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Pick three reporters; leave the rest home

I am suffering in the very back seat of Press Bus II. A chemical smell from the toilet has given everyone a headache. Around me a half-dozen people chatter into cellular telephones. Somewhere six or seven buses ahead is Bill Clinton. I wonder if his bus smells bad, too.

The whole caravan lurches to a sickening halt. We will make an "impromptu" stop at a community college. Never mind that the roadside marquee says "Welcome Gov. Clinton," or that the local cable-TV station has arranged coverage, or that the Bush campaign has organized a protest. Impromptu.

We pile out into a fog of carbon monoxide. A speck a few hundred yards ahead might be Clinton's head. You can tell because it is surrounded by boom microphones. He shouts into a piece-of-junk sound system.

"Awwwk mfh ggg," the Clinton-speck says. The crowd cheers.

Jack Germond _ THE Jack Germond, Jack-o, Jack-ee, Jack-a-randa _ WRONG! _ of McLaughlin Group fame stands next to me. He is trying to bum a cigarette from somebody. He is shorter than he looks on TV.

In fact, everybody in the press is shorter than they look on TV. A network bigshot reporter. A well-known Washington Post reporter. We are buses full of little Napoleons, chasing a politician across northern Florida.

"Ggggg strrrg!" the speck says. The crowd cheers.

It takes a dozen buses for Bill Clinton to campaign. He and Hillary and Al and Tipper have a bus, of course. There also are two staff buses, two VIP buses and seven press buses, plus the occasional automobile, and an escort of troopers and local police wherever we go.

There are hundreds of reporters. Every national newspaper and network, and many of the major ones around the world. Every Florida newspaper. Regional newspapers from around the country. Dozens of photographers.

With Democratic efficiency, I am listed as a photographer. I ride the photographers' bus instead of the stuffy reporters' bus. Someone has produced a supply of Walt Disney souvenirs. From my back seat, as I clutch my temples and gag at the fumes, I stare hopelessly across a sea of bobbing Mickey Mouse ears.

At every stop we leap from the buses and rush to smother Clinton, in case that is the very moment, after years of campaigning, that he decides to utter an obscenity, or snap at Hillary, or take a poke at a protester. He never does.

Gore always speaks first at these stops. The first time you hear his speech it is cute. The 12th time it is not. I cannot bear ever again to hear him say that if George Bush made a movie, the title would be, Honey, I Shrunk The Economy, or that the sequel would be, Honey, I Blew Up The Deficit.

You never get close to Clinton. There are no intimate conversations with him as the scenic countryside rolls past. Once, in the middle of a crowd, I turned around and almost bumped into him. He nodded. A nod. My sum contribution to the coverage of the campaign. A Secret Service agent shoved him into the bus.

Monday night, in Ocala, Clinton and Gore sat down on a makeshift, outdoor television set for Larry King Live. King sported his suspenders around the press building. He is shorter than you might think, too. It must mean something.

Something like 300 of us sat in a concrete bunker a few hundred feet away, at folding tables and chairs, eating Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Que and watching Larry King Live. Three hundred people, paid by the giant organs of journalism to watch television.

It was eerily quiet except for the clacking of the keys of portable computers. Every now and then someone would speak and a dozen reporters around him would go, "Shhh!" and go back to their typing. The First Amendment at work.

There is no need for this. The American people are not served better by 300 reporters than, say, three. We could draw straws. The losers would have to ride the bus. The rest could go home and write about things that mattered.

Here was one thing worth seeing: Everywhere the buses went, the roads were lined with people cheering and waving. Parents lifted their children in the air. Floridians by the thousands, even those with Bush signs, took the time and trouble to come to get a glimpse of Bill Clinton's bus. They were smiling, and enthusiastic, and the fact so many people cared made me feel, well, better.