"Thereis a sense of awe at how brilliantly Bush has handled this." Thus spake Newt Gingrich, the House minority whip and a Republican conservative about President Bush's management of the Middle East crisis. Gingrich is not known for understatement nor, for that matter, for uttering non-partisan truths, but this time he is right. Look, these things happen.
History will make the ultimate judgment about Bush. In the meantime many are singing his praises. Having convened the leadership of the House and Senate, about 179 key individuals, Bush simply wowed them. One by one they exited the White House and, like moths to a flame, found themselves drawn to television cameras. The faces above the red ties all said Bush was doing a swell job.
Congress has been wrong before, of course. Any person above what is sometimes called "a certain age" remembers the Tonkin Gulf Resolution through which Lyndon Johnson got the permission of the Senate to carry the war to North Vietnam. Only two senators dissented -- Wayne Morse (D-Ore.) and Ernest Gruening (D-Alaska) -- and they were widely considered to be a bit crazy. Only later, did their colleagues come to appreciate such "insanity."
But now not only Congress finds itself in awed admiration of the president, but much of the nation and, even, leftist intellectuals. I could add a quibble here or a quibble there, but overall I join my countrymen in applauding the president's handling of the Persian Gulf crisis. Stand up and take a bow, Mr. President.
But I admit to some surprise -- and some nervousness. Bush's total mastery of the presidency in this crisis is not something I expected from him. It now seems inconceivable that Newsweek once called him a wimp on its cover or that when he first ran against Michael Dukakis, the election was in some doubt. It's hard -- no, it's impossible -- to think of Dukakis functioning as Bush has. This, after all, has been a foreign policy presidency, one preoccupied with the ending of the Cold War and, now, events in the Middle East. Even Panama -- an invasion and something of a war -- has receded to the blur of mere footnote. Who's this Noriega we once hated with such a passion?
The nervousness? Well, I have two reasons. The first has to do with my distrust of unanimity. That's pretty much what we have at the moment -- some conservatives excepted. I suppose my feeling is a residue of the Vietnam War era, which began in wonderful unanimity but ended in street brawls.
But my second reservation is much more about Bush himself, and it goes like this: imagine Dan Quayle handling the Middle East crisis. I can't -- or, if I can, my mind conjures up debacles and catastrophes of biblical proportions. And yet Quayle is just as much a product of George Bush as the multinational alliance that now faces Saddam Hussein in the Arabian desert. It seems inconceivable that Bush chose as vice president someone who could not really succeed him as president. Among other things, Quayle simply does not have the requisite foreign policy experience -- the very expertise that has so far made the Bush presidency a stunning political success.
Quayle represents not only an inexplicable decision on the part of George Bush, but an American anomaly. For the most part, it's still domestic issues that determine the winner of a presidential election, and yet it's foreign policy that not only can make or break a presidency, but that is unforgiving of mistakes. Only in foreign affairs does the president operate more or less alone (no Federal Reserve making independent policy here), and only in this area can mistakes be quickly fatal to others. And yet Quayle, wholly inexperienced in foreign affairs and not too experienced anywhere else, was chosen by Bush to become (if need be) instant commander in chief.
It could be that the choice of Quayle was something that would not now be repeated. It may have been the snap decision of a not-yet confident politician or, more probably, yet another example of Bush's political opportunism -- in this case picking a conservative to appease the GOP's right wing. Whatever it was, the decision continues to represent a lingering question mark, one that hovers over Bush's judgment like a little rain cloud and casts a shadow over Gingrich's sense of awe.