Washington -- MAYBE Herbert Hoover had nights like this.
Here's the country hip-deep in a nasty recession and everyone asking, "When is the president going to do something?"
Now, here's Bush, his black tie on, the TelePrompter set up, Dan Quayle at his side, ready to speak to a Republican gala at a plush Washington hotel ballroom.
OK, these people paid $1,000 a pop for dinner. Many arrived in limos. So maybe they're not worried about the recession. But since the rest of the country's restless, if not flat-out fearful, it was a classy forum for the president to break his silence -- rip away the curtain from the Bush Plan to Bail Out America.
Here's the bad news on the Bush recession plan: He doesn't have one.
In fact, Bush can't even force the "R" word past his lips. Maybe he's been burned. A few days ago he was ridiculed for insisting that technically, "this isn't a recession."
This was splendid news to car dealers in cobwebbed showrooms, laid-off factory workers, and retailers staring at half-empty malls.
So Bush primly skirted the "R" word with such euphemisms as "this ugly, hurtful economy." He called it "a business cycle," which is like calling the Johnstown flood a leaky faucet in Altoona.
Not to worry. Bush unveiled the 1992 Bush-Quayle campaign theme. Bush will blame the recession -- surprise! -- on the do-nothing Congress.
He played the Desert Storm bugle. "Had I followed the Democrats' advice, Saddam Hussein would be in Saudi Arabia and Norman Schwarzkopf would be in Sarasota," bragged Bush.
Dan Quayle applauded like an aerobics tape in fast forward.
Since the White House thinkers have been meeting feverishly on ways to buck up the economy, Bush gave the $1,000-a-plate crowd a hint of his recession medicine. Ready for the biggie?
I'm not making that up. "Tort reform so doctors and businessmen shouldn't spend all their time worrying about lawsuits," said Bush.
Applause rolled. Bush rattled off his "growth package" -- a cut in capital gains taxes, family savings plans, enterprise zones.
Take that, Old Man Recession. It's a wonder the $1,000-a-plate listeners didn't rush out to buy new Lincolns or Cadillacs.
Unfortunately, on the day of Bush's speech the Wall Street Journal questioned business executives about Bush's economic performance. The replies were scathing: "I'd give Bush an F-minus on the economy. He's failed" . . . "It's too late for Bush. I doubt he can do anything" . . . "If something doesn't happen to create jobs in the next six months, Mr. Bush will join Mr. Carter as a one-term president."
While polls show more than 60 percent of folks are sour on Bush's economic job, the bickering White House crew shrugs off recession anger -- just a public-relations problem, you know.
"I've got to do better making clear what our message is," says Bush.
Well, what is it? His speech demonstrated Bush doesn't even have a Band-aid for the hemorrhaging economy. His advisers want Bush to hold off his rescue plan until the State of the Union address. By then they can works the bugs out of tort reform.
Cautious free-marketeer Bush is hapless to cope with the structural problem beneath the recession -- the weakening muscle of the United States to match Japan, other Pacific Rim countries and Germany.
A dark omen was the McDonnell Douglas aircraft company's deal for Taiwan to acquire 40 percent of its commercial airliner business. Cars, steel, television sets, now aircraft -- will the last American industry to go broke please turn off the lights?
Democrats also come up empty in remedies to restore America to No. 1. But that question should dominate the 1992 campaign: Who knows how to stop this country's America's free fall?
Bush, a man who can't say the dreaded "R" word, would rather tell cheering Republicans everything's coming up roses.
"Our policies helped bring Americans freedom, peace and prosperity the likes of which no civilization has seen . . . . The 21st century will be the New American Century."
Herbert Hoover couldn't have said it better.
Sandy Grady is a Washington columnist for the Philadelphia ; Daily News.