Profile: Don't mention the war: Saddam lives, Quayle can't spell. Patrick Cockburn on George Bush, a President with problems

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The Independent Online
What is the difference between George Bush and John Gotti, the recently jailed New York Mafia chief? The answer, wrote George Will, the influential conservative columnnist last week, is that Gotti has at least one conviction. Will went on to say that George Bush, not Dan Quayle, should withdraw from the Republican ticket.

It has been a bad 10 days for President Bush, with fresh setbacks and past victories turning sour. He had gathered his senior advisers at Camp David to discuss what measures could be taken against a newly resurgent Saddam Hussein. The answer was, for the moment, nothing much. Having garnered popular support for Desert Storm by demonising Saddam, Bush and his advisers were faced with the problem that anything less than his extinction would be seen as a defeat.

Inability to switch the emphasis of his campaign to foreign affairs came as the domestic news continued to be bad. Bill Clinton and Al Gore, the Democratic candidates, maintained the momentum they had built up during the Convention in New York. Above all, hopes of an economic recovery faded as industrial production, housing starts and car sales fell and unemployment rose.

At a meeting with the families of American soldiers missing in action in Vietnam, Bush responded to concerted heckling by saying: 'Would you please shut up and sit down.' By way of contrast, Clinton, addressing a similarly rowdy meeting a few days later, silenced anti-abortion barrackers by saying he would conclude his speech, but they were welcome to his microphone to have their say when he was finished.

By the end of the week Bush had to cancel his holiday in Maine and begin campaigning hard in Orange County, the traditional California bastion of the Republican right where Clinton, having inherited much of Ross Perot's support, is well ahead in the polls.

TALK of a Bush in terminal decline may prove, as it has on past occasions, premature. But there is no doubt that the end of the Cold War has transformed the political landscape with which he was most familiar, as American ambassador to the UN, ambassador to China, director of the CIA, vice- president and president. His 20 years' experience is suddenly seen by many as irrelevant to their daily problems.

And all this is happening when the economic chickens of the Reagan era are coming home to roost. The majority of American families saw their real incomes decline in the Eighties. The sustained economic boom from 1983 to 1988, which enabled Americans to forgive much of the weirdness of Ronald Reagan's presidency, is over, leading to a more venomous popular reaction to errors made by his successor.

A further sign of the decline of Reaganism is the derision which invariably greets Dan Quayle and speculation about his being dropped from the ticket. A senior Republican last week took a full-page advertisement asking him to step down for the good of the party. Never a figure to inspire respect, the sight of Quayle failing to spell 'potato' is likely to be the longest remembered incident of the 1992 campaign.

There is more than a touch of hypocrisy in the criticism of Bush by Republican rightwingers such as George Will, blaming him for impending defeat when his critical weakness - the state of the economy - is a legacy of Reagan's years in power. But the jibe about Bush's lack of conviction has more substance, less as a criticism of his lack of moral principle than as a perception of his permanently ambiguous political stance whereby he has always accommodated himself to the right of the republican party without quite belonging to it. The result is a vacuousness, both real and intentional, about Bush's views. Even his famous capacity for speaking inexplicable waffle is in part attributable to his desire to blur just where he stands.

There is, nevertheless, a certain justice in Bush's dilemma. He became the Republican presidential candidate in 1988 by posing as the guardian of the Reagan legacy, committing himself not to raise taxes. Four years later he looks as if he may become the victim of the convictions of the Republican right.

Bush's career and personality have always been in a state of tension between his east coast establishment background and his political base in Texas. Immediately after the Second World War, in which he served as a navy pilot, Bush went to Yale, where his achievements showed social and sporting prowess rather than intellectual bent. This appears to be a continuing trait. A recent weekend guest to Bush's holiday home at Kennebunkport in Maine, who suffered from insomnia, said the only volume he could find with which to read himself to sleep was a volume called The Fart Book. This may slightly understate Bush's intellectual interests, because he does read political biographies. Nevertheless, his lack of verbal dexterity must reflect some form of mental confusion, though sometimes accidently achieving an almost poetic intensity. In 1988, defending his choice of Quayle as vice- presidential candidate, he said: 'My running mate took the lead, was the author, of the Job Training Partnership Act. Now, because of a lot of smoke and frenzying of bluefish out there, going after a drop of blood in the water, nobody knows that.'

