New York -- LIKE HIS predecessor, George Bush is an image president. No doubt there's true substance in Bush's persona, but he's not going to take the chance of letting Americans see him as he really is, whatever that may be. He's going to give them images.
The image of Willie Horton. The image of George's visit to a flag factory. The image of George and Barbara going to a J.C. Penney's to revive the economy all by themselves, by buying four pairs of sweat socks. The constant images of hyperactive George wearing out his Secret Service detail as he jogs and plays tennis and golfs and hunts and fishes and skims his cigarette boat at high speed across the waves. All these frenetic pictures fill the country's television screens, as George's image-makers sell him to the public like so much diet soda and athletic shoes.
But last week a different sort of image appeared on television. It was a picture of George Bush vomiting and collapsing from exhaustion and gastroenteritis at a state dinner in Japan. And Americans have a right to look at that scary scene and wonder about all the macho images they've been fed.
George Bush probably isn't "sick" in the usual sense of that word. But when a 67-year-old man, no matter how healthy for his age, decides he has to present a constantly youthful and bouncing and jet-speed picture of himself to the voters, he becomes a kind of time bomb. And in the process he tells us a great deal about himself, about this ultra-competitive person who has to win everything and win it right now and who therefore has little patience for reflection and thoughtfulness. He is a true television president. Ronald Reagan at least took naps.
Eight months ago, when the president grew weak and was diagnosed as suffering from heart arrhythmia arising from a thyroid condition, this ailment, too, was by itself not serious and was routinely treated. Was stress a factor in that episode? Some think so.
This time, his doctors say the gastritis was caused by a form of intestinal flu, which though it felled the president is only a 24-hour bug and nothing alarming. It was noted that some of the reporters and White House aides traveling with Bush on his Asian trip also came down with flu symptoms.
But he is the president and his incapacitation, for whatever period, is by definition a serious matter. Consider the pace George Bush tried to maintain on this 12-day journey -- an image mission to harvest American votes by talking tough to the Japanese about their trade practices and blaming them for American unemployment.
This was a gimmick not based on reality, a public relations extravaganza that ignored the much greater role that our home-grown economic failures, including Reagan-Bush voodoo economics, have played in the current recession and deep joblessness. In other words, Bush and the 21 overpaid American business titans he took with him as image-dressing were giving us another phantasm without substance.
But to get back to the pace he set for the trip. As he plowed through negotiations and meetings and photo opportunities in four nations, he also jogged and rode an exercise bicycle and worked out on a stair-climbing machine. Reporters with him noticed several times that he seemed obviously fatigued. At a state dinner in Singapore, he struggled to stay awake. Just a few hours before the Tokyo dinner at which he collapsed, the president and the American ambassador to Japan played doubles tennis against Emperor Akihito and the crown prince -- and lost.
What will George Bush do now in response to urgings from friends and family to cut back his schedule and take life a little bit easier? If his own history is any guide, he will reject that advice. After his heart episode last year, he barely caught his breath before launching into the production of new television images for the voters -- speed-walking, golfing, barnstorming -- determined to prostrate the much younger press corps as it tried to keep up.
My guess is that even if Bush reduces his schedule temporarily to appease doctors and family, he will keep that slowdown out of sight and give us only the pictures of renewed physical animation.
He wants so terribly to be re-elected. He'll do anything, as he did against Michael S. Dukakis in 1988, and as he has told us he will do this time against whomever the Democratic candidate will be. His interview with David Frost that aired a week ago told it all: ". . . I'm certainly going into this as a dog-eat-dog fight, and I will do what I have to do to be re-elected."
Bush has followed Reagan's style in every way but one: Reagan's penchant for taking time out and nodding off. Like Reagan, he obviously dyes his hair. Like Reagan, he exists via television. The fixation is to appear young.
But when you live by that image, you have to live with its consequences. And one of those consequences was the unwanted image of a president throwing up and fainting at a banquet in front of a lot of important people.
Bush may feel foolish now, embarrassed. But as a 67-year-old man, he has mature options. Will he choose to pump iron on the evening news to erase his mortification, or will he decide to be realistic and tone down the image machine for a while? We'll see.