Washington -- ON BRIAN Lamb's excellent Monday morning C-SPAN show on the American press, the predominant questions were repeated: Why is George Bush doing what he is doing in Japan, and will it get him anything?
The questions from callers across the country to Andrew Glass of Cox Newspapers and me were expressed more in sorrow than in anger.
Would the president lose in the long run by hauling all those overpaid captains of auto industry to Japan to berate the guys who know how to do it better? Sure, the Japanese have a partly closed market, but are they really the cause of our economic woes? And, finally and most important, how and why has George Bush changed so from the masterful commander of Desert Storm to the pettish man in Tokyo scolding the Japanese and using his personal capital to open an American toy shop?
Unfortunately, there are answers to those first two questions. My own strong feeling, as a long-time Bush supporter and even enthusiast, is that the president's trail of Detroit courtiers will reverberate against him, probably as soon as the upcoming New Hampshire campaign.
Why? Because this time the president seems to have oddly lost touch with the American people. Those I have been talking to are without exception mad as hell at those auto czars, with their salaries 160 times that of those same auto workers they have so cavalierly laid off. Indeed, Bush has just handed the Democrats the most perfect populist issue one could dream up!
As to whether the Japanese are really to blame for the hard-hit American auto industry, whose management has refused even to produce cars with the correct steering wheel to drive on the left side of the street in Japan, I found remarkably little blame "out there" for the Japanese.
In fact, the president has again miscalculated and misfired, particularly by dragging with him his guilty couriers, whom I picture constantly trying to wash their hands. The entire, complicated story of American-Japanese negotiations over autos, imports and trade has now been carefully dissected in American newspapers every day since this trip began. For the first time, the real story of how little the American auto companies planned or thought through quality and world markets is now known.
It is the final question -- the real whereabouts of Supreme Commander George Herbert Walker Bush -- modern-day descendant of Patton, Rommel and the Caesars -- that is so worrisome. When last seen in the sands of Arabia, our modern-day Lawrence surely gave no noticeable signs, as he swirled his desert robes about, that he would end up baptizing a Toys R Us store in Japan.
One of my journalist friends mused that George Bush is probably in truth two men: one, a man of noble aspirations and reach, and the other, a man who will do almost anything for politics. Another insisted on still another show that Bush had "shattered the image of a leader who operates on principle."
Still another is convinced, a little pompously, that the president is "falling behind the curve in the march of world affairs." And still another is concerned that, both in his way of dealing with auto industry problems and in the strange White House silence and paralysis over aid to the former Soviet Union at this crucial time of winter, the president has lost his former high ground by showing "neither urgency nor compassion."
One mistake many in the press made repeatedly about George Bush in the early days was to write him off as a simple man. He is not. Indeed, during this last week of nation-hopping from prosperity to more prosperity in Asia the president showed just how complex a man he is.
Here's a capsule put together from both his own acts and from some of the best analysts around here: George Bush is a talented man, a keen and long-underestimated political operative, and an aristocrat with moxie who every once in a while feels he has to get down in the trenches with the guys (and then rather likes it for a time).
Despite his hesitation at showing too much emotion, he can inspire, as he did with Desert Storm, so long as he is convinced he is acting in a pristine moral crusade. But while he is not a man given to social engineering (thank God!), he is also not a man at home with trying to explain and reform the roots of America's problems today.
That is why he dragged the status-quo guys to Singapore, Seoul and Tokyo, and that is why, in doing so, he has acted against his better self and against our better interests.