Yes, as president, he was too often the tireless tribune of the Deserving Rich. It is true that his guiding premise seemed to be that Well-Off Uncle Oscar always knows better. But at Christmastime of 1990, when his handpicked successor insists on personalizing a war that looks more likely each day, I really miss the Gipper.
Most of all what Ronald Reagan had and what George Bush seems short of is a personal sense of emotional security. No threat to Winston Churchill, Bush complains of Iraqi aggression "I've had it." Then the president tells a congressional delegation to the White House what Saddam Hussein could expect should hostilities break out: "He's going to get his ass kicked." Ronald Reagan, whose political adversaries called him a warmonger, never felt the need to employ such swaggering rhetoric.
When it comes to bluster and bluff, George Bush is a recidivist. Recall, if you will, the 1984 vice-presidential debate in Philadelphia between Bush and Rep. Geraldine Ferraro. Or, more precisely, recall the next day when in the virile company of New Jersey longshoremen, Bush critiqued his own debate performance: "We tried to kick a little ass last night."
What was contrived, strained and unnatural in a political candidate in 1984 is all of that and also terrifying in a president in 1990.
Upon returning from the Persian Gulf, two emphatically moderate Democratic senators, Bob Graham of Florida and Richard Shelby of Alabama, separately spoke of how Saddam Hussein had "captured the imagination of the Arab masses."
Upon his return from the same trip, Maine Democrat George Mitchell, the Senate majority leader, spoke as well of the "complexity" of a situation in which Saddam Hussein has stated that in the event war breaks out, his "three principal targets" will be "American forces, the Saudi Arabian oil fields, and Israel." If Israel is attacked, Mitchell goes on, then Israel could be expected to launch "massive air strikes on Iraq. That," according to Mitchell, "could draw Jordan into the conflict in opposition to Israel" and quite conceivably under such circumstances "Syria will join Jordan in fighting against Israel." That would mean a quick and complete goodbye to any grand coalition.
The case for giving sanctions more time and a bigger chance is regularly made by American generals who know firsthand the agony of combat. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. commander in the Gulf, and the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Al Gray, both of whom know what it's like to have friends and comrades die in battle, do not speak about kicking anybody's rear.
But in spite of President Bush's personal experience as a Navy pilot in World War II, the government is, in the words of The Wall Street Journal's David Rogers, "increasingly populated by a younger generation that largely side-stepped war. Vice President Quayle, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney and Rep. Stephen Solarz, a New York Democrat -- all hawks on Iraq -- have no combat experience."
Ignoring the hard truth that faith in a short, decisive war remains the most persistent of human illusions, the hawks now speak of a short, successful battle with very limited American casualties. All such talk brings to mind the story told by and about the legendary Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia.
As a young legislator, Russell expressed irritation that his committee was devoting so much time and attention to the question of benefits for the widows of those killed in the Spanish-American War. Complained young Sen. Russell: "I don't see how you can call it much of a war; there were only 385 people killed in the whole affair." Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, who was both old and blind, responded, "Son, for those 385 it was a hell of a war."
War is always a brutal, serious and despicable affair. It is too important to be personalized by anybody, especially the president of the United States.