A Chance to Spend Some of That Popularity

GARLAND L. THOMPSON

March 09, 1991|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON | GARLAND L. THOMPSON,Garland L. Thompson is an editorial writer for The Sun.

Desert Storm is coming to seem like the Dien Bien Phu of the Democratic Party. Commentators across the country are debating the size of the challenge the Democrats face, even in local elections, after so many opposed George Bush's early forsaking of diplomacy for a rush to the ramparts. Since the Americans won so lopsidedly, how could any right-thinking American have been fool enough to believe any other result could obtain?

Watching Mr. Bush's bravura performance before a joint session of Congress Wednesday and noting his 91-percent public approval rating, such observers think Mr. Bush can now walk on water. Republican partisans have charged out with slingshots spinning, looking for Democrats to discredit. The Democrats, for their part, are scurrying for cover, even refusing speaking engagements and debates before groups such as the American DTC Society of Newspaper Editors.

But there surely is more to the picture.

The other tack, not yet seen by the stampeding herd rushing to grab Mr. Bush's coattails, is that the truly formidable challenge .. lies before the president, not his foreign-policy opponents. War euphoria is a strong drink, but its high is short-lived. Ask Winston Churchill, whose foresight before World War I was rewarded with political defrocking after the battles were over. Churchill, who was recalled and handed the reins to government to fight World War II, to be turned out to pasture again when it was over.

Mr. Bush made a reach for statesmanship as he called for an Arab-Israeli settlement in his joint-session speech, seizing the opportunity to tell Palestinians he understood their pain as he went. That drew wide interest, but what moves mountains in the American heartland and in the U.S. Congress is domestic business. There is much left undone.

Mr. Bush is to be praised for throwing his new prestige behind getting a Palestinian settlement, but issues at home, as intractable as Palestinian problems, await his personal attention. Palestinians and other Third World peoples find themselves accurately described in Franz Fanon's ''The Wretched of the Earth,'' black Americans, especially their poorest third, can easily identify with the description.

Mr. Bush, just as the United States has all through the 20th century, faces the challenge of history, with a narrowing window of opportunity to meet it. Will he use his new-found 91-percent approval rating to reach beyond his right-wing base to address the legacy of the party of Abraham Lincoln? Or will Mr. Bush squander the good will in which he basks in counter-productive attempts to dislodge Democratic opponents from their decades-long dominance of the Congress?

Ronald Reagan's friends were quick to point out that only a certified right-winger could sit down and deal with Mikhail Gorbachev as he did, for a liberal Democrat would have been denounced as ''soft on communism.'' Before him, Richard Nixon was said to be the only U.S. president who could have pulled off the opening to China.

Is George Bush big enough to transcend narrow labels and even narrower rhetoric to move his government and his party to real concern about the wellsprings of the despair eating out the heart of the American promise? Ronald Rea- gan's triumphal ''Morning in America'' flatly rejected such concerns, trampling promises made to the country's poor and subjecting minorities to an official disdain that troubled even some sup- porters.

George Bush, the second most popular president of this century, could pick up the trowel that lies ignored and begin rebuilding a national community badly rent in a decade of deceptions.

''Morning in America'' played well in the heartland, but it brought the biggest deficits in history. People are just waking up to what that means as local, state and federal governing arms complain of pinched funds for the social corrections, infrastructure repairs, educational programs and environmental cleanups so obviously necessary if this country is to continue in its world-leading role.

Finally, while Mr. Bush trades on his success as a war leader, it should not be forgotten that more than 20 percent of the troops who gave him the victory are black. The president, noting the diminished support blacks gave his war plans, made a great gesture before he launched ground warfare in Arabia, calling in the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, for ceremonies acknowledging the contributions of blacks to America's wars.

Those troops are on their way home, as blacks returned from previous conflicts, looking for a better country than the one they left. It is Mr. Bush's turn to say what gratitude he expects to offer them.

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