WASHINGTON — ON APRIL 1, while Saddam Hussein's helicopters were riddling the Kurdish rebels and thousands of panicky refugees streamed for the mountains, George Bush was bonefishing in the Florida sunshine.
"I'm on vacation," said the president. "I'm not talking."
Now we know why he wasn't talking. The glorious, high-tech gulf war was unraveling into a horror of human misery. And an inert, indifferent Bush administration had no idea how to cope with it.
What's striking is how Bush is being transformed before our eyes. The steely commander-in-chief and world leader has been replaced by the Old Bush -- vacillating, tentative, sometimes incoherent and a shade goofy, and insensitive to suffering.
Never mind Bush's peacetime dip in polls. White House aides smirk that he's gone from 90 to "only" 78 percent. Politics is small change compared to moral abdication.
The blind spot Bush showed to massacred students in Tiananmen Square, all in the name of pragmatic geopolitics, was magnified by his impassivity toward Kurdish babies and children dying in the mountains.
Was the world shocked? OK, roll out the P.R. cannons. Send Secretary of State Jim Baker for a 12-minute photo op in a Kurdish camp.
Well, those who triumph on TV will inevitably be skewered on TV. All the presidential rhetoric can't cover up nightly panoramas of ragged, starving war refugees.
One scene told it all: A network cameraman rides in a U.S. relief helicopter (two flights a day, lack of gas). Refugees below on a rocky hillside scramble for a few food packages that whip open in the chopper's wash. "It's like feeding popcorn to pigeons," says a witness.
Compare that pitful effort to wartime pictures which Pentagon briefers loved to flourish: laser bombs smashing through Iraqi doorways with uncanny bull's-eyes.
If we can kill so efficiently in what Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf rightly calls "one helluva victory," why have we bungled the peace to create a human nightmare?
One, Bush & Co. had no postwar plan except a simplified, politically popular scenario: Win Quick, Walk Away. Now Bush officials admit "not one briefing or policy paper" considered the possibility of Saddam Hussein's armed vengeance that forced 2 million Kurds toward the border.
Two, Bush's hot-and-cold warnings to Saddam on using helicopter gunships was fatal to the Kurds.
Schwarzkopf said he was "suckered" by the Iraqi generals into letting the gunships fly. Later accounts say Gen. Colin Powell, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised Bush not to shoot down the choppers "and be drawn into a mess." White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said of the copper fiasco: "Murky, murky, murky."
Bush defends letting Saddam run wild. "We won't intervene beyond the U.N. mandate." (Funny, there were no such niceties about Grenada, Nicaragua or Panama.)
Three, Bush was blind to the Kurds' plight until the British, French and the U.S. public reacted, then gave too little, too late.
Put it this way: During the gulf war, we dropped 70,000 tons of bombs in round-the-clock missions. Monday, Fitzwater said we'd flown 116 missions and dropped 1,029 tons of food to save the starving refugees.
Oh, well, an aid expert told the Senate, "400 to 1,000 Kurds are dying a day. I've never seen anything like it in Africa."
Four, Bush's plan to remove the cause of this horror consists of only wistful fantasies.
"I made it clear from the beginning it was not an objective of the coalition or the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein," Bush says. Really? Anybody, including the Kurds, who heard Bush's war polemics against Saddam would have been fooled.
Now, although Richard Nixon says he'd sic a CIA hit man on Saddam, and the European nations want Saddam tried for war crimes, and Barbara Bush says, "I detest him. I'd like to see him hung," Saddam roosts in power.
No wonder the shining, high-tech gulf triumph has been tarnished by scenes of civilians in hell.
By the way, the name of Bush's boat on that Florida fishing trip?