'Health Express' is leaving, destination still unknown


WASHINGTON -- Veteran movie-goers will probably agree that sequels are rarely as good as the original. This is especially so when the original is a real bell-ringer, although that doesn't seem to stop Hollywood from making them.

The political equivalent of a Hollywood smash hit was the 1992 bus tour of Democratic nominees Bill Clinton and Al Gore coming out of the Democratic National Convention in New York.

It was such a popular success, drawing such big and enthusiastic crowds almost everywhere, that several other trips of varying lengths were conducted and came to be known in the lingo of the younger generation as "Bill and Al's Excellent Adventure."

Now the Clinton administration, in a drive to generate grass-roots support for the president's health care reforms, is planning "the Health Security Express," a series of bus tours starting later this month.

They are to feature the Clintons, the Gores and various Cabinet secretaries, culminating in major demonstrations and rallies in Washington Aug. 2-4.

These trips will not constitute a precise sequel, because the principals will show up only at certain points to speak for health care, rather than going the whole route as Clinton and Gore did two summers ago.

But it is inevitable that the comparison will be made, setting some very high expectations for the whole undertaking, in which caravans of four buses will trace five different routes, in sum covering most sections of the country.

The first obvious problem is that a legislative issue, no matter how important to average voters, seldom has the star quality of a presidential or vice-presidential nominee rolling out of a successful national convention and getting extensive coverage by national network television.

The second is the difficulty in sustaining interest in the gimmick, which is to start on July 22 in Portland, Ore., and in other cities later that week and the next.

The buses will carry not only politicians but doctors, nurses, other health-care givers as well as patients or prospective patients with sympathy-grabbing stories to tell.

Finally, there is the product to sell.

The organizers, tapping $1.8 million in contributions from labor unions and other supporters of universal health care coverage, say they will be peddling the bill that has yet to be crafted by the Senate and House majority leaders, George Mitchell and Dick Gephardt, from the four bills that have emerged from separate committee deliberations.

Just what that will be can't be determined yet, but one of the tour organizers, Greg Marchildon, says the caravan's sponsors "anticipate a leadership bill that will incorporate the president's bottom line of universal coverage that can never be taken away."

But such a bill is unlikely before the tour, which suggests they may be putting the cart before the horse by asking the voters to buy into a plan whose final form is still unknown.

The 1992 Clinton-Gore caravan gave bus tours a very good name, and there have been others that have generated similar public interest and media attention, such as the trips of the famed Freedom Riders through the Deep South in 1961.

Others, however, have drawn a spotlight and then failed to live up to their billing, and some have even been embarrassments to their cause.

The so-called Mule Train from the South to Washington to protest poverty and civil rights abuses was part of the Resurrection City fiasco of 1968.

In 1988, Jesse Jackson's bus caravan to the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta also was largely a bust, a caravan made up largely of reporters and camera crews.

The same was true of the bus tour of women supporting abortion rights to the Republican National Convention in Houston in 1992.

Still, in today's era of impersonal politics delivered into the nation's living rooms by television, something can be said for efforts that seek to engage average voters in their own towns.

For all the television commercials, politicians' speeches and town meetings by the president and first lady on health care, polls indicate continued confusion among voters about who is proposing what.

Maybe this somewhat risky undertaking will help dispel it in a modest way, if not close the sale on whatever survives as the Clinton plan.

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