Bush sets passive tone on eve of session with Clinton

November 18, 1992|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau Mark Matthews and John Fairhall of the Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Inauguration Day is still two months away, but George Bush appears ready virtually to hand over the presidency to Bill Clinton when the vanquished incumbent meets his victorious challenger in the Oval Office this afternoon.

Mr. Bush has already given up all but the most routine functions of his office. He plans no initiatives, no foreign travel and only the barest outline of a budget. He has instructed his aides to spend their time over the next eight weeks looking for work.

The White House is ghostly silent save for what one official called "the clackety-clack of writing resumes."

"It's an emotional thing that says, 'It's over; I'm ready to leave,' " White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said in describing Mr. Bush's attitude yesterday. "But he's a realist, and he recognizes it does take time to turn over the reins of government."

If President Bush is in a hurry to leave the job he once so loved, President-elect Clinton is no less eager to take it over.

At his one-hour session with the president today, Mr. Clinton said, "I want to get his candid assessment of world issues, some of the problems that I'll be facing at the beginning of my term."

The Arkansas governor said in Little Rock yesterday that he also planned to raise with Mr. Bush "some issues specifically involving this transition." He noted there were "one or two things hanging out there," but he did not elaborate.

Mr. Clinton has also scheduled meetings on Capitol Hill tomorrow with congressional leaders, including a bipartisan luncheon. This afternoon, he plans a hand-shaking tour of the Georgia Avenue corridor in a less-than-posh Washington neighborhood.

He and his wife, Hillary, will be the feature attractions at a charity function and private dinners tonight and tomorrow night held by the chairman of the Clinton transition board, Vernon Jordan, and Democratic fund-raiser Pamela Harriman, who was a mentor for the president-to-be.

But the White House meeting with Mr. Bush will "not be just a social call," stressed Warren Christopher, the Clinton transition director, referring to the occasion as a "time when an outgoing president communicates important thoughts to the incoming president."

It's difficult to imagine that the former opponents in one of the nastiest presidential campaigns in memory could cover a great deal of ground in one hour. That's less time than Mr. Bush has spent with a scores of foreign leaders during his term.

The session may last longer than scheduled, however, and may help Mr. Bush reconnect with the world he has all but shut out during what aides describe as a painful period of mourning for a second term he thought was within his grasp until the final days of the campaign.

"There's just something hollow about him now," said a Bush aide who spent a half-hour alone with the president last week. "He tries not to let it show."

Since the election two weeks ago, President Bush has spent most of his time either at Camp David, Md., or on a Florida fishing vacation.

He was back on duty Monday in Washington, but he has very few activities on his once-crowded public schedule.

At the start of a mostly ceremonial meeting Monday with Israeli President Chaim Herzog, Mr. Bush brushed off reporters' questions and explained to his guest, "We're shifting gears to the new administration. We're referring all questions to that."

Mr. Fitzwater said Mr. Bush was trying to make things easy for the new president by not undertaking policy initiatives that Mr. Clinton might have to "undo."

He said the president would fulfill his obligation to submit a budget proposal to Congress next year by offering in mid-January "a bare-bones" document of about 100 pages, allowing Mr. Clinton to fill in the details after his term begins.

In addition, President Bush has instructed his Cabinet officers not to speed up the issuance of federal regulations just to get them on the books by Jan. 20.

What is more surprising is that Mr. Bush has also put U.S. foreign policy on hold, even though Mr. Clinton has encouraged him to remain active by repeatedly noting that the United States has just one president and avoiding comments that might undercut the incumbent.

Apart from threatening tariffs on white wine from the European Community, however, the Bush administration has shown no inclination to remain active in foreign affairs.

On two current issues, the United States has yet to press the United Nations Security Council for authority to enforce a no-fly zone in the former Yugoslavia or to use force to back up delivery of relief supplies. And it has yet to intervene in a major way in the Middle East peace talks.

There is speculation that Chief of Staff James A. Baker III will resume his old role of catalyst. But to be effective, he would have to get a clear sign of authority from Mr. Clinton, who has stressed only that there should be continuity in the process.

The forced air of goodwill surrounding the Bush and Clinton camps was almost shattered yesterday when the president-elect made a point of refusing what his aides called an offer from Mr. Bush to fly to Washington aboard a military jet and spend the night at Blair House, the official guest quarters for visiting dignitaries.

"We said, 'Thanks, but no thanks, not this trip,' " said Clinton spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers, explaining that the taxpayer-financed perks were too costly. Mr. Clinton will travel instead on a chartered jet and stay at the Hay-Adams Hotel.

But Mr. Fitzwater produced a letter Mr. Christopher had written to the White House Nov. 9 requesting that the amenities be made available. "I resent them trying to portray us as offering them luxury and their turning it down," Mr. Fitzwater said.

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