President Uses Last Days to Boost Standing THE BUSH RECORD

January 10, 1993|By KAREN HOSLER

Work is nearly complete on the reviewing stands in front of the White House for Bill Clinton's inaugural parade, but George Bush is still inside busily trying to squeeze the last drops out of his presidency.

Following a tradition as old as the republic, but with more fervor than most of his predecessors, Mr. Bush seems determined in these final days in office to ensure that Americans remember him fondly -- and maybe even regret they threw him out.

But historians say it won't make much difference.

The last-minute gestures for which Mr. Bush is now being praised, such as his relief mission to starving victims of war-torn Somalia, as well as the final embarrassments, including as his wholesale pardon of six Iran-Contra defendants, are likely to be more little more than footnotes on a record destined to be dismissed as mediocre.

"The problem is he's not known for doing anything domestically, and internationally he didn't take advantage of the opportunities handed him, like the end of the Cold War," observed James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at The American University. "He'll be remembered for Desert Storm, but you can't base your whole presidency on that."

Not even the hastily-concluded nuclear arms treaty President Bush signed with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin in Moscow last weekend can secure Mr. Bush an exalted place among his colleagues now.

"Average or less than average is about the best he can do," said William E. Leuchtenburg, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In contemporary terms, that means Mr. Bush will probably not be regarded as highly as his former ticket-mate, Ronald Reagan. Despite other shortcomings, President Reagan gets credit for boldly pursuing an agenda that changed the direction of U.S. politics.

But Mr. Bush can still rise above the rank of former President Jimmy Carter, a poor administrator who couldn't get his way with a Congress led by his party and who projected an image of U.S. weakness that contributed to the Iran hostage crisis.

President Bush's prospects of boosting his place in history have been seriously undermined, however, by two domestic scandals that could drag him down further.

With his Christmas Eve pardons of Caspar W. Weinberger and five other Iran-contra defendants, President Bush ignited a new controversy about his role in the arms-for-hostages scandal and gave ammunition to those who believe he is part of an elaborate cover-up.

Many Americans already had doubts about the former vice president's claim that he was "out of the loop" when the Reagan administration was plotting to sell weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages, according to a poll taken in September. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey showed 58 percent of those questioned were skeptical of Mr. Bush's explanation, while only 34 percent said they were satisfied.

Perhaps most offensive about the pardons, though, is that Mr. Bush described alleged efforts by Mr. Weinberger and the other defendants to deceive Congress about the illegal arm sales and the illegal diversion of funds to the Nicaraguan rebels as "acts of patriotism."

"There's a real difference between patriotism and lying to Congress," said Keith Olson, a a professor of 20th century history at the University of Maryland College Park. "This will diminish him. I don't see how it couldn't."

Meanwhile, another criminal inquiry is under way to determine if top Bush aides abused their power to conduct an illegal search of Bill Clinton's passport files -- and then lied about it.

A preliminary Justice Department inquiry found evidence that Janet G. Mullins, special assistant to the president for political affairs, may have encouraged and directed the passport search, although she denied any knowledge of it to State Department investigators. Ms. Mullins is a close associate of White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III and the White House communications director, Margaret Tutwiler, both of whom have hired criminal lawyers to represent them in the inquiry.

"Scandal in a president's administration can be enough to get him labeled a failure," said Robert K. Murray, a retired professor of American history at Pennsylvania State University who has compiled the most recent ranking of U.S. chief executives. Richard M. Nixon, Ulysses S. Grant and the lowest-ranked president, Warren G. Harding, all suffered that fate.

With barely more than a week to go in the Oval Office, Mr. Bush is keenly aware that he's playing now to history.

After a month of nursing his post-election depression behind the gates of the White House, the president emerged in early December to launch a barrage of foreign policy initiatives that would help him to leave office on a positive note.

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