WASHINGTON -- When President Bush once again compared Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler the other day, he sounded for all the world like the candidate he was in 1988, given to shamefully excessive rhetoric to make a point. His overblown bashing of Michael Dukakis worked then, but such hyperbole on a matter of war or peace undermines his credibility, and risks restoring a public image that has plagued him much of his public life.
Like the kid who uses purple language to convey a toughness that isn't really there, Bush has always tried to compensate with macho talk for the "wimp" label that his preppy style and his celebrated obeisance toward Ronald Reagan pinned on him. It is as if he feels he needs to offset his ordinarily gentlemanly ways, drilled into him in an aristocratic upbringing, with such talk -- often fractured, unfortunately for him.
Doing so has, in fact, been an effective counter to "the wimp factor" for Bush in the past. During the Iowa caucuses in 1988, with coaching from his media handlers, he took television anchorman Dan Rather to the cleaners by talking tough in their famous interview on the Iran-contra affair.
As Rather attempted in a somewhat bullying way to get Bush to answer important questions about his role, Bush countered forcefully -- if evasively -- that Rather was sandbagging him. After minutes of parrying, Bush broke in.
"It's not fair to judge my career by a rehash on Iran," he said, angrily. Then he added: "How would you like it if I judged your whole career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York? Would you like that?"
The reference, which hit Rather between the eyes, was to an occasion several months earlier when the anchorman had walked off a set in a huff over a delay in his news show to permit continued coverage of a tennis match. It didn't take place in New York, but Bush was close enough to achieve his purpose -- to throw Rather on the defensive and present himself to the television audience as a guy who could give as well as he got.
The notion that a vice president of the United States and a presidential candidate could gain credibility with voters by besting a television news-reader is a measure of how television celebrity has gotten out of hand, but it indisputably was the case. Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater later described the exchange as Bush's best moment in the entire 1988 campaign, a "defining moment" that in one swoop obliterated "the wimp factor."
But Bush during this fall's campaign has had no Dan Rather to kick around to reinforce his own image of strength. So he has created other targets -- from unspecified Democrats who "forced" an unsatisfactory budget-reduction package on him to Saddam Hussein in absentia. Protestations came from the White House that such excesses as equating Saddam with Hitler had nothing to do with off-year elections going on. But the fact they were made as Bush stumped for Republican candidates in itself defied credence, given Bush's campaign track record.
In the current atmosphere of uncertainty among Americans about what Bush's real intentions are in the Persian Gulf, it has been irresponsible for the president to succumb to such rhetorical excesses. Just as in his imperfect comparison of Saddam's taking of Kuwait with Hitler's seizure of the Sudetenland in advance of World War II, his stump observation that Hitler never used people as "human shields" as Saddam has done can have only one purpose -- to build public support for stronger action against the Iraqi dictator.
Polls indicate, however, that the American people do not yet believe U.S. military action is warranted absent an Iraqi attack. A new survey by the Americans Talk Security project, undertaken by a coalition of Republican, Democratic and independent pollsters and researchers, asked voters what Bush should do once U.S. forces are built up enough to win a war with Iraq. Only 9 percent favored starting a war "immediately," to 69 percent who favored waiting "until the blockade and other initiatives have had a chance to work," and 20 percent who said "never start a war under any circumstances."
Perhaps Bush thinks he can turn those numbers around by painting Saddam as another Hitler. If so, that is a very simplistic way to gain support for action the American people clearly aren't ready for -- and a sleazy way to win a few more Republican votes.
Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of Th 1 Sunday Sun.