MANCHESTER, N.H., Nov. 4 -- Bob Dole had decided to conclude his bid for the presidency by campaigning for 96 straight hours, in effect turning his death march into a death marathon, and there was no way I was going to miss it.
So, peeling off from Bill Clinton's entourage in San Francisco, I jetted back to East Lansing, Mich., to hook up with the Bobster and then stick with him for a two-day slice of his 'round-the-clock ramble.
On the flight out, I was seated next to a yuppie executive from the cosmetics firm Helene Curtis, who served the useful function of reminding me just how odd this avocation of mine is.
"And you're looking forward to that?" he said to me when I told him that over the next 48 hours I would be visiting Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, Colorado, Nevada, and California, without making contact with a bed in any of these places, and indeed without having the opportunity to sleep for more than two hours at a stretch.
"With Bob Dole?" he went on: "Man, you must be a glutton for punishment."
Which must be true - since tagging along on the Dole death marathon seemed to me the most natural thing on earth.
There are two things for which any political writer with halfway decent instincts has an insatiable appetite: scenes that are magnificent in either their surrealism or unpredictability, and moments that reveal something about a politician that is deep or true or real. Dole's march held open the prospect of both.
And boy did it ever deliver and deliver, and deliver. There was Dole standing at Lane 18 in a bowling alley in East Lansing on Friday night, being met by a crowd of chanting Clinton-Gore infiltrators ("Four More Years!"), attempting to lead his fans in shouting them down ("No More Years!"), failing, and then fleeing the alley in a state of visible frustration.
There was Dole at around 2:30 a.m. on Saturday morning in Detroit, telling reporters, "I'll get three good stories from each of you and we'll call this thing off and I get to write them."
There was Dole on the tarmac in New Jersey in the icy dawn, with no supporters anywhere to be seen, talking about how an endorsement from some cops was "another sign of the incredible momentum in this campaign... The excitement is there, the electricity is there!"
There were the hostile crowds in city after city, taking out their frustrations on the press corps, chanting "Tell the truth!" and cursing the "liberal media," throwing things, even spitting.
There was Dole in Indianapolis calling Bill Clinton "the Waffle Man, and that's where they go to work out their foreign policy: the Waffle House."
There were the baseball caps that the Dole campaign staffers wore, which bore the slogan, "96 Hours Until Victory," and the ones they gave reporters, which read, "96 Hours Until a White House Beat."
There was Elizabeth Dole, stepping in to give her husband a rest in Covington, Ky., by delivering a speech that almost could've come from the mouth of Pat Buchanan, a speech in which she spoke of "discovering the thread of God's plan in our lives, and filling the God-shaped place in our hearts."
There was the MC in St. Louis, who unwittingly cut against decades of Republican grain by praising the GOP state auditor in Missouri, who was now the party's candidate for governor, by citing her motto "In God We Trust; All Others, We Audit."
There was Dole in Omaha, free-associating from "soccer moms" to "sock it to him" to "sockittomesockittomesockittome."
There was Dole dancing, or trying to dance, to an array of music one does not normally associate with him: Van Halen ("Jump," "Right Now"), Credence Clearwater ("Proud Mary"), even KISS ("Rock and Roll All Night").
There was Dole in South Dakota, standing beneath a giant poster of a stern, scowling, admonishing Uncle Sam, and thereby revealing that he and Sam are in fact identical twins all the way down to that bony index finger they both are prone to jab and wag.
Yet for pure surrealism, for sheer strangeness, none of this compared to the mood of elated energy that suddenly surged - or seemed to surge - over the Dole campaign midway through Saturday.
Suddenly, they claimed, every poll was breaking their way. The independents were abandoning Clinton; the undecideds were streaming to Dole. The campaign-finance scandals were kicking in; Dole's attacks were finally getting through.
On the press plane, one of the GOP's most accomplished spinners, Charlie Black, sat down with us to do his thing. Dole, he said, was tied or ahead in every Southern state but Arkansas. Same in the Rocky Mountain West, and California was closing fast.
Black was full of late-surge precedents Ford in '76, Reagan in '80, Dukakis in '88. At the start of his spiel, Black claimed the race was a toss-up. By the end, he was saying that Dole more or less had victory squarely in his hot little hands.
Black's spin, and the burst of euphoria throughout the campaign that it reflected, raised an interesting question: Are these people just extraordinarily adept liars? Or does the circumstance of being compelled to campaign for 96 consecutive hours simply require a suspension of disbelief that borders on delusion? Either way, it was a fascinating spectacle to behold.
But still less fascinating than the spectacle of Dole himself. While the press people flagged and bitched and moaned, the Bobster pressed on with remarkable energy and admirable good humor.
Often, it was obvious that he was tired. Late at night, his voice would scratch and rasp; words would now and then come out slurred and blurred, and riffs would be repeated. But he never lost it, as many of us predicted he would.
And he proved to be more robust and high-spirited than most of us would be if - God help us -we were ever put in a similar situation.
Was Dole's mood, his vim and vinegar (as he is fond of malapropping it), a sign that he actually believed the hype his handlers were peddling? Maybe.
Maybe, despite all of Dole's aversion to fantasy and make-believe, the psychic demands of soldiering on caused him to lose touch with his vaunted sense of realism. But maybe not.
Maybe Dole knew his fate well and, having resigned himself to it, has found a way to relish his time on the national stage while he still could.
On Saturday night at around midnight, mountain time, Dole clambered down from the Citizen's Ship to a runway rally in Grand Junction, Colo., that was one of the most breathtaking of the whole marathon.
A couple thousand people, standing in a freezing wind amid lightly falling snow, listening to "Sweet Home Alabama" ("Now Watergate does not bother me / Does your conscience bother you? Now tell me true....").
As Dole stood there on the podium, waiting to be introduced, he looked over to his left and watched as a laser cast a green line-drawing of an enormous elephant on the side of a parked white diesel rig. The elephant marched and marched, its ears flopping, but went nowhere.
As Dole looked at it, he smiled, and you could just tell he was having the time of his life. And you couldn't help but think that he grasped the metaphor as readily as you did.
John Heilemann writes "Impolitic" for The Netizen, part of HotWired, Wired magazine's World Wide Web site at http://www.netizen.com.
Pub Date: 11/10/96