WASHINGTON — THAT WAS THE real George Bush you saw last week. He was doing the chicken polka -- a dance that spins in ever-smaller circles until it ends in hunkered-down paralysis.
The president set a new record by reversing himself on taxes twice in one day. Then, with his sacred polls plummeting, he tried still another about-face in an effort to appear resolute.
Sen. Jesse Helms coined a faint-praise summation of his intrepid leader. Bush had just rewarded the North Carolina troglodyte's disloyalty with lavish compliments from the stump. "A thoroughbred gentleman," Helms pronounced, probably savoring the irony.
That's an apt description of Bush and measures his limits. He's well mannered, as eager to please as a puppy, congenitally unsuited for coping with unpleasantness.
Ronald Reagan took his measure in a 1980 debate with an old movie line (what else?): "I paid for this microphone, and I'll say who uses it." Bush sat stunned. Nothing at his squash club prepared him for that.
The Gipper chose him as running mate, anyway. His pollsters said Bush would help the ticket and, besides, what difference does a vice president make?
Bush's mettle went untested in the 1988 campaign, but there were clues. He complained that he really hated doing what his DTC handlers told him he had to do: Smear Dukakis, wrap himself in the flag and exploit the big lie on taxes. So he did it.
His most prominent feature was a negative: absence of conviction. He offered neither program nor philosophy. He wanted desperately to be president. Nothing more. He'd handle things as they came up, he said.
To a point, he has. He assembled a competent crisis-management team to deal with foreign matters -- in no particular direction. He revels in the toys of office: showing off the Lincoln bedroom, inviting people in for movies and popcorn, riding his new deluxe Air Force One in the jacket with the big presidential seal, schmoozing with world leaders.
Domestically, he had only one priority -- a capital gains tax break for his social set. When the going got tough on that, he got going in all directions, abandoning it, changing his mind when pressed by GOP senators, tossing the whole thing back on Congress and, finally, in a bid to seem decisive, returning to it in exaggerated form.
Throughout this comic opera, Bob Dole, the Senate minority leader, loyally swept up after each of his president's gyrations. The same Dole who Bush and then-Gov. John Sununu crucified in New Hampshire for refusing to sign on to Bush's no-tax-increase gimmick.
Dole suffers a mean streak but he has guts and integrity when the moral chips are down, two qualities notably lacking in the man who used the tax hoax to defeat him for the nomination.
Congressional Democrats, afflicted with a near-terminal sense of responsibility, kept trying to deal with the White House whirligig. They ought to toss him aside, vote a bill raising income taxes on the rich with no capital-gains payback and force him to act on his own. They won't, of course. They function under the delusion they're responsible for governing the country. Bush at least is clear on that. He knows no one is.