WASHINGTON — Washington. -- George Bush has done three impressive things in his life: his bravery in World War II, his masterly direction of the gulf war and the brilliantly demagogic campaign that got him elected president in 1988. For some people, including me, nothing will ever redeem Mr. Bush after his despicable performance four years ago, nothing short of an abject apology.
We predicted, without much confidence, that the whirligig of time would bring in his revenges. But I, at least, never dreamed it would be in the person of H. Ross Perot.
Who knows? Mr. Bush will probably be re-elected and it will then be decreed that the Perot phenomenon helped him. But right now the Bush people don't see it like that. They're worried. And if Ross Perot does prove to be Mr. Bush's undoing, some seeds of that undoing can be found in Mr. Bush's own first presidential campaign.
It is delightful to hear the Bushies squeak that Mr. Perot is some kind of dangerous authoritarian -- a ''temperamental tycoon'' with ''contempt for the Constitution,'' says Dan Quayle.
It's a little late for Bush & Co. to be convincing in the expression of such sensitivity about fragile civil liberties and the sacredness the United States Constitution. Who can forget George Bush day after day ridiculing the American Civil Liberties Union, spitting out the letters ''A . . . C . . . L . . . U'' like a curse?
Not that the ACLU is beyond criticism. But M. Bush's campaign issue was not criticism of the ACLU's occasional excesses. The issue was framed as an invitation to raw majoritarian sneering at unpopular minority beliefs.
It was of a piece with that disgusting Pledge of Allegiance business, the suggestion that Michael Dukakis was insufficiently patriotic because as governor he didn't force teachers to salute the American flag against their will.
As for the Constitution, casual monkeying with the sacred text is a virtual signature theme of Bush politics. It's his favorite recourse when in need of a quick popularity fix.
One day it's an amendment to outlaw flagburning, the next day it's an amendment to ban abortion or require a balanced budget or authorize prayers in school (leading to law professor Walter Dellinger's excellent joke that what we need is a constitutional amendment requiring schoolchildren to pray for a balanced budget).
I don't think Ross Perot, even if he were elected president, would pose a fundamental threat to American liberty. He doesn't aspire to create a police state and couldn't do it, anyway, under our system.
It's certainly true that a love of civil liberties and tolerance of dissent require constant nurturing by a democracy's leaders. But the Bush people should have thought of that earlier. If the citizenry is now too slow to detect and resent authoritarian sentiments in presidential candidates, the incumbent deserves a large chunk of the blame.
The Ross Perot campaign is also giving an ironic hindsight glow to all that cheap anti-elitism Mr. Bush was peddling in 1988. Mock populist resentment of ''Harvard Yard'' was Yale-man Bush's most daringly dishonest campaign theme.
But when it comes to ''country boying,'' as they say in Texas, George Bush is no match for Ross Perot, with his magnificent and genuine Texarkana twang. Told four years ago that Texas hicks are morally superior to snot-nosed Ivy Leaguers, voters are having no trouble this time around separating the longhorns from the goats.
What most maddens the Bush people about Ross Perot is his vagueness, his seeming ability to get away without producing specifics, especially on the fraught topic of taxes and spending.
Of course this very bit of political legerdemain is in many ways the basis of the Republican political triumph of the past 12 years (as well as the basis of our $3-trillion national debt).
Remember the ''flexible freeze''? That was Mr. Bush's alleged solution to the budget problem. It was Ronald Reagan and George Bush who taught the voters to believe that the deficit could be brought under control without inconveniencing anyone except a few bureaucrats and welfare chiselers.
If the voters are now persuaded that Dr. Bush can't deliver a pain-free cure but still think that some other doctor might, that's no one's fault but George Bush's own.
At the moment Mr. Bush is in what he is pleased to call his ''non-political mode.'' But when he is ''unleashed'' and in ''campaign mode,'' he'll be ''ready for the fray.''
What our president has instead of political ethics, it seems, is some strange rule of etiquette that one doesn't criticize one's opponents until late August. If you don't have anything nice to say, say it after the Republican convention. But then, apparently, anything goes.
This comports with Mr. Bush's view of politics as a dirty necessity which, as a necessity, can be as dirty as you wish because it's not the real you. In 1988 he fought dirty indeed.
Now some of that is coming back to haunt him in the person of Ross Perot. Serves him right. And if he tries the same stunts again and America falls for them again, it serves America right.
TRB is a column in the New Republic by Michael Kinsley.