George Bush is campaigning on his record of leadership as vice president, but in 1984 Bush dropped the ball when President Reagan entrusted him to take the lead on a key issue -- Japanese trade. Bush backed off, saying the issue was a "political loser," and that his staff was not competent to handle it.

The story is one of several told to Dale Van Atta by high-level administration sources that suggest Bush was not always a mover or shaker in the White House. Whenever someone in the administration said, "Let George do it," they were probably talking about Secretary of State George P. Shultz.

In the case of the Japanese trade assignment, it was finally Shultz who picked up and carried the ball when Bush backed out.

In 1984, Reagan was grappling with U.S.-Japan trade relations. The Japanese trade surplus with the United States was estimated at about $35 billion, and the administration was demanding concessions to allow more U.S. goods to be sold in Japan. The Japanese were blaming the deficit on the low quality and high price of American goods.

"We were trying to come up with a high-level push to demonstrate to the Congress and to the Japanese that we were serious about making concrete progress on the U.S.-Japanese economic front," one of Reagan's top economic advisers recalled. "It was felt that to best accomplish that task, you obviously had to put the highest level official you can come up with in charge of the exercise so that it sends the signal that you think it is important."

Reagan and his advisers came up with Bush. "It was thought that the vice president would be the {one} to undertake the management of that issue," the administration source said.

He and other sources recall that the vice president and his staff -- principally Bush's national security adviser Donald Gregg -- had about four to six months with the issue, but accomplished little.

"It was a very complex assignment," one source said. "It required some resources, and you had to take it quite seriously, because we were trying to measure the progress of the trade and economic issues."

Then came the memorable meeting when Bush washed his hands of the issue. It was a regularly scheduled meeting of the Senior Interdepartmental Group for International Economic Policy.

At the meeting were representatives from the Office of Management and Budget, the Treasury, State and Commerce departments, the National Security Council and the Pentagon. One of the things that made it unusual was that Bush was there. He was not a frequent attendee.

We questioned three different sources who were at the meeting, and they offered similar accounts.

The first source said Bush announced that "he had determined his staff was not competent to deal with this issue professionally." The source distinctly recalled, after reviewing his notes, that the vice president called the Japan trade issue "a political loser."