Near end of his arduous visit to Asia, Bush's collapse left trenchant image

January 09, 1992|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Television shots of President Bush being raised from the floor in a deathly pallor were not exactly the campaign footage the White House had hoped for from his Asia trip.

But that is what the world saw repeated all day long, and that is the image top officials of the Bush-Quayle re-election campaign confronted yesterday morning when they discussed the president's collapse at a meeting at their headquarters here.

One of those officials, Charles Black, said they didn't spend even five minutes on it "because next week it will be something else."

The White House was also quick to dismiss the president's fainting at his seat at the state dinner last night as a case of a flu so common it had already infected much of his staff and the traveling press corps. In fact, Mr. Bush had visited an infected reporter in the sick bay of Air Force One on the flight last Friday from Australia to Singapore.

But the episode raised for the second time in less than a year two questions the White House would rather not have Americans asking:

* Is Mr. Bush as healthy at 67 as he thinks he is?

* Has he reached an age where it is likely that Vice President Dan Quayle would have to finish his second term?

"If he had George Washington as his vice president, it wouldn't matter so much if he had heart fibrillations," said Kevin Phillips, a Republican political analyst, referring to Mr. Bush's earlier illness. "But the polls show that a minority of Americans still don't believe Dan Quayle is qualified to be president."

Some horrified Bush partisans recalled pictures of then-President Jimmy Carter collapsing during a foot race near Camp David.

The exhaustion and agony on Mr. Carter's face became a symbol for his later political troubles as the shot reappeared in newspapers during his unsuccessful bid for re-election in 1980.

Something similar could happen to Mr. Bush if his political fortunes continue to flag, said Frank R. Donatelli, a Republican political consultant and former White House political director.

"Your looks become a metaphor for how well you're doing politically," he said.

Mr. Bush was pronounced fully recovered last fall from the overactive thyroid that caused his irregular heartbeat last spring. He now takes medication to control the hormone production of his thyroid, but his activity is back to its normal hectic level.

That may be the problem, according to one senior Bush aide.

"All of us who care for the man are concerned about his schedule and the awful pace he keeps," the aide said. "I think this will serve as a reminder of how hard his job is and how important it is to try to slow him down. . . . He looked so terrible."

But it isn't likely that much can be done about getting Mr. Bush to moderate his pace.

"The president has always overexerted himself," said Vic Gold, a Washington writer and close friend of Mr. Bush. "He doesn't have a second gear. He's up at 6 a.m. and he goes constantly. He's got to realize he isn't 25 anymore."

The 12-day, four-nation tour of the Far East from which Mr. Bush is scheduled to return tomorrow has been the longest foreign journey of his presidency and the most grueling, if only because so many time zones were crossed.

But it has also been the most controversial of Mr. Bush's travels because he converted his mission at the last minute into a showdown with the Japanese over trade barriers and jobs in hopes of winning favor with recession-weary Americans. And the toughest part of the long trip came at the end.

"It hasn't exactly been a grand tour," Mr. Phillips said. "He's been called a car salesman in Japan, and he was the first American president to encounter demonstrators in Australia. This comes after the largest drop any president has had in the polls. I wouldn't be surprised if part of his problem was stress."

White House Chief of Staff Samuel K. Skinner refused to take calls on the incident yesterday.

Other officials not traveling with Mr. Bush also took a low-key approach.

"In a perverse way, we're sort of lucky that so many people have had the flu this year. I think they'll understand what it's like and be sympathetic," said White House speech writer Tony Snow.

Campaign officials insisted that unless the Japanese incident proved to be more serious than has been reported by the White House, or the president developed additional health problems, his collapse would be quickly forgotten.

"I was very surprised at how quickly people forgot about the more serious illness the president had last year once they realized it was under control and he could take medication for it," Mr. Black said.

"I don't think this is going to last more than a day or two."

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