Too dumb to be president?

Texas Gov. George W. Bush's Republican rivals and Democratic opponents now count on this rap derailing his high-riding quest for the presidency. Bush showed irritation with the tactic and determination to defeat it in a mid-December meeting in Austin with executives from leading high-tech companies.

Both emotions surfaced in our conversation a few days later in the Texas capital. When I asked him if foreign aid could qualify as "compassionate conservatism" abroad, he responded, "It depends," and then started on a long, looping discussion of globalization and trade by saying: "By the way, I read the book."

Genial and low-key until that moment, Bush's voice and gaze hardened as he deplored skeptical media questioning of his debate statement that he had gained important lessons on foreign policy from James Chace's recent biography of Dean Acheson.

"I am a little bit perplexed," Bush continued. "It must be so sick and so depressing in Washington, where a man's word no longer counts."

The aside was of course a dart aimed at President Clinton, the man who ousted Bush's father from the White House. It was an important reminder that behind the high rhetoric and outward optimism of this campaign lie intensely personal emotions that involve usurpation and restoration.

"There's going to be a big difference," Bush said in rejecting published suggestions that his background as a governor with little foreign policy experience, his success at fund-raising and his membership in the baby boomer generation (he is 53) give him more resemblance to Clinton than to his father.

"I don't hope for solutions, I work toward solutions," the governor said. "I am a cold-eyed realist, something I learned from my dad. My best friends are those I treat as friends when I don't need them, so that when I do need them they're really friends. That is important in diplomacy, where trust is important. That is not generational. That is just real."

Throughout the interview, Bush demonstrated an engaging willingness to try to answer any question put to him, at times apologizing for the length or vagueness of an answer as he felt his way through it.

"I'm getting to this in a different way," he said halfway through the response on foreign aid, which ultimately came back to the initial "It depends." On several other points, he brought what seemed to be lengthy digressions back to the point of the original questions and then said: "So the answer is no."

Many candidates fall back on self-protective boilerplate or talking points from their staffs in such situations. Bush seemed bored with those approaches and used some unexpected questions to venture off and explore his own thoughts as he spoke--a trait that campaign consultants warn carries extreme risks for politicians. And he seemed to feel bad about not answering a question with precision.

Bush's most surprising response reflected a strong concern about global backlash to America's preeminent position in world affairs:

"The rapid trends of globalization create an interesting hazard for America. Globalization accelerates the spread of American culture, and that's good and bad. It often leads countries and movements to see the culture, feel the culture, interact with the culture and reject it, sometimes in violent ways.

"Globalization of the world is going to create more uncertainty," he continued. "We've got to be very careful not to become the Ugly American again. We can be a leader. We can be strong. But I don't think we can be arrogant and keep the peace. . . . The United States will not be able unilaterally to keep the peace. We can lead if we're smart. We can lead in coalitions. We can be humble partners in coalitions."

I was also struck by Bush's seeming fascination with the psychological dimension of foreign affairs. Instinct and personal experience seem to trump formal preparation for him.

A 1975 visit to China left Bush permanently intrigued by the Cultural Revolution as "the most exotic and dangerous use of power I can imagine. How can a nation turn on itself like that?" And when we discussed Russia, he twice cited the recent increase in adult male mortality rates as a disturbing political indicator: "We will have to develop an understanding of what this means to the psyche of a dominant, once proud nation."

Aides say that Bush is likely to visit European capitals in late spring, when they expect him to have wrapped up the nomination. He will go to show the importance he attaches to allied unity--and to continue the unusual self-education of George W. Bush.