-training that supplements aerobic exercise with cross-country, time trials and weight work. It's called covering a presidential campaign.

Don't laugh. This boys-on-the-bus thing ain't all cigars and bourbon and pithy prose pounded out on portable typewriters. In fact, it isn't any of that any more.

It's boys and girls on buses, planes, trains and automobiles performing as physical a bit of labor imaginable outside a construction site. No kidding. I'm starting to get upper body muscle definition. Diet Coke is the drug of choice because it takes a few shots of cold caffeine just to make it through the day.

Now, it might be that I'm just not in as good shape as I was four

years ago when I trailed around the country after then-President George Bush. And it's also true that traveling this year with Bob Dole is not as cushy as traveling with Bush because Dole's a challenger, lacking some of the taxpayer-paid amenities -- like stenographers to record and transcribe his every word -- that also benefit the White House press corps.

More likely, though, my convenient memory has blocked out the more painful parts of that earlier experience that are now rushing back.

This is going to sound like whining because it is. That's what traveling reporters do: "When do we eat?" "Where's the bathrooms?" "Are we there yet?" "Is there going to be any actual news today?" That sort of thing. But believe me, there's a lot to whine about.

The weight work is the toughest part. Reporters travel these days with more accoutrements than twin toddlers. Even though the basic writing device of 1996 is a tiny laptop computer, the total load somehow seems bigger than it ever was.

For example, you also have to carry power cords, extension cords, telephone cords, and extra batteries as well as floppy disk attachments. Besides, no reporter can function without a cellular telephone, which doesn't work for long unless you bring along an extra battery and overnight-charging equipment. Pagers and tape recorders are also mandatory.

Most of these items are shoved into some kind of a briefcase, which also holds notes, notebooks, position papers, old newspapers and maybe a crushed baseball cap for campaign appearances in the bright sun or pouring rain.

This briefcase, often made out of canvas or vinyl but still a good 20 pounds' worth, goes everywhere with the reporter.

Many women reporters, including me, also carry some kind of a purse everywhere, too, to hold those essential personal items -- money, credit cards, checkbook, glasses (shades and regular), hairbrush, lip gloss, Kleenex, and pens -- that somehow just won't fit into the briefcase.

At the beginning and end of each day, traveling reporters are further burdened by suitcases, loaded with enough stuff to allow them to adapt comfortably to widely varying weather conditions throughout the country. I always pack too much and still never seem to have the right things.

But the really challenging feature of this weight work is the terrain over which the stuff must be carried:

Out of the car, into the airport, onto the airplane, off the airplane, onto the bus, and into the campaign event -- which could be anywhere from a hotel, to a school, to a platform in an empty field. Then back out of the campaign event, onto the bus and into the plane to fly off to the next city to begin the process all over again.

Dole typically makes three or four such stops a day -- with plane rides of an hour or two in between. All that lifting, pressing and holding may be great for the biceps, but the cabin air pressure is hard on the ankles, which can swell to twice their normal size before day is done.

What gets the adrenalin pumping, though, is the speed work, often the result of a campaign schedule totally inconvenient to newspaper reporting deadlines.

Even with all that modern technology, the best way to send a story is over a regular -- non-cellular -- telephone line. But access to such lines is limited to the times the candidate touches down at a campaign event. So, reporters have to take whatever opportunities they have -- sometimes filing three or four hours early rather than being an hour or more late.

That usually means you can't settle in and get comfortable someplace to write -- waiting for inspiration to strike -- you have to spend just about every possible minute working at it: on the bus, jerking along with the stops and starts; sitting cross-legged on the floor of some hotel ballroom; leaning against a press platform with bands blaring and crowds roaring.

The strain of trying to make words come together in an organized fashion under these circumstances is the most difficult part of the entire workout. I know it burns the most calories.

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