George Bush's dilemma

HISTORY doesn't help George Bush much in knowing how to put his Dan Quayle problem behind him. The newly selected No. 2 to presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, made an impassioned speech that caused the voters to rally behind him after the ``Nixon fund'' was disclosed.

But George McGovern's first selection as a running mate, Thomas Eagleton, was never able to overcome the public doubts raised about his mental health.

Mr. Nixon stayed on the ticket and the furor over the fund quickly faded, particularly after it was revealed that there was also an ``Adlai Stevenson fund'' that had secretly provided contributions to the Democratic presidential candidate when he had been governor of Illinois.

Mr. Eagleton was dropped, but only after Mr. McGovern had let the problem linger long enough that it was impossible to shore up the ticket with the perfectly good substitute, Sargent Shriver.

So on the question that must be on Mr. Bush's mind - to keep Mr. Quayle on the ticket or not - the past offers no clear guidance.

Actually, Quayle's speech to the convention, with its themes of patriotism and love of home and family, had a ring to it of Nixon's ``Checkers'' speech. And a lot of Republicans thought Quayle did a good job. But his speech failed to quiet the storm around his elevation as Bush's running mate.

The question that just won't go away is simply this: Why would a young patriot who approved of the Vietnam war (and who today is viewed as a hawk on military matters) use family influence to be admitted to a National Guard unit which he knew would probably not see combat? His timing of that decision also reflects badly on him: He was about to be drafted.

Nixon saved his hide by focusing on his own financial situation - obviously convincing much of the public that he lived in a most modest fashion (remember Pat's ``cloth coat''?) and therefore couldn't possibly have personally benefited from the private contributions. Thus, he was somehow able to brush aside the implications that as a member of Congress he had been providing a legislative quid pro quo to these contributors.

But Quayle was unable to pull off a Nixon. He spoke glowingly of the vital importance of the National Guard, but no one is arguing with that. Then he tried to convince people that the attack on him was really an attack on the National Guard. This didn't wash. Questions continue to dog him - and Mr. Bush. Now a new-old device is being used to push the black clouds away: The nasty press is being blamed for making something bad out of something trivial.

Polls always show that most Americans don't think much of the credibility of the press. Thus, there always seems to be an automatic receptivity to the suggestion that the press is the real culprit in a negative political story.

Indeed, a lot of people always thought the press ``got'' Nixon back in the Watergate days. They ignored the ``smoking gun''; they ignored what their hero, Barry Goldwater, said about Nixon's involvement; and they ignored all the other clear evidence of illegal practices in the Nixon White House.

So once again the messenger is blamed for the message. And while it may be working in places like Huntington, Ind., this blame-the-press device is not clearing the air.

So Bush is faced with a dilemma. He must be heartsick to have delivered a stupendous speech at the convention - scored a perfect ``10'' with many critics - and then to have the effect of this great performance diminished by the Quayle controversy.

Actually, it isn't the flap over military service that is at the bottom of Bush's ``Quayle problem,'' but rather the feeling of many people that Bush exercised poor judgment in choosing Quayle.

Quayle may remain on this GOP ticket and make Bush look good. One must say that. After all, Quayle is an energetic, personable fellow with an attractive family. And he has shown that he is a very able vote-getter.

But a lot of Republicans are wondering whether Bush has chosen someone demonstrably of the caliber to serve as president, if need be. I walked around the corridors of the Hilton Hotel in New Orleans right after Bush made his surprise announcement that Quayle would be at his side in this campaign. I also rode several crowded elevators. I listened carefully to the spontaneous response from the delegates, some from Ohio, some from Pennsylvania, some from Illinois. They were bravely proclaiming support. But they all seemed stunned.

I then talked to a number of these delegates privately. Again I heard loyalty. But I also heard some of them saying, or implying, that they wondered whether Quayle would have enough experience to convince the voters that he was truly someone of presidential stature.

That's really Quayle's problem - and Bush's, too. The vice-president's judgment in picking Quayle is what is being questioned now. If Bush dumps Quayle, he will be admitting his poor judgment. If he sticks with Quayle, his running mate will, somehow, have to vindicate this judgment. This vindication could happen. But it is understandable why a growing number of Republican leaders are expressing their worry that it may not.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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