The Boys on the Bus
T hey called it the First Thousand Miles, the beginning of the long, arduous journey to Election Day and, if fortune smiled on them, the White House. Its planners started from the premise that Michael Dukakis had lost the presidency in the weeks after his nomination in 1988, going home to Massachusetts to brood for the rest of the summer while a nineteen-point lead melted away. Whatever the larger merit of their claim to be Democrats of a new kind, Bill Clinton and Al Gore weren't going to make that mistake again. The day after their debut as a ticket, they and their wives climbed aboard a chartered bus, cranked up Bonnie Raitt on the sound system, and headed westward out of New York into the heart of small-town America.
Like most successful exercises in our politics, the tour was an act of artifice -- a showpiece put together by a Hollywood producer, Mort Engelberg, from an original idea by a campaign manager, David Wilhelm. But it was an undeniable masterwork of the form, its brilliant imagery of youth and purpose evoking real passion from real people. For six days, the caravan rolled like a rock tour over wide concrete interstates and back-country blue highways in Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. Clusters of townsfolk and farmers stood by the roads, waving at their hopes going by. Families watched from lawn chairs in their front yards. Small children lit sparklers and held them in the air. Three men stopped their combine in a field and draped a giant Clinton-Gore banner across it.
The bus delivered the nominees to places long neglected in an age of jet stops in major media markets, and big turnouts greeted them everywhere. Some people had come to cheer, some just to gawk at the latest celebrities from Back East. It didn't matter; the crowds became part of the theater of the tour, the extras populating an unrich, unpoor, un-urban American midland that Democratic candidates had been flying over for years. At every stop, the Clintons and Gores waded into the crowds, shaking hands and signing autographs. Gore would speak first, warming up the audience. Hillary and Tipper would smile,