Last Year a Hero, This Year in Trouble

A YEAR ago the Gridiron Club's annual spring show was more of a celebration than a roast. Guests entering the banquet hall gasped at the huge blanket of yellow roses behind the speaker's table. Victory was in the air.

The Gulf war had just ended and the audience was eager to laugh and to cheer as the chorus almost shouted out the opening song that hailed the feats of Generals Schwarzkopf and Powell to the tune of "Alexander's Ragtime Band:" "Come on along, come on along, and give a cheer for Desert Storm...."

It was an exultant President Bush who spoke that evening. He obviously was feeling good about the world, the nation, and himself. And he was very funny.

I was reminded of this by an account of the President's appearance recently at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner that described a somber setting where Bush's jokes fell flat. Of this banquet, held shortly after the Los Angeles riots had ended, the Washington Post's Dana Thomas wrote:

"There was an unsettling vibe in the immense ballroom. The kind of vibe you feel when someone at a party has a problem and everyone wants to act as though he doesn't. George Bush was that someone. And he knew it."

As Thomas aptly put it: "What a difference a year makes."

In that euphoria following the Gulf war, no one in his right mind would have predicted that Bush could be beaten in 1992. He was setting a record for his high public-approval rating. He even was making some headway in attracting black voters. There was no hint that a big city could be erupting fairly soon and that the urban unrest was latent all across the country.

At that Gridiron time Bush was still saying publicly that the recession would not bite deeply and would soon be over. That's what his top economic advisors were telling him. Also he seemed to think that by speaking optimistically he could help to arrest the economic dip.

But the recession, after seeming to lift a bit, took a turn downward again. This full-fledged recession, hanging on month after month, caused Bush's popularity to flag.

By summer of 1991 the Democratic National Chairman, Ron Brown, was emboldened to express confidence that the recession-laden Bush could be defeated. But the so-called best and brightest among possible Democratic contenders were not ready to see Bush as vulnerable. Their reference point was Bush and his Gulf war. They didn't want any part of that fellow.

Democratic political stars like Mario Cuomo, Bill Bradley, Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, George Mitchell, and Lloyd Bentsen kept dragging their feet. By the time it was apparent that the recession was, indeed, making a political mortal out of Bush, it was too late for them to get into the race.

But Bush showed his new vulnerability by letting a political newcomer, Pat Buchanan, embarrass him in the New Hampshire primary. Additionally, polling of Republican voters in primary after primary disclosed deep dissatisfaction among those who had voted for him in 1988.

And now along comes the Los Angeles riots and further national discontent - much of it directed at the president. A New York Times poll shows that most Americans say it is time for a new emphasis on the problems of minorities and the cities.

The poll provided some general guidance: "Majorities of both whites and blacks said that investing in jobs and job training programs was a better way of preventing future turmoil than strengthening the police forces."

So it is that the public that seemed more than happy with the president about a year ago now is unhappy and wants him to move in all sorts of directions all at the same time: Send billions to help stabilize what was the Soviet Union, provide help for the people in troubled cities, do something to stimulate the economy, improve health care, lower the budget deficit.

How does he do all these things, and with so little money available? That's Bush's problem today - only a breath away from when this president was a conquering, unbeatable national hero.

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