I see what they mean about George Bush. Even on a tour of the foreign-policy horizon in the privacy of his vice presidential quarters the other day, there were flashes of the Penny-Loafer Factor (the buzzword is "preppie"): He says, "I like foreign policy" offhandedly, as if he were talking about jogging or gardening.
The impression of congenital insouciance is reinforced by the matter-of-fact way that he talks of the importance of national security in domestic politics. Presidential elections tend to turn on the state of the economy, he says. Public preoccupations with home-front issues outweigh public interest in international affairs by something on the order of two to one.
But quite another impression of George Bush emerges as he warms to the nitty-gritty of specific national-security issues: aid to the Nicaraguan "contras"; the Iranian threat he perceived on a recent trip to the Persian Gulf; his visits next month to Israel, Jordan and Eygpt and the importance of keeping Mideast peace efforts alive; a forthcoming mission to Canada and its connection with the perils of trade warfare.
The gist of what he says is not the point: Bush's positions are Ronald Reagan's positions. And neither is his manner the point. Rather, it is the deeper impression conveyed of a man who knows his way round the world, who is comfortable with its complexity, and intellectually challenged by the hard choices and even harder limits imposed on American power to influence events. Ideological and/or partisan drives give way to pragmatism, to a certain dogged determination, to a sense of resignation, to reality.
And right there, the conventional wisdom has it, is where his problem lies. "It's often said of Mr. Bush that he has the best resume in American politics," columnist Raymond Price wrote recently. "But when it comes to the presidency, people don't vote for a resume. They vote for a leader."
Hence, the kind of advice that Bush is getting from Price, who has certain credentials, having labored so long and so hard as a White House speech writer to make a silk purse out of Richard Nixon. Speaking speech writer talk (all about conveying a "clear vision" and a "sense of purpose"), Price scorns the conventional wisdom that Bush is "too hemmed in by the vice presidency to stake out a clear leadership role." He would have the vice president latch on to a few pieces of the Reagan program and "make them his own, rally support for them, clobber the opposition and in the process convey where he, George Bush, wants to take the country between now and the eve of the 21st century."
I would never suggest that Price has anything other than Bush's best interest at heart. But leaving aside that no vice president in history has stolen the emperor's clothes in such a fashion, the idea of George Bush (or anybody now in contention) doing that kind of number on Ronald Reagan beggars the imagination. If you agree that there is not another Ronald Reagan in the wings, there is something even more perplexing about this notion that no longer is it enough to be smart, experienced and competent -- that you have to be some kind of Pied Piper nowadays to be president.
Yet more troubling is the flip-side notion that if you are a good enough Pied Piper, you don't have to be good at the business of running things, or even have much to show for your efforts. This proposition says more about where we have fetched up in the demands we place upon our leaders than it says about, say, George Bush. He remains faithful to the Reagan line even while conveying precisely what seems to be missing in the way the president propounds it: reason, restraint, reality.
For example: Bush doesn't say that cutting off aid for the "contras" means that the Sandinista government will "crush them." He does not pretend, as the president does, that "we seek only to bring the communists to the table and negotiate a political and democratic solution" -- as if it were that simple.
Bush sees U.S. aid as a way of "keeping the pressure on" in the hope that "things will change" over time, as happened in the People's Republic of China. Even so, Bush is not very optimistic.
A sensible reserve guides his approach to the Middle East as well. He sees Iran as a serious threat to the Persian Gulf states and other relatively "moderate" Arab countries. The threat ought to be resisted, whatever the imperfections of the "moderates," because the alternative is very likely to be somewhat more on the Libyan model. Problem-solving seems to preoccupy him more than formulating visions about America in the 21st century.
So the question is not whether George Bush should take Price's advice. My sense is that he wouldn't quite know how to. It's not his style. The more interesting question is why so many of Bush's well-wishers feel obliged to recommend something on the order of a personality transplant for a candidate who, they insist in almost the same breath, has most of what else is ordinarily expected of a good candidate for president.