Out of the West: Grandpa's last hurrah at the White House

WASHINGTON - There was a revealing picture in the New York Times the other day, of Mr Bush and the Republican high command at a fund-raising dinner in Houston. The photographer had caught them off guard, tight-faced and uneasy; and from the not too distant past, another image flashed across my mind - of Gennady Yanayev and his fellow plotters in Moscow last year, nervously proclaiming to the world their squalid and short- lived coup. Not, of course, that Bush and friends contemplate anything along those lines. But like the Soviet 'gang of seven', they seem to know their enterprise is doomed to failure.

A feeling of fin de regime hangs over this city like a pall. According to Time magazine, Marshall Bush, George's six- year-old granddaughter, confided to a classmate that 'Grandpa won't be President much longer'. Last week offered the spectacle of one of King George's most powerful courtiers, Richard Darman, the budget director, getting in a pre-emptive strike at the history books by recounting to the Washington Post his self-serving version of what has passed for economic policymaking over the last four years. Mr Bush always prided himself on running a tight ship. No longer.

In the White House, the mood is similar, that This Could Be It. The President's spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, is the most cheerful and humorous of men. These days he is almost philosophically detached. Mary Matalin, the sharp- tongued political director of the Bush- Quayle campaign, is even more acidic than usual. In the Old Executive Building, the desk-top computers may still be clicking away, but CVs, not policy papers, are the order of the hour. It's not quite sauve qui peut, but almost.

Last week there was the traditional end-of-session reception at the White House, giving Republican congressmen a final chance to be pictured with their President before heading back to fight their own re-election campaigns. This time only two dozen bothered to accept Mr Bush's invitation. The White House press corps too is getting uppity. A week or two ago reporters were suffering that perennial indignity of being shoved around by security men before a routine photo-op. Someone's patience snapped, and a shout rang out: 'There won't be any more of this when Clinton's here.'

At first, everyone thought the return of canny Jim Baker would do the trick. Not so. Then the recollection of John Major's victory briefly cheered downcast souls, and sundry men from Central Office flew over to explain how to get a conservative candidate elected for a fourth time in a row. That didn't work either.

Next, hopes abruptly soared amid the fuss over Mr Clinton's anti-Vietnam War activities, and the rumours of tampering with his passport file at the State Department. Did he seek Swedish nationality, or even British? In fact, didn't someone say they'd heard Prince Charles had handed the Clinton application to George Bush? In short, the 'October surprise', a veritable smoking howitzer to blast their opponent to smithereens. But last week the FBI said it had found no evidence of tampering.

And so the melancholy struggle goes on, its every function resembling a last hurrah. Take for example the Houston fund-raiser, beamed to seven cities by satellite. The star attractions were the 89- year-old Bob Hope telling jokes about playing golf with the 79-year-old Gerry Ford, not to mention that other former President, the 81-year-old Ronald Reagan, tickling memories of triumphs past. Even the exhortations of the youthful Arnold Schwarzenegger to 'Vote for George Bush, I'll take it as a personal favour', couldn't shake the unspoken dread that a generational changing of the guard is written in the stars.

Theoretically at least, this city's depressed property market should be delighted at the prospect. But hopes are not high. 'It's far better when the Republicans come to town; they have more money,' explained a friend who is in the business. 'I remember when Jimmy Carter's crowd arrived from Georgia, they were so shocked by the prices they had to team up to rent apartments. Arkansas is so poor that if Clinton brings up his own people, it'll be worse still.'

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