Washington - THE TELEVISED images from Tokyo of an ashen-faced, inert George Bush, looking comatose as a KO'd prize fighter or a swimmer hauled from the surf, were the most frightening pictures of the Bush presidency.
Reporters on the scene noted that Bush's physician, Dr. Burton Lee, was "laughing" as he revived the groggy president.
I can't account for Lee's peculiar attack of merriment. But I doubt if other Americans gaping at their supine president shared the doc's strange hilarity.
For many, perhaps, the sight of Bush seemingly down for the 10-count sent two words flashing across their minds like a neon sign:
Go ahead, call it more Quayle-bashing by the media. But every poll shows those are two of the more unnerving words in the
English language, ranking somewhere behind "HIV epidemic," "world-wide depression" and "nuclear alert."
Happily, the sudden flu attack only resulted, as Bush quipped later, "in a big cleaning bill."
But the Big Tokyo Faint was no joke. It put an untimely focus at the beginning of the 1992 campaign on Bush's frantic traveling schedule, his health, and especially on the man -- in that ageless phrase -- who's a Heartbeat Away from the Presidency.
Let's get one thing clear: Bush is not going to dump Quayle from the '92 ticket. Ever. No way.
Sure, Quayle's poll numbers are horrendous. Blame it on his wretched '88 campaign. Blame it on his gaffes ("What a waste it is to lose one's mind, or not to have a mind is very wasteful.") Blame it on late-night comics. Blame it on his "deer-frozen-in-headlights" TV gaze.
Despite a three-year hustle by Bush and a high-powered P.R. apparatus, Quayle hasn't budged the public perception: Not Ready for the Oval Office.
Quayle was greeted in New Hampshire by a dismal poll in the Manchester Union-Leader, a newspaper to the right of Attila the Hun -- 77 percent would prefer another vice president.
And those are Republicans. A recent Gallup poll shows 54 percent of Americans think Quayle "unqualified" to be president, a jump from 40 percent when Bush mysteriously picked him.
That's why Bush's Upchuck-Heard-Round-the-World started a flareup of Washington punditry: If the 1992 election looks perilously close, wouldn't Bush be tempted to deep-six his Boy Veep?
The usual suspects to replace Quayle are rounded up -- Secretary of State James Baker, Defense chief Dick Cheney, talkative HUD boss Jack Kemp. Throw in a long-shot who could turn '92 politics upside-down, black Gen. Colin Powell, Desert Storm's dynamo.
Scratch all those sci-fi scenarios.
As Ed Rollins, former Reagan-Bush operator, has said, "Loyalty is one of Bush's chief attributes. He's committed himself to Quayle over and over. Dropping him would reflect on Bush's integrity and judgment."
And turn the Republican right wing into an overturned hornets' nest.
Here's all you can hope for, jittery Americans: that the president's guffawing physician and the hyper dolts who put together Bush's whacko schedule use more sense.
Bush's health glitches (glaucoma, heart fibrillations, thyroid problem) aren't uncommon for a 67-year-old man, even one who flails his body in bouts of jogging, tennis, golf and horseshoes.
But consider Bush's madcap schedule, one that would drain a 21-year-old Olympic marathoner: A 19,000-mile trip, with 18-hour days, from Singapore's heat to Korea's cold. Back to Washington for a round of appearances. Then a Monday trip on Kansas City. On to New Hampshire Wednesday to hit the political truck stops.
Will somebody put a governor on Bush's over-revved engine before it blows a gasket?
Anyone rattled by the specter of a President Quayle replacing an ailing Bush may not be reassured by a seven-part series running in the Washington Post. The opus might be entitled, "The Life and Times of a Rich, Lucky Kid," a mystifying six-month effort by the newspaper that broke Watergate.
For political mavens, the oddest quotes are stinging shots by Dan and Marilyn Quayle at Jim Baker. The Quayles blame Baker, Bush's best pal, for "incidents that caused them trouble." Quayle's eye is obviously on the 1996 nomination, with Baker as his No. 1 adversary.
If the Post's thrust is that Dan is no lightweight dunce, this reader was unconvinced. I sympathize with Quayle's golf obsession. But when a man needs a Marine helicopter, a squad of Secret Service agents and a teaching pro for six hours of golf on Long Island, N.Y. -- filmed by a video camera -- he needs an addiction counselor.
Same veep who could only spare Vaclav Havel, Czechoslovakia's hero, 20 minutes.
That's why Tokyo TV footage of Bush going lights-out was a momentary spine tingler.
Please, Mr. President, take care. Slow down, get your Z's, eat your chicken soup.
Keep Dan Quayle, your blue-eyed, photogenic No. 2, where the nation finds him most comfortable.
On the first tee at Burning Tree.
Sandy Grady is the Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.