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George Bush Just Didn't Get It


Cover Story: Commentary

GEORGE BUSH JUST DIDN'T GET IT

George Bush has been part of America's psyche for so long, it's hard to believe that come Jan. 20, he'll trot out onto the White House lawn, board a helicopter, and be gone. For 12 years, Bush starred in his own sitcom: Life With George. There goes George, hobnobbing with foreign leaders in Bonn--or is it Brussels? There he is, racing his speedboat Fidelity through the Maine waters. There he is again, bounding home to Bar and Millie after a hard day at the Oval Office: "Honey, I'm home! Had the most dreadful day wrestling with that darned recession thing."

The nation that canceled George Bush's second season did so more in sorrow than in anger. Unlike Richard Nixon, a President whose cunning Bush greatly admired, he will not depart as a hated symbol of moral weakness. Bush was a good man, an honest man, and a foreign-policy natural, people will say. But as a leader he seemed so weak, so whiny, so out of touch with the economic angst gripping the vast American studio audience.

WEARY. Bush's rejection unleashed a flood of emotions at the White House, but surprise isn't one of them. Like a weary production crew watching steadily declining ratings, the President's aides have known for months that the sour economy made reelection a long shot. Long before the ballots were cast, they were leaking, backbiting, laying blame, and spinning theories to explain defeat.

The theorists fall into two camps: those who score Bush for veering from his moderate instincts into the clutches of the Far Right, and those who believe that true-blue conservatism would have given him the principled core he seemed so conspicuously to lack.

A senior Bush aide in the former group asks: "What did it buy us to pander to the Right? It bought us Pat Buchanan's challenge in New Hampshire." Worse, laments a campaign official, "we lost the election when we lost the suburbs. We just got creamed among working women because we were antichoice, opposed family leave, and preached family values."

Conservatives, among them Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp and former Minnesota Representative Vin Weber, vehemently disagree. Bush blew it, they insist, when he rejected repeated appeals for tax cuts and a conservative war on poverty. Kempites feel Bush should have sacked Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady and Budget Director Richard G. Darman, architects of his 1990 tax flip and the "stay the course" approach to the recession. He should have replaced them, they add, with pro-growth advisers such as--well, Kemp and Weber. "The country elected Bush to continue Reaganism," Weber reasons. "He lost because so many people around him felt they had to discredit Reagan's policies."

Darman and Brady differ. A source familiar with the duo's thinking pinpoints as a key date in Bush's defeat July 10, 1991--the day he reappointed Alan Greenspan as Federal Reserve Chairman. "We're in the seventh straight quarter of growth, yet consumer confidence is at deep-recession levels," says the official. "I fault the Fed Chairman. Instead of being a voice to restore public confidence, he's a guy who sees a ray of sunlight, panics, and starts beating down growth."

Lost in the recriminations are other reasons for Bush's demise. First, the biggies: Bush sowed the seeds of his 1992 defeat in his vacuous 1988 campaign. The hollowness of his "read my lips" pledge foreshadowed his team's failure to lay out a coherent domestic policy. And when it came to the limping economy, as late as his January, 1992, State of the Union address Bush was convinced that symbolism, rather than a jolt of stimulus, would suffice.

HACKS. Don't forget personnel. There was the puzzling selection of Dan Quayle for Vice-President. Outside of a few classy Cabinet picks, Bush's team was laden with Beltway hacks. The President was so sure of his own abilities that he made two dreadful choices for White House Chief of Staff: John H. Sununu and the fog-enshrouded Samuel K. Skinner. During Bush's periodic lunges for a domestic agenda, no one was around who could deliver.

Bush lost because he ran an abysmal 1992 campaign launched by a convention whose shrill, hard-right tone alarmed centrist voters. Neither James A. Baker III nor Campaign Chairman Robert Teeter, masters at cutting up hapless liberals, knew how to run a positive campaign against an armor-plated moderate. And Bush lost because, as one of the last leaders of the World War II era, he seemed blind to an entire generation, to working mothers, young job-seekers, and Baby Boomers, blind to the everyday concerns of electorate.

He doesn't get it, millions of voters said well before Nov. 3. Maybe he never will. And one by one, they turned off one of the longest-running shows in modern politics, watching as George Bush's image grew small, smaller, and then vanished into a tiny point of light.Lee Walczak


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