After Yale, Bush moved to Texas, which brought him into contact with the American right. In contrast to his father, Prescott, who as a Senator refused to have any truck with McCarthyism and ultimately opposed the Vietnam war, Bush moved sharply to the right. In a sense he had no choice; Texas Republicanism had no moderate component and only became of importance when Barry Goldwater stood for the presidency in 1964.

Almost by accident Bush could not have chosen a better political base. Goldwater's success in the South showed that the Democratic control of the region had fallen apart as white voters reacted against civil rights for blacks. Garry Wills, the political historian, writes: 'Building on that base, Nixon would win in 1968 and 1972, Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and Bush himself in 1988. Bush had, without quite realising it, been in at the creation of the new Republican dominance, the product of the 1964 Goldwater campaign. His fate was tied to it now, despite intermittent fits of resistance.'

After being swamped by Reagan in the 1980 presidential primaries, Bush accommodated himself to Reaganite positions. In 1970 he stated clearly: 'I, personally, feel that women should have the freedom to choose or not choose abortion.' By the Eighties this stand had been abandoned. Rewarded with the vice-presidency, he spent the 1984 election endlessly repeating Reagan's catchphrase: 'America Is Back'. Four years later his loyalty was grudgingly rewarded with Reagan's support for the Republican nomination.

Decades of political trimming make Bush's record look more contemptible than in fact it was. His efforts to sound demotic are also embarrassing. 'When I need a little free advice about Saddam Hussein, I turn to country music,' he said before the Gulf war. In another ludicrous attempt to strike the popular note while campaigning in New Hampshire, he quoted lyrics from a group called the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but mangled the name into the 'Nitty Ditty Nitty Gritty Great Bird'.

YET BUSH's record shows that his opponents, foreign and domestic have tended to underestimate him. In 1988 he launched a campaign of extraordinary venom against Michael Dukakis. Not himself a racist, he allowed the use of the Willie Horton advertisements, a scarcely masked appeal to racial prejudice that featured a black man released from prison. The campaign claimed the Democrats were soft on law and order.

But in the Gulf crisis Bush also showed that he was a fine judge of a political situation, carefully cultivating support for the war at home and abroad. In the aftermath of the reconquest of Kuwait with minimum allied casualties, in such marked contrast to Vietnam, Bush might have supposed he would be re-elected for a second term without difficulty. If so, he was not alone. With few exceptions, the most prominent Democratic leaders decided to stay at home. It was only as Pat Buchanan, from the far right, and Ross Perot entered the reckoning that the scale of discontent became evident.

Bush had forgotten, as did Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, that a successful war leader cannot take his electoral rewards for granted. Worse, as the US economy faltered and then failed to recover, he had no idea what to do. Unfettered capitalism was neither popular nor capable of delivering the goods. The administration looked and sounded out of touch with the preoccupations of most Americans.

As Kevin Philips, the political commentator, wrote: 'The America Bush truly represented was that of old multi- generational wealth - of trust funds, third generation summer cottages on Fisher's Island and grandfathers with Dillon Read or Brown Brothers Harriman (Wall Street bankers) - which accepted the economic policy of the Reagan era despite its distaste for its arriviste values.' The secretaries of state, treasury and commerce - James Baker, Nicholas Brady and Robert Mosbacher - have a joint net worth of about dollars 250m ( pounds 133m).

Bush's most serious problem is that the economic policy of the Reagan era has come unstuck. In the critical state of California, he trails by 34 per cent. Voters favour Democrats over Republicans to look after the economy.

In the past Bush has been good at fighting back, effectively and ruthlessly. His will to retain the presidency may have been sapped by illness and the medication for his thyroid complaint. But his track record is that he has an unrelenting desire to hold power - even though he often appears unclear what he wants to do with it.