WASHINGTON — WHEN GEORGE Bush's heart fluttered, about 200 million other hearts also speeded up their RPMs. Few things make the American psyche quiver like an ailing president.
Especially when the vice president is a Sesame Street cartoon character.
"I'm in great shape. Don't worry about me," Bush says at every White House photo op.
Each day Bush's spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, scoffs at reports that the boss isn't in the pink. Always he decribes the First Patient as in rip-roaring health.
"He feels good. Good spirits, good sense of humor, and for all outward apearances he's in excellent health," said Fitzwater Monday.
Reporters' eyes and ears tell them something different.
Visibly, this is not the same President Bush who exuded energy on jogging trails and tennis courts before his May 4 heart fibrillations. He looks pale, thinner and listless.
Bush's schedule, even of inner White House events, has been cut back sharply. During Queen Elizabeth's visit last week, Bush complained he was "dead tired" and went to bed. A presidential trip to Chicago was scratched.
"He feels fine," repeated Fitzwater Monday.
But a few hours later, when Bush appeared with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl for a joint news conference, it was plain that Bush was not "fine." His voice was croaky. He looked gaunt. He stumbled over words.
Here, verbatim, is Bush's garbled, start-and-stop answer to an easy question about Iraq.
"It is my -- it is our policy that there will not be normalized relations, and it is my view that only if sanctions are complied with will we -- will we be willing to -- I mean only if the -- every provision of the United Nations resolutions are complied with -- would we be willing to -- would we the United States -- be willing to lift sanctions."
Sure, anybody who's taken on a load of pharmaceuticals can sympathize with Bush. "It (the medication) affects his voice," protests Fitzwater. But in truth, Bush does not yet appear a well man.
If Bush continues below par, canceling events, suspicion will arise that the public is being duped. Doctors famously lied about the failing health of two U.S. presidents, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, although Bush is surely light years away from their invalidism.
Inevitably, though, Bush's health will be a political factor in 1992 -- if only because Democrats will hype the terror of Dan Quayle suddenly inheriting the Oval Office.
"I won't even discuss the president's health as an issue," Democrats X, Y and Z will say stuffily. Then with a clever grin, "Anyway, considering the vice-president, I hope he lives to 100."
Slyly, they may point out that New York Times pundit Bill Safire -- an ex-Republican speechwriter -- suggested Bush went to war in the gulf because his thyroid was in overdrive.
Call them opportunistic. Call them macabre. But questions about Bush's health may inspire a platoon of shy Democrats out of the 1992 closet. The spotlight on presidential vigor may winnow out the less fit.
By that time, if Bush's condition becomes a worrisome puzzle, you can expect the once-empty Democratic field to get crowded as a 5 p.m. subway car.
Few of them dared to challenge a hale president with an 80 percent approval ratings and a country awash in gulf victory parades. But if Bush continues to look physically downbeat, Democrats will discover a bravery they've lacked.
Lord knows, we all hope Bush jogs 10-minute miles next week. It's a commentary on Democrats' timidity that only a president's fluttering ticker could give them heart. Until now they had no winning issue, no theme, no real candidate. But they suspect they can mix a 1992 political elixir with two phrases -- "the president's health" and "Dan Quayle." Get those Nikes back on, Mr. President. And eat your broccoli.