Bush Presided Over Era That Is Suddenly History

THE man who presided over the end of the cold war and the collapse of communism was, for more than two years, the most popular president in the history of polling.

Now George Bush will finish out his term in history's dubious pantheon of defeated one-term presidents - with William Taft, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter.

There were missed opportunities and bad breaks along the way. The last minor blow was the new evidence Friday challenging Mr. Bush's account of the Iran-contra deal that apparently stalled out his final week of momentum.

Up to that point, says conservative analyst Jeffrey Bell, "I think they still had a shot."

But the Bush presidency had more-fundamental problems.

After nearly four years, at the end of his campaign, barely half the American public knew that Bush even had an economic plan, acknowledged his campaign co-chairman Robert Teeter in the days before the election.

Bush will not be recorded in history as a president of plans and visions. Historians of the presidency describe him instead as a man whose strength has been in handling problems as they arose.

"In international areas, he turned out more than competent performances," says Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University scholar of the presidency.

But Bush's lopsided concern for foreign affairs over domestic business surpasses that of any other modern president, Professor Greenstein says.

When Bush took office, his strengths and his disposition were a match for the times. The American economy was cruising along comfortably, demanding little attention. The drama was abroad in the massive stirrings in communist Europe.

The former Navy pilot, shot down over the Pacific in World War II, was guided above all by the desire to prevent the world from erupting into a major war again. His means were a vigorous personal diplomacy; he built trust among world leaders. His watchword was prudence. His concern was stability while a communist empire imploded.

Some count this as his greatest success: Bush helped assure that the collapse of communism did not blow up into a larger crisis. The irony is that he succeeded too well. "His greatest success worked against him in a peculiar way," says University of Virginia political scientist James Ceaser.

The Soviet threat had hung heavily over presidential elections since the end of World War II. This year's election is the first in which international affairs appear to have mattered very little, Professor Ceaser notes.

THE achievement most closely associated with Bush is the Gulf war. The spectacular technical and political success of that war, which sent Bush's approval ratings to unprecedented levels - above 90 percent - served to paper over the coming fall.

All presidents suffer in public esteem during recessions. Bush also knew that he would pay a political price for the 1990 budget deal with Congress that broke his no-new-taxes pledge. But the world had changed.

The economy was not just in a slow cycle, it was buried in public and private debt. Wages had stagnated for nearly two decades, building frustration and insecurity. The sluggishness lingered quarter after quarter and lingers still. The public seemed to cry out for action, for direction, for a sign of understanding and response from the government.

In the Gulf war, Bush had proven himself at what for almost half a century had been the most honored role of the president: commander in chief in wartime. Yet it was barely an issue in the election. "His virtues are the virtues of another generation," says Ceaser, "and they're less important now."

Bush never conveyed a clear and consistent plan to set the economy right. Robert Dallek, a historian at the University of California at Los Angeles, says Bush's problem is that he notoriously lacks vision, charisma, and even pragmatism - in that he had no clearly defined ends.

Greenstein avoids mention of the "vision thing" cliche, but notes that "the absence of conceptualization is very striking."

Bush's strengths are tactical, not strategic, and he tends to surround himself with people who exacerbate that trait. Only in September did Bush finally deliver a speech that fully explained the White House view of what was wrong with the economy and how it needed to be fixed.

"His strength and weakness were both the same thing: he handled discrete problems as they emerged," says Ceaser. When the electorate seemed to want grand strategy on the economy, he says, Bush's skills "weren't suited to that."

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