Vision: that's the all-important ingredient the public wants from its presidents. Remember when Ted Kennedy flunked the vision test when Roger Mudd asked him what he would do if he became president? (He was stumped.) And now the high-flying George W. Bush isn't doing much better when he's asked where he would take this country.
What, indeed, does "compassionate conservative" mean? Mr. Bush says it means what it says, that he'll be a conservative who will apply conservative doctrines and approaches - like balancing the budget, tax cutting, etc. - in compassionate ways. But what in the world does that add up to?
George W. could easily find his way out of this problem by referring to what his father said on "Meet the Press" back in 1979 when he was taking on - and eventually losing to - Ronald Reagan in a race for the presidency.
I was a panel member that morning and my question to the elder Bush - who at age 54 had been a member of Congress, head of the Republican Party, US ambassador to the UN, and director of the CIA - was this:
"Mr. Bush, someone has said that people should vote for a candidate who really wants to do something, not somebody who merely wants to be something or somebody. Now, what do you think you could do in four years as president, something that could really make a difference in American life?"
And George Bush's answer:
"I'd like to do two things. I'd like to reawaken our sense of pride in ourselves as it applies to our relationships abroad. People abroad are looking at us wondering, 'Does the United States want to lead the free world anymore?'"
As I think back on that statement I'm reminded that Bush did a lot to restore national pride during the Gulf War.
Bush then continued with his answer to me: "And, secondly, I want to demonstrate, and help the young people in this country demonstrate, given our strengths, that we can cope and solve problems, particularly our domestic economy. And once we solve these problems, I believe we can offer a better life to everybody in this country. So I am motivated by that.
"And lastly, if I could be personal, I want to reawaken a sense of pride by putting stars in the eyes of the kids in this country. I believe a man can make a difference, you see."
Did Bush, when he eventually became president, fulfill these promises? Partly, but not all. Critics say he could have done more to bolster the economy. But no one says that the elder Bush didn't have a clear vision of where he wanted to go and where he wanted to take America.
Here the NBC panel host, Bill Monroe, followed up with this question of Bush: "What hard choices are facing the American people?"
Bush: "Well, sometimes you have a hard choice on unemployment versus breaking the back of inflation, for example. So you have to make a hard choice. Mine would be to be compassionate, work to see that those that are thrown out of work are given support. But bust the back of inflation, and that means get control of government spending."
So that's where the "compassionate conservative" idea came from - from Dad Bush!
I think it would be useful for George W. to review his father's full response to the "vision" question. I'm not saying he should copy the answer - far from it! But he should see that his father knew very early on what he wanted to do if he became president and was ready and probably eager to spell out the details of his plans.
And this knowledge of what his dad was ready and able to do, very early in the 1997 presidential campaign, should prod the son to very carefully think through what he has in mind for all of us if he makes it to the White House next year.
He'd better do this! He's going to get that "vision" question again and again. And I suggest that if he flunks vision he'll fall short of making it to his goal.