Citizen George Bush

January 10, 1993

Bush-bashing is the order of the day. Until he flies off on Inauguration Day to the cruel backwaters reserved for ex-presidents, George Bush will continue to find that defeat fathers a thousand detractors. The fickleness of the permanent Washington Establishment is legendary. The frustrations of loyalists erupt with a vengeance more searing than the smugness of victors.

It is a tough time. Ask Jimmy Carter. Ask Herbert Hoover. Ask Taft and Hayes and Fillmore and Van Buren -- all tossed out of the White House by the voters after only one term. All second-tier presidents, which is Mr. Bush's destiny.

Right now the vagaries of the Bush personality are so puzzling after four years of close scrutiny that they form a black hole in the public mind. Jim Baker once remarked: "We established the George Who, but we never established the George What." Mike Mansfield, long before Mr. Bush ascended to the presidency, once said: "George has been a lot of things, but what has he done?"

The answer to the Mansfield question is that any president finally gets to do a lot of things. Mr. Bush captured Noriega, kicked Saddam out of Kuwait, signed history's greatest nuclear reduction treaties with Moscow, fed starving Somalians, negotiated a trade treaty with Mexico, facilitated the reunification of Germany. The Cold War ended on his watch. Big stuff. Good stuff.

Alas, he also both rebuffed and prolonged the Reagan legacy, pandered to right-wingers yet never won their trust or respect, added a trillion dollars to the national debt, had little to show other than vetoes in fighting an obstructive Democratic Congress and failed to provide the kind of leadership that would help the nation weather the recession.

Yes, the George Who is pretty well established. He is, in the phrase of one scholar, the quintessential American Tory -- a fellow of the upper class loath to display his wealth or breeding, dedicated to public service, who knows what is right and worthy, who really wanted a "kinder and gentler nation" yet was too aloof, too detached from the common folk, too ambitious and ingratiating and relentless to be the straight arrow he wanted to be.

For, sadly, Mr. Bush is a bit of broken arrow. He came up with Willie Hortonism in one election and "family values" in another. He irresponsibly promised "no new taxes" and then broke his pledge without wrestling the deficit to the ground. He believed in government but only in its minimalist dimensions. He was prone to react, not to create.

So, Mr. Bush leaves office without having established George What. Maybe history will find a theme to this pudding. Maybe his handiwork in feeling his way out of the Cold War world into uncharted turbulence will be recognized as real accomplishment. Soon enough, the bashing will end, the immense power of the presidency will slip to Bill Clinton and Citizen George Bush will begin to adjust. At such a moment, the American people should wish him well.

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