Swarmin' for Norman

William Safire

March 19, 1991|By William Safire

WASHINGTON — Washington--IF NOMINATED, I will not run," said a war hero a century ago; "If elected, I will not serve."

That was General Sherman's legendary response to politicians eager to sponsor his candidacy for president. But what was Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's response last week to the same talk? "Never say never."

Do not flinch from the applecart-upsetting: this guy knows he is a hot candidate for a Democratic draft and is playing his political cards perfectly.

From his commanding damn-the-blackout world TV debut to his jargon-free victory news conference (always with visored cap, never with forbidding helmet); from the on-his-knees bottle of Kuwait sand photo opportunity to his job-wanted tete-a-tete with Barbara Walters the other night -- we are witnessing the very model of a modern major political talent in the act of visual domination.

President Bush is well aware of this. Today, his own re-election seems a sure thing; but tomorrow, as the Draft-Schwarzkopf movement gets into swing, a spark of delicious doubt will creep into '92 speculation.

Pundits facing 18 months of dreary shoo-in commentary will breathe on the spark; Democrats in Congress fearing that a Bush landslide might unseat them will add their fuel; and all those Vietnam syndrome-sinners who followed Sam Nunn over the cliff into terminal dithering will see their salvation in the Schwarzkopf prairie fire.

Merchandisers will tie in; what American child will go to bed without today's security blanket -- a Stormin' Norman camouflaged-poncho bedspread?

Sure his name is a Germanic mouthful; so was Eisenhower's. OK, so he has no political philosophy; who among the current crop of Democratic candidates has? Granted, he's overweight; so are most Americans -- only the rich starve themselves.

John Sununu, anticipating the collapse of his boss' ratings in the face of a fresh face, will try to head off the Schwarzkopf movement for a few years by offering (a) five stars (b) the joint chiefship and (c) the services of James Baker as campaign manager in 1996 on whichever party's ticket Schwarzkopf chooses.

With the characteristic firmness that Americans have come to admire, the general will salute smartly and spit in Sununu's palindromic eye. As Hannibal said, "When you've crossed the Alps, get rid of the elephants." Military life offers nothing to a victorious general beyond McArthurian fading-away.

Instead, we will see the ticker-tape parades, the stirring retirement address, the book contract already known to literary agents as "Desert Deal" and the struggle to deliver 100 speaking dates at $50,000 a crack within one year. Thus will the general provide for his family while remaining above the political storm until he lets his name be entered in a late primary next summer.

A few timorous pols will ask, "What's the downside?"

Negative research could turn up some skeleton in his closet. More likely, he could make a misstep, as when he said "I have no apologies" when he should have said "I have no excuses" about bombing friendlies. There's the Coriolanus role-shift problem: "I'll take three questions" sounds crisp in a busy commander, but unduly imperious in a candidate for office in a democracy.

The general has never been in a political mine field, nor faced hostile media fire. He has never had to handle sustained questioning, unduckable on security grounds, about overestimating the enemy force by a McClellanesque 50 percent; or grumbling from desert headquarters about military unreadiness that affected political decision-making at home; or conspiring to treat as secret available figures on Iraqi casualties; covering up the failure of the Patriot missiles to stop most Scud warheads.

But those are not questions that would be tossed at him by Bush in a TV debate. On the contrary, the worst the general could expect would be zingers on abortion, gun control, the death penalty and new taxes, issues on which any media adviser could suggest positions to express cost-effective alarm.

For a party facing remorseless retribution for zigging while the culture zagged, the Schwarzkopf potential is unlimited. Thus is the political landscape transformed.

Of course, the Bush forces would not cut and run, Saddam-style, at first sight of the Big Guy. (Is it true that Colin Powell speaks Yiddish?)

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