PARIS -- "This is a neuralgic subject," my friend the diplomat said warily after reading my column on George Bush's trip to Western Europe last Wednesday. That was to be understatement. The vice president's office took to the column about the way the U.S. Navy took to those Iranian schlemiels who fired off a couple of tracer rounds at American helicopters and got sent to the bottom of the Persian Gulf for their trouble.
Shortly after the column appeared, transatlantic phone wires between the vice president's office in Washington and the American embassies in Bonn and Paris were humming. And shortly after that, embassy officials approached their host governments with demarches that were strikingly similar:
Would it be too much trouble for West German and French officials to make public comments about how successful the Bush trip had really been?
Friedhelm Ost, spokesman for Chancellor Helmut Kohl, obliged by sending off a telex to the editor, giving his office's view of the trip. In Paris, a Foreign Ministry official who had been called by the American Embassy found occasion to praise Bush in remarks in the French Senate.
I learned of the unusual paean for Bush in the French Senate when Ambassador Joe M. Rodgers, the wealthy Tennessee businessman sent here by President Reagan in 1985, had an embassy spokesman telephone to call it to my attention.
The spokesman also suggested I call two French officials who had been contacted by Rodgers. They were willing to say how well Bush had performed if I asked. Rodgers and Richard Burt, the bright and ambitious young U.S. ambassador in Bonn, also chipped in letters to the editor in praise of Bush.
Such letters are routine. But even in this weird American political season, the image of U.S. officials seeking to enlist the help of foreign governments to gloss Bush's image is a striking commentary on the insecurities of those around the vice president, and on the use of power and position in an administration that has shown a remarkable insensitivity on this score.
It also seems to confirm a disquieting view of the Foreign Service held by a White House that has made more political appointments to large and sensitive embassies and senior policy posts in the State Department than any other in recent memory. It says buckets about what ambassadors seem to be expected to do these days, particularly if they have ambitions about cabinet-level positions in Washington. One strains to imagine how David Bruce or George Kennan would have reacted if asked to rig this kind of echo chamber.
With Burt in Washington and away from Bonn, it fell to the highly competent and professional Number 2 at the embassy, James Dobbins, to convey the word to the West Germans about the wishes of the vice president's office. Dobbins declined all comment to questions about the incident, including whether he had discussed the matter with Bush personally. Rodgers, a self-described close friend of Bush, was also in the United States yesterday and not available to comment. The White House denied that Bush had called the ambassador personally.
The point of last week's column was not that Bush had embarrassed himself in Europe. It was that this trip had been routine rather than distinguished. Away from the photo ops and press conferences Bush did not break any new ground.
That seemed noteworthy because Bush had turned in a distinguished performance during a successful trip to Europe in 1981 when alliance relations were in a much more difficult stage. Since then, the dulling demands of the vice presidency seem to have diminished Bush's leadership abilities rather than added to them.
The same thought was put much more colorfully, and emotively, by Bush's own chief of staff, Craig Fuller, who was quoted as saying in Newsweek's cover story about Bush this week: "He's emasculated by the office of the vice president." I trust Joe Rodgers and Richard Burt will soon be on the phone to Fuller to discuss his remarkable candor.
I think Fuller's imagery goes too far. What is lost in serving as vice president for eight years seems to be a sense of proportion, and perhaps of humor.