Compared with Ronald Reagan's debate briefing book troubles, George Shultz foundering in the Middle East and presidential envoy Richard Stone running aground in Central America, Vice President George Bush's journey through Scandinavia last week scored low in Washington decibels.
"It's been a pretty typical vice presidential trip," observed an accompanying administration official, thinking of Bush's successful doubles partnership in Sweden with retired tennis champion Bjorn Borg and his similarly productive fishing foray for salmon in Icelandic waters. On the latter occasion, only the security helicopter circling overhead disturbed the primeval Nordic landscape.
Whereas Bush's voyage may not have mattered much at home--and consequently, produced little adrenaline in the vice presidential party--it was a very big deal to the northern countries that he visited. It could hardly have been otherwise. Substance aside, accommodating a top American official and his entourage is an enormous production for small nations, unused to hosting squads of armed and steely-eyed U.S. security men or their attendant paraphernalia of Air Force Two, bulletproof limousines and White House telecommunication equipment.
The effect of all this on locals is dizzying, and while various government officials spoke politely afterwards of their "valuable" talks with Bush, the impression invariably remains of a big show passing through a small town whose people realize that they will be forgotten in a matter of hours. They know, and will tell each other, that they haven't made much of a dent.
American factotums in these situations are take-charge types to the point at times of remarkable insensitivity. As Bush's 19-car motorcade was racing from Copenhagen's airport to place a wreath at a memorial to Denmark's World War II resistance fighters, a U.S. Navy officer there was instructing his Danish host on what the vice president's movements would be.
Prime Minister Poul Schluter and other Danish government officials with Bush should be "herded" to the side as he stepped forward, the Americans said. "That would be very embarrassing for our prime minister," the Dane replied crisply. Schluter got to walk part way.
The Americans undoubtedly did not intend to be rude, but by the final stage of the trip that began in Britain and West Germany they had a distinctly glazed look as they shuffled from banquet to banquet and displayed an "if this is Tuesday this must be Reykjavik" attitude toward what was going on around them.
The Danes put on a spectacular dinner at the Kronberg Castle in Elsinore, legendary setting for Shakespeare's "Hamlet," about an hour's drive from Copenhagen. There is no electricity at the castle so the affair was candlelit. Virtually the entire Danish government turned out, along with the most prominent figures in Denmark's business community.
The Danes seemed to be having an increasingly fine time as the well-lubricated dinner wore on, but several in the Bush party--although not the bouncy vice president himself--were visibly drooping, snoozing in fact, as the toasts were exchanged.
At a similar gala in Iceland, there was no apparent dozing. But that may have had something to do with the bright lights inside and the fact that it is daylight outside until nearly midnight this time of year. That evening, Bush delivered a listless tribute to Iceland's recently elected government, a result, perhaps, of his making remarks nearly identical in phrasing and theme to what he had been saying over and over elsewhere along the way.
In fact, despite his time for tennis and fishing (as well as an early morning jog here), Bush seemed to be over-programmed on this trip. From the morning of July 3 to the afternoon of July 5, Bush was in four countries--Finland, Denmark, Ireland and Iceland.
For different reasons these nations are important to American interests. Finland is a key neutral state and neighbor of the Soviet Union; Denmark's opposition parties have blocked the country's participation in NATO's deployment of U.S. medium-range nuclear weapons; Ireland is the ancestral home of 30 million Americans, and Iceland permits the United States to maintain here probably its most important North Atlantic base.
Traveling with Bush were Richard Burt, assistant secretary of state for European affairs; Peter Sommer, the Northern European specialist on the National Security Council staff, and several members of the vice president's personal staff. Embassies en route were also on alert to provide necessary briefings on the issues. There was, in short, no shortage of expertise on hand.
But except for a lively exchange on Central America with Sweden's outspoken Prime Minister Olof Palme, the meetings were by all accounts inoffensively superficial.
In Denmark Bush had what should have been a crucial breakfast with the leaders of the Social Democratic Party, whose votes have been instrumental in preventing the government from paying its share of the cost of placing NATO's cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe. They are responsible for an embarrassing fissure in the NATO solidarity on the missile question that the United States is seeking to achieve.
"That didn't seem to be a major issue," Bush said of the funding vote, in an interview here two days later, "Nor did we raise it . . . . It wasn't discussed at all."
Perhaps the Danes were concerned about boring their guests.