Bush is down. Now's just the time to watch out!

Richard Ben Cramer

August 19, 1992|By Richard Ben Cramer

Houston -- GEORGE Bush has got 'em right where he wants 'em.

His plane is on fire, he's miles from the target, he's hurtling down with a ton of bombs strapped underneath . . . and there's no one in the air or on the ground who thinks he can get out of this one.

Perfect!

This is George Bush at his most dangerous, as Saddam Hussein and Bill Clinton may find out, at their peril. At the Republican National Convention in Houston, all the talk from those-in-the-know is about desperate political measures.

Can James A. Baker, on his way back to the bridge, make the White House and campaign churn the water together? Can Ronald Reagan keep the ships on the right flank from deserting the battle?

Can the U.N. inspectors or the U.S. Air Force push Saddam to a blunder that could give the president -- this week! just in time! -- a 20-point bump out of his convention, as Mr. Clinton got one month ago?

People say Mr. Bush needs the speech of his life to cut through the hopeless confusion of his administration, to make up for his own addled lack of vision, to "define himself" anew.

He needs a rabbit from a hat, a miracle -- at least a genius speech writer.

Baloney.

They miss the point.

There's only one fight the GOP and the Bushies have to win this week and that's the fight within the president's own breast. Four years ago, the wise guys, the pundits and pollsters were all ready to write Mr. Bush off.

After all, the man was a wimp! He was 17 points down to Michael Dukakis.

Mr. Bush had no positions of his own, no platform, no plan. The Bush campaign was about nothing.

In Boston, Governor Dukakis' brainy young savants were choosing up offices in the West Wing of the White House.

Then they froze as Mr. Bush began to take their hero apart. In three weeks, the governor's lead was gone, but more important, so was the wimp.

We know what happened -- he won 40 states.

But what did it take?

Mr. Bush never did define himself or present a plan for America. But he took one look at his opponent and defined him as he appeared through the Bush-eyes.

Who was this little guy?

Mr. Dukakis didn't know how the world really worked.

He was just another Jimmy Carter, a technocratic tinkerer, who could no more be trusted with America's fate in a hostile world than could any other liberal Harvard woolly-head -- a do-good little governor from a little state who was going to give away the store!

Where'd he ever been?

What gave him the right to tear everything down, to pick on those good Republicans who had labored so hard to build up this country?

The guy was a little bully.

So then, Mr. Bush, so immaculately polite, could come at Michael (and Kitty) Dukakis with a broken bottle in each fist. He could run against criminal-coddlin' and for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Mr. Bush could do whatever it took because it wasn't about nothing, anymore. He had one conviction, honestly held: Mr. Dukakis should not be president.

When Saddam invaded Kuwait, there was no one who'd predict that the United States would go to war. It was too dangerous. It was politically impossible.

The United States didn't have the allies in the United Nations, the assets in the region or the will in Congress.

But you had to see Saddam through the Bush-eyes. Here was a tinhorn, never been anywhere, had no sense of how to behave.

Jeez, Bush and Bake had been bending over backward, trying to bring him into the circle, make him a friend! He spurns the president, beats up on a neighbor. (Those pictures on TV!)

He showed no respect for women, children . . . the guy was just a bully.

So Mr. Bush shredded every option but a war against Iraq. He told the American people that Saddam was no different from Hitler -- and he meant it.

Mr. Bush marched in to a morning meeting at the White House and announced to his startled staff: "I don't care if I get one vote in Congress. We're going in."

Now, you can see the old bomber pilot strapping on his plot-map and revving himself up.

He's "sick and tired," he says, of "all this abuse" from the Democrats. "I've held out my hand to those crazy guys (in Congress)," he said Monday night, ". . . And I've gotten it bitten off. I've been blamed for everything except that crazy scoring system they used in the Olympic boxing!"

Saddam is going to comply with those resolutions -- all of them! Bill Clinton had better stop "running down this country!"

Bush is the warrior WASP and he's backed himself into the corner where he fights best. He's got himself convinced that he's been hit unfairly, too many times.

Any Andover man knows how to take care of a bully.

When I asked Mr. Bush's men about the vicious '88 campaign, Lee Atwater, the campaign manager -- now deceased, alas -- explained it in electoral terms.

They had to pile up the negatives on Mr. Dukakis' head to bring him down in the polls.

But Roger Ailes, the media man, who I think understood Bush much better, explained that the attack campaign was more important to Mr. Bush personally.

You have to give this guy a sense of mission, Mr. Ailes said. And once Mr. Bush narrows his focus to a personal opponent, once he has that sense of personal mission, and personal combat, then, as Mr. Ailes said: "The only way to stop Bush is to kill him."

Richard Ben Cramer is author of "What It Takes: The Way to the White House."

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