LIKE a political phoenix rising from the ashes, George Bush is emerging from Los Angeles' riot-charred ruins as a transformed president who cares, really cares, about the poor in America's cities.
Why does almost nobody, especially people living in battered black neighborhoods like those he visited Wednesday in Baltimore, believe the New Bush is for real?Is it because the Old Bush never set foot in decrepit inner cities except for a rare photo op with school kids?
Is it because the Old Bush in three years never put his prestige on the line for programs he's suddenly extolling?
Is it because the Old Bush -- from his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Texas Senate candidate to the infamous Willie Horton ad -- so often kowtowed to white, conservative voters?
Is it because the New Bush, ratings sagging in an election year, discovers it's useful to play Savior of the Cities -- temporarily?
Granted, like Saul on the road to Damascus, Mr. Bush may have had a blaze of enlightenment while touring L.A.'s embers.
There has always been an inner war between Private Bush and Public Bush, the decent, empathetic person vs. the rich Yalie who ignores the inner-city poor and manipulates racial code words.
So why is there so much suspicion that the president can't wait to dust the ghetto off his Ivy-cut suit and get back to his speedboat?
Skepticism was noisy when Mr. Bush, his armored limo sometimes speeding over used $5 crack vials, toured North Philadelphia on Monday and Baltimore Wednesday. The sidewalk crowds in Philadelphia jeered, hooted and shouted, "We don't want your damn handshake; we want jobs."
The Other America -- the affluent who could buy a seat to the $500,000 Republican fund-raiser at a plush hotel -- applauded happily when Mr. Bush said, "Don't believe the doomsayers.
Don't listen to the top 20 seconds that tell you everything is wrong with the United States. We're the freest, fairest, best country on the face of the earth . . . Nothing to apologize for."
After that "You're-OK-I'm-OK" spiel, there was an air of unreality Tuesday when Mr. Bush posed with a chart listing his newly found nostrums for sick cities -- enterprise zones, home ownership for the poor, a "Weed and Seed" program to rub out neighborhood crime.
Never mind that most were Jack Kemp's long-ignored ideas the same Secretary Kemp who couldn't get the president's attention if he'd walked into the Oval Office with his coat on fire.
Mr. Bush, airily dismissing wonderment that he waited three years to back Kemp's urban agenda, said, "A proposal that hasn't been tried is a new proposal."
Don't try to figure that.
Skepticism was thick, though, that Mr. Bush was faking it as Urban Messiah. On Capitol Hill, where big-city mayors bristled, Boston's Ray Flynn sneered, "It's the bland leading the blind." And House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt zinged Bush: "The president has pushed the snooze button on the domestic alarm clock long enough."
Sure, Dick, but Congress folk, so somber and sensitive in their post-riot mode, can match Mr. Bush's hypocrisy. For a decade they doled out peanuts for cities while jacking up their own pay.
That's why doubts about the president's Crash (Sort Of) Plan are rampant. Will Mr. Bush and Congress act before the L.A. riots cool in America's click-click concentration span? Will 1992 political haggling kill the action? Where's the money coming from?
"We have maybe 30 days. People lose interest," said Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan.
It shouldn't take a police beating or riot to focus a spotlight on the inner-city underclass. That's how politics works. As one pastor told Mr. Bush in North Philly, "We shouldn't have to beg for help. We need long-term money to build our communities."
Finding the dough, even the modest $1 billion to kick-start Mr. Bush's proposals, is sure to breed squabbles. Mr. Bush will never raise taxes in an election year. Why not a harder look at the fat, post-Cold War defense budget?
Ironically, on a day when President Bush and Congress were sighing over the lack of funds for cities, a House panel approved 20 B-2s, the stealth bomber that isn't stealthy, at $2.2 billion each.
Somehow the B-2 doesn't seem useful for riot control.
And $4.3 billion for Star Wars -- a circle of anti-missile silos guarding decaying cities, potholed highways and abandoned factories?
Maybe Congress will find symbolic dimes for cities in its post-riot fervor.
As former Congressman Ozzie Meyers said on an Abscam tape, "Money talks, bull---- walks."
Give the president credit. He ventured into terra incognito, poverty-blasted neighborhoods, and listened. At moments in the last 10 days the decent man inside threatened to overcome the political Bush who toadies to his right wing, plays the race card, tries to out-tough Bull Connor.
How long will this new, caring president be on stage?
Oh, maybe until Labor Day. By then the Old Bush will be out of the cage.
Riot? What riot?
Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.