The President at Half Time

FOR years I used to turn to James Reston's column in the New York Times when I wanted a well-reasoned and always fair analysis of the news. So when the dean of Washington journalists retired not too long ago, I missed his balanced fare. But the other day, ``Scotty'' Reston, as he is known with affection by his many friends, broke out of retirement to write a single column, this one on President Bush. Using a favorite idiom of his - football - Reston sees Bush suffering from avoidable fumbles during the first half of his term of office.

``The odd thing about George Bush is that he plans his fumbles,'' Reston writes. ``He didn't have to promise not to raise taxes in a future he could not possibly foresee or remind the country about his infamous wisecrack by telling the reporters during the budget mess, `read my hips.' They read his flips instead.''

Reston gets even tougher: ``It wasn't enough for him to blockade Iraq and punish Saddam Hussein as `another Hitler,' but he insisted on sending the biggest US Army since the last war into the desert, not wanting to use it, not knowing how to get it out and facing once more the taunts of the armchair warriors, who say he must not only restore the independence of Kuwait but also get rid of Saddam Hussein and the threat of Iraq's Army as well. This is a dangerous situation for a President dropping in the popularity polls and facing both a deficit crisis and a mid-term election.''

Reston concludes, ``In such a pickle a little half-time skull practice wouldn't hurt.''

Fair enough, Mr. Reston. And perceptive, as always.

There have been too many Bush fumbles. But a tendency to fumble can be corrected through adequate hard work.

The president can learn to hang on tighter to the ball and make a conscious effort to stay away from silly stuff and wisecracks. He can seek to bring more consistency to his comments. His aides - who've been contributing to some of the mixed signals of recent months - should help him there.

My expectation that the president will try to improve himself comes from a basic Bush trait: He listens to his critics, reads his newspaper clips, and is always earnest about trying to do his difficult job right.

I have looked down on the playing field too, and I give Mr. Bush higher marks for his performance during the first half of his term than my friend Scotty Reston does. Here are a couple of strenghts that I've noted:

The president's response to Saddam Hussein's aggression against Kuwait was quick and gutsy. He proved himself a superb crisis manager as he worked with the United Nations and with other countries to make sure the Gulf confrontation became Iraq against most of the rest of the world, not Iraq against the US.

Reston writes that ``George Bush is better at the big things than the little things.'' Well, I would contend that history will emphasize the big things and tend to downplay the little things.

Perhaps Bush is heading toward a lengthy stalemate in the Persian Gulf that will turn his military initiative there into a political debacle. But it's much too early to make that judgment. Or perhaps the US is about to become embroiled in another disastrous war, like Vietnam.

But these are all ``ifs.'' To this point, George Bush is still looking very good in his handling of the crisis.

True, on domestic matters the president often has looked like a kickoff returner who dodges uncertainly from one side to the other instead of running up the field. This was particularly true of his dealings with Congress - and with the public - on taxes and deficit reduction. But Bush has been able to keep a record amount of public support behind him despite befuddled tactics. Even the the so-called ``plunge in public confidence'' of the last few days has left him with a very good standing in the polls compared to the same mid-term juncture for past administrations.

Both the president and his wife continue to be generally well liked by the public. Americans applaud their style - their modesty and candor. This is not a small thing. It's there for Mr. Bush to build on. And it's arguable that when the dust settles after the protracted battle over the budget, the president will rise, not sink, in public approval.

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