President Dumpted the Abortion Issue on His Own Doorstep


August 09, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

WASHINGTON. — Washington---Chatting with reporters on the Kennebunkport golf course, President Bush has struck many poses -- most of them tough, as when he warned Saddam Hussein to get out of Kuwait. Never before have we witnessed him trying to be invisible, as he did when asked Wednesday about his administration's role in the Wichita abortion protest case.

Somebody noted that the judge involved had said the Justice Department's intervention was a political move. ''I can't imagine why,'' Mr. Bush said with a straight face. Pushed further, he slid away, saying the whole thing was ''not a matter for the president to get involved in, especially on the first day of his vacation.''

I had to wonder how many times in the past three years he has wished he had said those words long ago -- said abortion itself was not a matter for the government, but for a woman and her doctor to decide.

Just about now, he is regretting more than ever that he played abortion politics in order to be nominated and elected -- and then made things stickier by appointing people who thought he was serious about the issue.

His overnight conversion to the anti-abortion cause in 1980, when he was picked by Ronald Reagan to be running mate, could have been mumbled away once he was vice president. But his ambition to succeed Mr. Reagan drove him to court the GOP right wing, which meant more rash promises. Then when he became president, he could have ignored the matter, which he has indeed tried to do.

But the officials he has chosen, and the judges he and Mr. Reagan have nominated, will not leave the issue alone. Some of them have ambitions of their own, which require right-wing backing, so they keep doing things that put him on the spot. Those officials and the recasting of the Supreme Court in the past decade have encouraged the anti-abortion movement to provoke new confrontations, to create new test cases.

Thus, in the courts and in state politics, abortion is looming like a thundercloud over a 1992 re-election campaign that the White House hoped would be as peaceful as a sunshiny picnic.

The Wichita case is one of a flurry headed for resolution at higher levels, probably in time to mobilize both sides before the voting ,, 15 months from now.

Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, about to run for the Senate in Pennsylvania, moved to lift a federal court order barring anti-abortion demonstrators from blocking access to three clinics Wichita. That intervention has infuriated women's rights groups, some of them Republicans.

The president's forthright position can be summed up as, ''Who, The White House maintains that he was not involved in the decision to intervene, that he did not even know about it.

But of course Mr. Bush appointed the attorney general, as he and Mr. Reagan have appointed a majority of federal court judges and the Supreme Court. And abortion cases are making their way through that system toward Washington from Utah, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, from all directions.

In Louisiana, a federal district judge ruled against that state's new anti-abortion law on Tuesday, but added that he did so with regret. The Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion is still the law, he said. The Louisiana attorney general said the state would appeal the judge's ruling immediately, asking to expedite the case to the Supreme Court. Thus the Reagan-Bush high court may revisit Roe v. Wade in time to affect 1992 politics.

For Mr. Bush, abortion politics was useful from the night when Mr. Reagan picked him as No. 2 until the night he was nominated as president. But for him, and in the nation, the dynamics of the issue have changed.

A strong anti-abortion stance consolidated Mr. Bush with the hard-right end of the party, which dominates the nomination process. But polls show that it is a liability with the general public. Mr. Bush needed the right more in 1988, when the nomination was contested; now that he is president, renomination is certain and he must think beyond it to the general election.

That is what he was doing when he tried to disappear before questioners at Kennebunkport, when he said he didn't know about the Wichita case, when he said that was none of the president's business anyway.

The White House already has scheduled a hectic foreign travel schedule for the months ahead. As the campaign approaches, there will be elaborately staged pep rallies at home between those trips. There will be a flood of 30-second Bush commercials on TV. Don't expect any of them to mention abortion.

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