These days, everyone talks about wimp thing BY ROGER SIMON


October 31, 1990

The magazine editor is telling me about the cover story he is planning on President Bush.

"It's gonna be 'Return of the Wimp,' " he says. "But I think we'll make it 'Weturn of the Wimp.' It sounds more wimpy that way, don't you think?"

I am silent. I am digesting this.

"The cover is going to be a cartoon of Bush in high school," the editor goes on. "But he'll be a nerdy kid with glasses and 12 pens stuck in his shirt pocket in one of those plastic holders."

I think I get the idea, I say.

"But wait, wait," the editor says. "The other guys are de-pantsing him! And throwing him out into the hallway where the cheerleaders are laughing at him! What do you think? I mean as a concept."

I think you're lucky you live in a democracy, I say.

"Whattya mean?"

I mean that in most nations of this world, if you printed a cover like that you'd find yourself at hard labor on a rock pile with 25 years to think about how funny de-pantsing the president is. As a concept.

"Oh, lighten up," the editor says. "You used to have a sense of humor. Besides, everybody is talking about the wimp thing these days."

They are. Saturday on the "McLaughlin Group," John McLaughlin applied the word to George Bush right out loud. And others are saying it in print.

Newsweek, which printed the famous "Wimp Cover" that so infuriated Bush back in 1987, virtually repeated it last week with a "Bush League" cover. In the same issue, columnist George Will referred to Bush as "lighter than air," which is wimp by another name.

And George Bush has certainly given his critics a helping hand. He looks weak. His handling of the budget compromise was a botch. He could not bend Congress to his will -- whatever his will was.

Republican candidates for Congress, who were all set to run on his "Read My Lips -- No New Taxes" pledge, are now at sea. Some will not be seen in public with him. They insult him to his face. And the man hired by the Republican Party for a million dollars to help elect more Republicans to Congress issues a memo telling candidates to repudiate their own president.

Even the photo-ops, so skillfully orchestrated during his presidential campaign, now backfire on Bush. Asked while jogging what kind of tax package he wanted, Bush pointed downward and said: "Read my hips!"

Few were amused. One reason for the disarray is that Bush's former campaign manager and the current chairman of the Republican Party, Lee Atwater, is recovering from brain surgery and is not there to guide him.

But it goes deeper than that. George Bush has done the unforgiveable in a modern age when presidents are elected not because of the tough stands they take -- they learn to avoid tough stands -- but because of a carefully sculpted image they adopt.

George Bush's image was that of the strong, likable, regular guy who ate pork rinds and threw horseshoes and didn't promise us tough times. He promised, instead, a continuation of good times. That's what his "no new taxes" pledge was all about. America was on a roll. After eight years of Ronald Reagan, things were good and they'd stay good under George Bush. And nothing new was needed to change all that.

Bush ran a negative campaign, too, of course. He exploited racial fear with his Willie Horton attack and made appeals to super-patriotism with his Pledge of Allegiance attack. He convinced himself he had to do those things to win.

But he also told himself that he would be a better president than he had been a candidate. That he would be "kinder and gentler." More principled.

And that is where he went wrong. Once elected, he decided to do something about America's true budget crisis. He decided to face up to the fact that his "no new taxes" pledge was silly and unworkable.

And when on June 26, 1990, he announced that he would back higher taxes, his ratings did not plunge right away. But he had created what campaign handlers call "cognitive dissonance," a fancy phrase meaning the emperor has no clothes. And that began to take its toll.

Cognitive dissonance is what happens when the public sees a politician act in a way unlike the image his handlers had sold during the campaign.

That George Bush had lied about taxes was not the problem. Americans are used to lies, especially from presidential candidates.

But, suddenly, the candidate of good times was now the candidate of hard times. Suddenly George Bush was preaching tough solutions, something he had never done during the campaign.

And America didn't like it. This is not the George Bush that had been sold to them. George Bush had decided to stand on principle. Which in politics is like standing on quicksand.

Now, he is being savaged for it. And by his own party. I don't necessarily object to this. The men who run for president should be held accountable for the way they run.

But Bush should get some credit for doing the right thing. Instead, he is being called a wimp.

There is a way out for him. The easiest way for Bush to prove he is not a wimp is to act tough and macho. And all he has to do is invade Kuwait. Or bomb Baghdad. Or commit our young people to a war of attrition in the Middle East.

Personally, I think I'd just rather stop calling him a wimp.

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