A question of judgment

James Reston

October 23, 1990|By James Reston

WASHINGTON — MOST PRESIDENTS run into unavoidable trouble by the time they reach midterm, but George Bush is different.

Many of his troubles were not only avoidable but predictable, and this has hurt him because they raise questions about his judgment.

In a way, the criticism of his budget difficulties has been extreme if not unfair. Fights between repulicans and Democrats over how to raise and spend money are unavoidable.

Put a few hundred billion on the table and they usually pounce on it like pit bulls. But the main thing is not that they disagreed about how to cut it up, but that they agreed to reduce the deficit by half a trillion dollars in the next five years. This may be the single most important economic decision of the last two years.

George Bush is better at the big things than the little things. His objective on the budget was admirable but his handling of it was comical, and when he's mocked as weak or indecisive, he's unpredictable.

We saw this in the campaign when he overcame his better qualities and followed John Sununu, Lee Atwater and James Baker down the low road.

After he won, he promised to nominate the best advisers available and told us we were living in an age of terror when life was fragile, and then picked Dan Quayle of Indiana for vice president.

This was clearly an avoidable blunder, and an injustice to both Quayle and the country, which fortunately can be corrected next time if his party thinks about it.

The odd thing about George Bush is that he plans his fumbles. He didn't have to promise not to raise taxes in a future he could not possibly foresee, or remind the country about his infamous wisecrack, by telling the reporters during the budget mess "read my hips." They read his flips instead.

He has done some very good things. No president since the last great war has made a greater effort than George Bush to reach out to the opposition leaders for compromise and understanding.

He has been on television almost as much as Dan Rather, and has held more press conferences in more strange places than any president since the inception of that jumping-jack institution. He has many other good qualities, but foresight isn't one of them.

When he ordered 200,000 men into the Arabian desert, he went on vacation and delivered his war communiques from the back of a golf cart, and was genuinely surprised that most people didn't think this showed "grace under pressure."

In the middle of the budget crisis when he was trying to get the support of the leaders of the Democratic Party, he took time off to campaign in North Carolina for the re-election of Jesse Helms, of all people.

He was determined at the start to "hit the ground running," forgetting that this is what John Kennedy did when he ran into the Bay of Pigs, and Lyndon Johnson did when he ran into Vietnam.

These are the "little things" that trouble even many of his most loyal supporters, and some of them are not so little.

One of his major foreign policy objectives was to persuade Mikhail Gorbachev not to use military force to achieve political objectives in the Baltic states and Eastern Europe, but he invaded Panama against his treaty commitments to the United Nations in order to capture a two-bit dictator, and didn't know what to do with him when he caught him. Having defied the U.N. in Panama, he then relied on it in Iraq.

It wasn't enough for him to blockade Iraq and punish Saddam Hussein as "another Hitler," but he insisted on sending the biggest U.S. Army since the last war into the desert, not wanting to use it, not knowing how to get it out and facing once more the taunts of the armchair warriors, who say he must not only restore the independence of Kuwait but also get rid of Saddam Hussein and the threat of Iraq's army as well.

This is a dangerous situation for a president dropping in the popularity polls and facing both a deficit crisis and a mid-term election.

In such a pickle, a little half-time skull practice wouldn't hurt, but sometimes he's all bones and no skull, and can't sit still and think.

He's all over the lot -- fighting for the rich, campaigning not only in North Carolina but in California, driving in from Camp David to conserve gas and letting his helicopter return empty, jogging in the morning and flying to the World Series in Cincinnati at night, always on the move, always pleasant and even cheerful.

He is the first president in memory who has not been able to get the votes of a majority of the members of his own party for a major bill in the Congress, but he has even tolerated Newt Gingrich, the Republican whip in the House, who has not only defied the president on the budget but hasn't even had the decency to resign.

He may come smiling through and even be re-elected, but it will take him a while to recover from the planned fumbles of the first half.

James Reston is a retired editor of the New York Times.

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