ON A CAMPAIGN trip to a South Carolina college campus 12 years ago, George Bush told his audience, "I'll be glad to reply to or dodge your questions, depending on what I think will help our election most."
At the time it was a throwaway line. In retrospect it sounds like something that should have been needlepointed on a pillow. Maybe that's unnecessary; the do-what-sells gene in George Bush's character seems so overdeveloped as to be ineradicable.
Last week, watching the president on the first day after the Rodney King verdict was like watching a man in sweatsocks negotiate a freshly waxed floor. Slip, slip, slide. Slip, slip, slide. He went from saying the jury system had worked to expressing shock at the verdict. You could picture him studying the polls and modifying the stance.
He finally gave a neat little speech, a generic speech with no real sense of what the most powerful leader in our nation was thinking and feeling at one of the most powerful moments in recent history. Instead of reaching deep inside himself for some anecdote about his own feelings on racism, he had a generic tale of black Samaritans superimposed on a law and order riff. He announced a federal investigation. He called up the Guard. He committed money.
That is government.
The difference between government and leadership is that leadership has a soul.
Supporters of Gov. Bill Clinton have asked over and over when those of us who crank out copy are going to bring character questions to bear upon George Bush. And by that they seem to mean questions about the president's personal life or about his son's business dealings.
But the truth is there is an enormous character issue here. The problem is that it is not true/false or multiple choice. It is an essay question.
What does Bush stand for?
His old friend C. Fred Chambers, an oil company executive, once said, "George understands that you have to do politically prudent things to get in a position to do what you want." Problem is, Bush has been in position for three years and we still don't know what he wants to do other than be politically prudent for seven more months so he can win re-election. It is the opposite of the emperor's new clothes. There are clothes, all right, depending on the prevailing winds, but nothing inside the empty suit.
Bush couldn't bring his great personal passions and ruling principles about race to bear on this crisis because he has none. Early this year the New York Review of Books ran a history of Bush's stands on civil rights issues that is a kind of road map of political expediency, from leading a campus drive at Yale for the United Negro College Fund in 1948, to campaigning for the Senate in Texas in 1964 by opposing the Civil Rights Act, to embracing a 1970 plan that advocated goals and timetables for hiring and promoting minorities, what the president today denigrates as quotas.
In fact he has done this on many of the great issues of our time. From the day in 1980 when the New York state Right to Life Party said that his presence on the ticket ruled out an endorsement for Ronald Reagan, to his position today as an anti-abortion ally -- but not a champion, never a champion, champion is risky, champion is out there -- Bush has slid from one politically convenient abortion stance to another.
My most enduring memories of the first Bush administration will be of a man needing principle and having only polls. He waffled on raising taxes. He went from being part of an administration that had propped up Saddam Hussein to dubbing Saddam a Hitler figure. He seemed at first flummoxed by how to react to the Soviet coup and then half-hearted in his support for economic aid.
Trollope, who created fictional politicians the mirror image of real ones, wrote in his autobiography that a successful politician "must be able to confine himself and conform himself, to be satisfied with doing a little bit of a little thing at a time. . . . If he have grand ideas, he must keep them to himself, unless by chance he can work his way up to the top of the tree."
But by that time a fellow may have gotten out of the habits of grand ideas and nonconformity. There is a character issue for Bush in this campaign. The clothes have no emperor. There is no there there.
Anna Quindlen is a New York Times columnist.