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Avoids Unwanted Questions but Seeks TV Coverage : Bush Growing More Remote From Press

February 02, 1988|JOHN BALZAR | Times Political Writer

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — As excitement goes, it is not up to his wild encounter with anchorman Dan Rather. But Vice President George Bush's day-to-day dealings with the press may reveal a great deal more about the strategy and capabilities of his presidential campaign.

As he moves from town to small town, nothing is controlled so rigidly as Bush's contact with the five to 50 or so news reporters who might be on hand at any given stop.

A personal hello or a pose for a picture are given obligingly. But at the very whisper of an unwanted question, Bush most often slips away behind a formidable cloak of Secret Service agents and aides.

At the same time, Bush commands extensive and largely uncritical coverage on local television and radio simply by sweeping into town with his impressive vice presidential regalia and entourage.

Achieves Mastery

Thus he has sought--and with notable success, achieved--mastery of daily campaign news coverage.

For many other candidates, Iowa typically brings them up close with reporters for long periods of time. For better or worse, it is intimate politics where ideas, positions and personality are plumbed through relaxed give-and-take with anyone carrying a note pad, from the local farm columnist to the correspondent with an inch-thick passport.

Not so with Bush.

Never much for informality with the press, he has grown steadily more remote. During his latest trip to Iowa, reporters traveling with his campaign managed to shout only three questions during the course of two full days.

To one question, he said he did not know. The second he ignored. And to the third he said he would not answer. The questions were: Would his spat with Rather help his campaign? Would the Iran-Contra scandal hurt? What did he have to say about allegations of misdeeds involving Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III?

Buzz-Word Questions

Onlookers might say that they were plebeian, buzz-word questions. Reporters at the scene would probably agree, defending themselves only in that the time for carefully drawn inquiry is not when shouting to a man walking away in full stride.

Bush's main interest is local Iowa television and radio and community newspapers.

George Wittgraf, Bush's Iowa chairman, says that daily news coverage in these media during the final weeks of the campaign is vastly more important than paid television advertising in Iowa. And when Bush is lucky, as he was at his last stop here, news coverage can seem to be the twin brother of advertising.

Landing Makes News

A vice president landing in a gleaming United-States-of-America Air Force Two is itself news in much of Iowa.

"Anytime he is on television on a station that is viewed by Iowans, it helps him," Wittgraf said.

But what if he arrives, merely waves, announces he is delighted to be here and says nothing of substance?

"Think viscerally," Wittgraf replied.

Bush's counselors say they are delighted with the results of his most recent eight-town, two-day foray into Iowa.

Top News Story

Here in Council Bluffs, footage of the vice presidential arrival was the "teaser" shown several times leading up to the afternoon and evening television news. Bush's quick arrival statement was the top news story at each segment of one news program, followed by coverage of his wife's separate appearance at an elementary school in the area. A local television reporter obtained an exclusive interview on the importance that Bush places on Iowa.

"This is an excellent trip," said Peter Teeley, Bush's longtime press handler.

As pressure builds for Bush to address one or another national subjects, the vice president's campaign has sought to respond on its own terms.

Questions in Writing

For example, in the swamp of controversy about his role in the Administration policy that led to the selling of arms to Iran, Bush's reaction has been to call for questions in writing. Major newspapers, including The Times, complied.

And when CBS' Rather challenged Bush to hold a press conference to clear the air, Bush responded by holding one in Pierre, S.D., in the fifth most sparsely populated state in the country.

Back in Iowa a few days later, Bush was asked by a traveling newspaper reporter: "Sir, would you take one question?"

"No," Bush declared, then relented. The question was about Meese's troubles. "I'm not going to talk about it," he said, ending the encounter.

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