VICE PRESIDENT Bush has not done much to define himself in this first week of his "unleashed tiger" candidacy. He made a soggy defense of crying in public on the "20/20" show with Barbara Walters. "Pat Schroeder got a bum rap," he said compassionately. Then he 'fessed up to welling up at a children's hospital in Poland -- at one stroke bidding for the weeping-male vote and appeasing Polish-American autoworkers who are still sulking over his swipe at Detroit mechanics.
Days later, flashing his "Rambo" side, he told the Atlanta Constitution that he wanted to "kick the hell" out of Garry Trudeau, the cartoonist who portrays him as a hopeless chump.
It's a rather blurred picture. But it's better than his attempt at defining his constituency, something he did in a Michigan interview. He was trying to explain why he had come in third in a recent Iowa straw poll, behind Pat Robertson and Bob Dole.
"A lot of people that support me -- they were off at the air show, they were off at their daughter's coming-out party, or they were off teeing up on the golf course for that all-important last round, or they were turning up at a high school reunion."
Coming-out party in Iowa? Iowa's farmers have been flat on their backs for the last several years. There was a lot more going-out than coming-out. The foreclosures are down, but they still occur. Many people think of Iowans as high-minded, wholesome people whofrequent 4-H Club conventions more than country clubs.
Almost everyone thinks of the debutante cotillion as a thing of the past. The Sixties, which were so hard on so many traditional values, totaled the ancient WASP mating-dance. Young women, some from the finest families, were wearing dirty jeans and making molotov cocktails instead of drinking martinis, and shouting obscenties at policemen in anti-war demonstrations.
But Bush has always lived in the world of Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald, a world where when Muffie or Buffie turned 18, Dad got out the white tie and Mummy called the caterers, and they dutifully did the whole nine yards, the white gloves, the curtsies, the corsages, the stag line -- and the sweat.
Rep. Tom Tauke (R-Iowa), who has endorsed Bush, said that while Iowans do go to air shows, golf courses and high-school reunions, he himself had never heard of a coming-out party.
"I may not just be hanging out with the right people," he said wistfully.
Another Iowa congressional supporter, Rep. Jim Leach, said of the Bush sally that while it might be "regrettable ideologically", he firmly believes that Bush was being "jestful".
"We don't have an airshow in Iowa," he said. When told that Tauke accepted the airshow, he said, "Well, they have balloon shows and flying farmers, but I thought he was referring to the Paris air show."
The two congressmen believe that Bush's problem in Iowa is not related to the country-club image, because they say he does well with the people. It's his association with Ronald Reagan that causes the malaise. Reagan is not popular in a state which has seen nothing of the economic miracle the president boasts of.
Says Tauke, "The president's views on defense and foreign policy are not appreciated. None of the four Republican congressmen mention him in their speeches."
Bush may have given away more than he intended by explaining where his followers were when they should have been camped out at the Iowa banquet where the straw poll was held. In politics, faintheartedness is lethal. George, ever the gracious gentleman, was being understanding or facetious, but he revealed the weakness of his campaign.
The people who are for him have better things to do than advance his chances. The definition of a partisan is someone who will go through a wall for the candidate. Bush's well-bred troops are for him because he's a frontrunner, an establishment figure, a nice man and "experienced." They would not be guilty of the kind of vulgar devotion that means sleeping on a sidewalk to be sure of a place at the table. That's what the Robertson people did. Dole has a built-in regional appeal that causes acute sleeplessness in the Bush camp.
The late-night television comics will be sent into fresh ecstacies over the "coming-out party."
The "unleashed tiger", wearing white tie and tails, sitting in the country-club lounge, is yet to come out. Maybe it's not as bad as Reagan with his "killer trees." The difference is that Reagan's people would go out and chop down an oak just to show they believed. The Bush folk can only wince.
Charles McDowell of the Richmond Times-Dispatch says that candidates can survive their own silliness if they get it out of the way early. George Bush is putting the theory to its severest test.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.