Schwarzkopf: great TV, poor politics On Politics Today

Germond and Witcover

March 29, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- THAT WAS spellbinding television the other night when David Frost interviewed Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. But at the same time it was very revealing about the perils for the gulf war commander should he yield to entreaties that he enter politics.

In two specific areas, Schwarzkopf demonstrated a lack of the political sensitivity essential for anyone seeking high political office in the rough-and-tumble of a campaign covered intensely by the news media.

First, in confessing that he was "suckered" by Saddam Hussein into granting permission for Iraq to fly helicopters after the coalition assault was halted, the general displayed admirable but politically damaging candor. He admitted to being short-sighted about the notion that the helicopters could be used not merely for the transport of officials but for the brutal suppression of Saddam's own people.

Schwarzkopf was knowledgeable in discussing Hannibal's military operation against Carthage, but if he has any political lTC ambitions he would have been better served had he remembered the comment of Republican presidential hopeful Gov. George Romney of Michigan in 1967 when he explained his early support of the Vietnam war as a result of being "brainwashed" by American generals in Saigon. Romney never recovered from that one.

In a more politically sensitive matter, Schwarzkopf's volunteered observation that he had recommended to President Bush that his forces "continue the march" that could have produced "a battle of annihilation" indicated he is not ready for prime-time politics.

Although the general took pains to credit Bush with "a very humane decision and a very courageous decision" in halting the drive into Iraq, his comments not only put him at odds with his commander-in-chief but also provided fuel to critics of Bush now pointing to the bloody havoc Saddam is free to wreak.

In adding that Bush's decision to halt the advance was one "that historians are going to second-guess, you know, forever," Schwarzkopf risked leaving an impression that the president might go down in history as responsible for the carnage occurring in Iraq, for not having annihilated Saddam's forces when he had the chance. Bush's decision, he said, "did leave some escape routes open for them to get back out."

Admired for his directness and bluntness as a military commander and spokesman, Schwarzkopf seems not to recognize that he is now engaged in an entirely different field of battle where political sensitivity is more essential than candor. Even before the shooting started, he gave hints of this problem in publicly suggesting that economic sanctions should be given more time to work -- at a time Bush was putting increasing pressure on Saddam to pull out of Kuwait.

In the wake of the Frost interview, administration officials let it be known that the general had been cautioned earlier about adopting, or permitting the news media to bestow upon him, a higher public profile than his position warranted. This latest episode is certain to require pulling his head in and sticking to his own knitting.

As for all the talk about a political future for Schwarzkopf, the Frost interview raises serious questions about his ability to traverse the campaign mine fields through which all candidates must pass, but particularly a neophyte of such celebrity with a reputation for a quick and blunt tongue. Modern-day military men often must have good political antennae, but being on top of a command structure doesn't always develop subtlety and nuance phrase.

An exception was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who made it to the presidency without any disqualifying gaffe and then demonstrated a generally cautious nature in the White House. "Stormin' Norman" seems a more outspoken man with a tendency to express his personal opinions and label them as such. But in politics these days, very little remains personal.

Over every military man who now considers public office, a specter hangs -- the one-time head of the Strategic Air Command whose hawkish views earned him the slogan, "Bombs Away with Curt LeMay." Selected by third-party candidate George Wallace as his running mate in 1968, LeMay promptly defended the use of nuclear weapons, saying "I don't believe the world would end," that he'd rather be killed by one than by "a rusty knife," and that they were actually good for the fish and wildlife at the Bikini testing site.

Schwarzkopf seems too savvy to commit any such foolishness. At the same time, though, he indicated in the Frost interview that he may not be another Eisenhower, either.

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