An Upbeat President, Ready to `Fight Back'

SEVERAL private minutes with the president does not a full-blown interview make. But it was long enough for me to see a George Bush who wasn't letting the bad news about the state of his presidency and his reelection campaign get him down.

Of his determination to stay in office he said, "They haven't seen anything yet!" He was bubbly and bouncy - looking like a million dollars. He reminded me of how four years ago he was way behind Michael Dukakis and what happened in the fall. He said how physically fit he was - running two miles every day - and "how great" he felt. My own conclusion after leaving this display of presidential confidence: Don't count George Bush out.

Mr. Bush might have moaned a bit. But he was in a particularly good mood. He even laughed when he said he had received a few "unkind" questions, "such as, `Why is it that so many people out there hate you these days?' "

In his long life in politics Bush has shown a rare ability to get whacked around and even go to the mat at times and still get up, fight again, and win. That long record of ups and downs and then ups again probably is what sustains that sunny view of his future - despite the dark clouds overhead.

That very morning (actually it was a noon get-together that had more to do with my wife and me celebrating our golden wedding anniversary than with plumbing the president's political future) had brought the president news of further plummeting in voter favor. A highly regarded poll was showing that only 34 percent of the public approved of the way the president was doing his job, down from 39 percent in early May. Seventy-eight percent disapproved of the way he was handling the economy, and he appeared t o be in a virtual tie with Ross Perot in either a two- or three-way race.

But the conversation inevitably focused on politics. The president's message, again and again: He's going to fight back. He said he had noted Richard Nixon's advice to shorten the campaign this year - to wait until Labor Day to launch his intensive effort on the hustings. He indicated that he was thinking this over.

We got to talking about that "battling" speech he had given at the 1988 Republican convention and how this had been the beginning of his come-from-behind victory over Dukakis. That was the so-called "thousand points of light" speech that showed Bush in fighting form and touched on themes that caused millions of voters to return to his side.

The president said, modestly, that "I'm not much of a speaker" but that he expected to make "something" out of his convention speech in Houston. My impression was that he would begin to ring bells and bang heads around in that address - and would be tirelessly carrying the fight to his opponents from then on.

Right now, Bush doesn't know whether his fall target will be both Perot and Clinton or just Clinton. He didn't conjecture about this. But he did voice deep dissatisfaction with what he sees as a Democratically-controlled Congress that has let the nation down by failing to put through his programs, particularly the balance-the-budget amendment legislation. He intends to make Congress out to be the enemy, much as Harry Truman did back in 1948.

I had just come from a Monitor breakfast where House Speaker Tom Foley had been our guest and where he had said that he "could not rule out" the possibility of Bush winning. He said that "an incumbent president does have an advantage." I relayed this information to the president, who smiled and then spoke of his high regard for a man who often is opposing him on important issues: "We have long been good friends," he said. He agreed that there was simply no mean-spiritedness in Mr. Foley.

The president asked if I had seen the story about Perot's investigations in the 1980s into Bush's business affairs and record as vice president. His smile and agreeableness faded. He said he didn't like this "spying" into him and his life. If this Perot story was true, he said, he would "fight back."

But mostly the president was upbeat. He shook hands and patted backs with vigor and warmth. He said he was "only three years away from Barbara's and my 50th." Fellow journalists had told him about our special day, and he said he was delighted to express his congratulations and best wishes firsthand. Needless to say, so were we.

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