Bush weighs heavy losses, next role after presidency

November 23, 1992|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- George Bush is struggling to deal with what a lot of still-vigorous Americans face in their late 60s: abrupt retirement long before they are ready to go.

With his re-election defeat, aides say, the president lost not only his job, but a good measure of his self-esteem. He feels like he was personally repudiated and humiliated by the voters, they say.

Then, while his successor, Bill Clinton, was still glad-handing his way through a Washington victory tour last week, Mr. Bush's 91-year-old mother died Thursday after a stroke. Dorothy Walker Bush had taught her son to be a fierce competitor and graceful winner, but he hasn't had nearly as much experience with handling loss and disappointment.

"It must be terrible for him to think that the last thing she saw was her son going down in flames," said author Richard Ben Cramer, who included an extensive autobiography of Mr. Bush in his book on the 1988 presidential election, "What It Takes."

"It probably speaks to him of his own mortality," Mr. Cramer continued. "He loses the White House and thinks, 'It's over, it's over.' Then, his mother dies. It's like God tapping him on the shoulder, saying, 'You're next.' "

Long-time friends and associates say they are confident Mr. Bush will rebound from his melancholy as soon as he figures out what he's going to do with himself after he leaves the White House. But that's not easy for defeated ex-presidents.

Democrat Jimmy Carter says that on his first day back in Plains, Ga., after surrendering the White House to Ronald Reagan, he "awoke to an altogether new, unwanted and potentially empty life."

"Rosalynn and I were alone; our large official retinue of White House staff members and political associates were traveling back to Washington or to their former homes," he wrote in a book he co-authored with Mrs. Carter, "Everything to Gain -- Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life."

"It was deeply discouraging for me to contemplate the unpredictable years ahead," Mr. Carter recalled.

Former commanders-in-chief can always write their memoirs and tend to their presidential libraries. But that's pretty tame stuff for a man with Mr. Bush's energy level and need to keep moving on to new challenges.

The president told an interviewer several days before the election that after a second term in the White House he planned to "get big into the grandchild business" and the "golfing business."

But it's too soon for that now.

"I don't think he's going to be playing golf all day, I can tell you that," said Victor Gold, a Washington writer who worked with Mr. Bush on his autobiography, "Looking Forward," published in 1987. "I'm sure he's going to want to do something more serious."

Sen. Alan Simpson, a Wyoming Republican and long-time friend of Mr. Bush, agreed: "He needs a lot of activity."

But Mr. Simpson, who was among a small group of associates who honored Mr. Bush at a diplomatic reception last Monday night, said he was sure that Mr. Bush would soon be showered with requests for his services and that "he'll have a whole plateful of things to choose from."

Mr. Carter, who was only 56 when his presidential term ended, is the most active of the four living ex-presidents.

He established a center in Atlanta that not only houses his presidential library but sponsors projects to improve living standards in Third World countries and seeks to resolve international conflicts. He has also taken on some limited foreign assignments, including monitoring the 1989 Nicaraguan election that ousted the Sandinistas.

Mr. Reagan, nearly 78 when he turned the White House over to Mr. Bush in 1989, represents what James Thurber, a presidential scholar at the American University, called the "opposite extreme" from Mr. Carter.

"Reagan sold himself to the Japanese for $2 million" by accepting that sum for making a speech in Tokyo shortly after he left office, said Mr. Thurber. "I would expect Mr. Bush to wind up somewhere between the two."

In his election night concession speech to Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bush said he wanted to do something "to help others."

Given Mr. Bush's strong interest in foreign affairs, which proved to be the most successful part of his presidency, Mr. Gold and others said they believe he will find some way to serve along those lines.

But the new Democratic president is not likely to call on his Republican predecessor for much foreign envoy work.

Mr. Cramer suggested that the former president could establish something like the "George Bush Center for the New World Order," which could be both a think tank and excuse for Mr. Bush to resume the world travel and international telephone diplomacy he so enjoyed.

At this point, almost nothing has been decided except that the president and his wife, Barbara, will build a house in their adopted home town of Houston and that Mr. Bush will keep a small staff there.

His presidential library will be located about 100 miles away, at Texas A&M University.

Mr. Simpson said the Bushes are only planning "a kind of a town house" in Houston, which suggests that most of Mr. Bush's time "in the grandchild business" will be spent in the much more spacious family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Like Mr. Carter, Mr. Bush probably won't find peace there until he comes to terms with his hurt, anger and shock at the election results.

"He has to develop an attitude like my father, who was turned out of office after being a governor and a U.S. senator," Mr. Simpson said. "He just went around telling people the voters were 'damn fools.' "

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