Tough or timid?

Sandy Grady

August 21, 1991|By Sandy Grady

Washington -- THE QUESTION is why it took George Bush nine hours to find his real voice -- and how long he will keep it?

When the dark night of repression fell suddenly across the Soviet Union, it ignited a psychodrama between two Bushes:

Timid George vs. Tough George.

At first the news that Soviet power thugs had kidnapped his JTC chum Mikhail Gorbachev seemed to stun Bush into a genteel funk.

He was plaintive, peevish and bumbling -- a man whose golf vacation had been jinxed.

"The situation is murky and disturbing," a grumpy Bush told reporters in Kennebunkport, Maine, at 8 a.m. "It's not a time for show business or posturing. We'll be calm, cool and prudent."

Cool? Prudent? When Gorbachev, his friend and one of the 20th century's transforming leaders, had been mugged?

This was the commander in chief who unleashed Desert Storm?

No, in fact, it was eerily reminiscent of the Bush who reacted with petulant caution in 1989 when Chinese army goons gunned down the democratic kids of Tiananmen Square. Mumbling about "enduring relations," Bush gave China's leaders a gentle slap on the kimono.

Now, it seemed, Tiananmen George was back.

Would Bush, after a few ho-hum remonstrative cliches, play geopolitical ball with Gennady Yanayev and his Soviet hard-line mobsters?

"Tepid," Sen. Dave McCurdy, head of the Senate Intelligence panel, railed against Bush's spiritless reaction. "It's what he said and the way he said it. We can't do as we did in China and Yugoslavia. He has to stand up against the hard-liners."

Fortunately, in the next nine hours, Tough George won a wrestling match with Timid George.

Some insiders say Bush, back at the White House, was advised to show more steel. But I suspect those three televisions in the Oval Office caused Bush's metamorphosis.

Maybe it was the sight on CNN of the Moscow Gang of Six -- Yenayev and his Yeggs -- lined up at a news conference. Gray, impassive bureaucrats, they reminded you of a film clip of defendants at the Nuremberg Trials.

Maybe it was the flat-out lies they told.

Lie No. 1: "Mikhail Gorbachev is on vacation. He's undergoing treatment. He's very tired and will need some time to get better. We hope . . . he can return to office," said Yenayev, whose nose should have grown longer than Pinnochio's.

Lie No. 2: "We are committed to genuine democratic reform" -- at the moment the Gang of Six was shutting down newspapers and rumbling tanks in the streets.

Lie No. 3: "We stand ready to cooperate with the republics" -- when troops were smashing their way to power in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.

Or maybe Bush saw masses of Soviet people marching up Moscow boulevards. One man threw his body in front of a Soviet tank. A woman beseeched a young tank driver, "You are our sons -- what are you doing to us?"

But it's a good guess that Bush was affected by the sight of Russian President Boris Yeltsin defying the coup, scrambling atop a tank to harangue the troopers, "Don't smear the glory and honor of Russian weapons with the people's blood!"

Or Yeltsin on a balcony, calling for a nationwide strike to restore Gorbachev. And 5,000 voices bellowing, "Yelstin! Yeltsin!"

Maybe the TV sights and sounds stiffened Bush's backbone.

After a day of dithering, at 5 p.m. he issued a statement. It blasted the "misguided and illegitimate" coup. "We support Boris Yeltsin's call for 'restoring legally elected power' " said Bush. "We will avoid in every possible way actions that support the coup." And no economic aid for the Gang of Six.

Tough George had been budged out of his funk.

In truth, amid chaos as volatile as the 1917 revolution or 1964 Khrushchev ouster, Bush had only one moral choice -- throwing the U.S. weight behind the moxie and popularity of Boris Yeltsin.

"I think he's expressing the will of the people. I hope they heed his call," said Bush.

The question is whether Bush, who finally discovered a moral voice, will be tempted in the long run to accept Yanayev and his gray-faced KGB rogues.

Let's hope Tough George gets no more back talk from Timid George.

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