PARIS -- West European leaders got a chance last week to chat at length with George Bush, the best positioned presidential contender of the moment. Indications are that they came away somewhat puzzled not only about Bush but also about what the American vice presidency does to those who wear its golden chains.
A major element of Bush's swing through West Germany, France, Britain and Belgium was campaign ritual in preparation for 1988. But European officials thought that away from the klieg lights and pesky questioning at press conferences, Bush would provide some insights into the upcoming Soviet-American summit, the Persian Gulf crisis and Bush's own ideas about running the world in the future.
It is, after all, nearly impossible for two major leaders to meet without some important business getting done or some signal being conveyed. Moreover, Bush arrived with the reputation of being much more interested in and knowl- edgeable about European affairs than others around Reagan.
Bush defied the odds.
"It quickly became clear that he wasn't conveying anything new or important from Reagan," said one French official. "He was here on his own trip, storing up information about us and what we would do in such and such a circumstance in the future."
Added another European official: "When he did speak, it was almost as if he were reading from index cards rather than telling us anything he thought."
"I think he just wanted to meet as many politicians in Europe as possible," a West German official said in Bonn. Another source there, asked what had come out of the meetings there, responded more bluntly: "Nothing, nothing, and nothing."
Bush's performance should persuade Europeans that they have not made a mistake in failing to follow the American example of designating a senior politician to sit around and wait for the leader to die or fall incapacitated.
Even a country like France, which has adopted a presidential system based in part on the American model, refuses to establish an intellectual and moral wasteland like the vice presidency. Here a fallen leader is succeeded by a new president elected for a full term within 60 days.
Like his predecessors who have sought to become Hertz while they are still Avis, Bush today appears to have been worn down by the demands of loyalty, self-effacement and outright dissembling placed on a vice president.
It was a different Bush who came to Paris in 1981 at a critical moment in French-American relations and walked through that ever prickly patch with skill. His low-key, friendly meeting with Francois Mitterrand just after the newly elected French president had named four communist ministers to his government opened the way for a new and stronger working relationship between Paris and Washington that has endured.
And Bush impressed Europeans who met with him in Washington about that time in one-on-one meetings with his grasp of their issues. I recall several conversations with him at embassy dinners and the like in Washington in the early days of the Reagan administration in which he gave me the same impression.
But Bush now seems to seek shelter in his incumbency, which allows him to be safely bland on all issues. He waits for out-of-office candidates to grapple with new issues and ideas that will cost as well as gain them support. This is not leadership, nor is it even effective preparation for leadership, a point that was not lost on Bush's interlocutors last week.
One small example surfaced in the way Bush handled the issue of potential negotiations on Soviet and American battlefield nuclear weapons in Europe. This is an esoteric but touchy political subject that divides Bonn and Paris. West Germany insists that NATO must be willing to negotiate on these weapons now while France wants such negotiations delayed indefinitely.
The United States has formally accepted the German position, and Bush underlined this in his statements in Bonn. But in Paris, after listening to Prime Minister Jacques Chirac's strong arguments against that view, Bush told French and U.S. reporters that the United States would not talk about the shortest range weapons "until we get a conventional force agreement."
Bush leaned, in short, in the direction of the French position in Paris after leaning the other way in Bonn. And none of his listeners could be sure if it was mere politesse, a momentary mix-up on a complex subject, or a vice president's finely developed habit of trimming and tacking the sails taking over as the campaign thunderheads loom.