BURLINGTON, MASS. -- NO POLITICS, please, he's president.
The leader of the Republican Party touched down briefly in Burlington, a small town north of Boston, and pretended he didn't know where he was: He never noted the fact that it was the home state of his 1988 rival, nor did he mention Michael Dukakis by name.
How much he helped local candidates will be known on Tuesday. But he certainly helped to advance the hope of peace in the Middle East, or at least to quiet war fears he greatly raised last week when he pronounced himself "fed up" with Saddam Hussein.
That was on Wednesday. But he couldn't go careening around the countryside pumping for Republican candidates if he is about to start a war, so he laid down his sword and desert shield and talked of "desperately wanting to find a peaceful solution to this problem." He will never compromise on his fundamental moral demands on Saddam Hussein, of course. But he sounded dovish, and mothers of boys and girls in Saudi Arabia may want to pray that even when the election is over, excuses may be found to keep him out of Washington and the Situation Room, a notorious breeding-ground of dark thoughts.
At the Marriott Hotel on Route 128, the heart of the former "Massachusetts Miracle," the president also took another look at a domestic question and found that compromise had worked rather well, on the whole. Previously, he had damned and blasted the budget agreement as the work of Democrats and the devil and claimed that parts of it had made him "gag."
But he bade his audience of some 600 Republicans, who had paid $1,000 apiece to eat breakfast standing up, to see the virtues in the budget. He told them also to "celebrate" the Clean Air Act.
Bush closed with a get-out-the-vote appeal, which visibly disappointed the office-seekers in his immediate vicinity. Massachusetts is a Democratic state, and the Republican standard-bearer, Bill Weld, is increasingly beleaguered in his struggle against a right-wing, holy-terror Democrat named John Silber. The high-minded, nonpartisan approach was admirable, of course, but they had hoped for just a morsel of the red meat which, they know from the 1988 campaign, their distinguished guest can dish out with the best of them.
Paul Cilucci, the attractive young candidate for lieutenant governor, gently reminded Bush that the business of the breakfast was -- in spite of the awe-inspiring excursion through the mind of the commander-in-chief -- politics. If the voters of Massachusetts had a chance to make their presidential choice again, between George Bush and Michael Dukakis, Cilucci cried, "they would vote for George Bush overwhelmingly."
There was a confirming cheer from the floor. The unpopularity of Michael Dukakis who, it is hard to remember, is still governor is a pervasive and unifying theme in Massachusetts public life. It is the reason why Bush feared no recurrence of slights and snubs he encountered elsewhere in New England. The locals, in this era of Bush's sinking polls, cannot fault someone who beat Dukakis. The mention of Dukakis's name guarantees booing. Republicans strain to run against him, but Democrats have indulged in preemptory excoriation. Silber is picking up Republicans with his anti-Dukakis tirades.
"Dukakis's ratings are worse than Noriega's," says Marjorie Clapprood, the blithe blonde Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.
Being from Brookline, Dukakis's home town, she is tarred with the Dukakis brush. She retorts that she voted against the budget that Dukakis submitted to the legislature just before he went to the Democratic convention and the nomination.
Janet O'Brien, who is running for the legislature in Hanover, is being hammered by her Republican opponent for having given Dukakis a fund-raiser nine years ago. Apparently the statute of limitations will never run out on a governor who is suspected of lying to his people about the true state of Massachusetts's finances in order to run for the presidency.
Bush steadfastly refused, however, to tap into this rich vein of venom. White House speechwriters told Bay State supplicants who hoped for a partisan rouser that the president did not wish to appear "nasty and personal."
"At least he could have mentioned Silber," said a wistful Weld operative. "He could have told these people who the real Republican conservative is."
But Bush has his own interests to consider. He is, after all, campaigning too -- for a comeback in the polls. He is simply using Dukakis again; this time the hapless governor is serving as a prop to show the president's magnanimity.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.