In his first live Sunday talk show interview, Texas Gov. George W. Bush yesterday lauded the Supreme Court's two most consistently conservative and antiabortion jurists, while refusing to comment on Justice David H. Souter, a nominee of Bush's father who has emerged as a major disappointment to conservatives.
The GOP presidential candidate also said he would not rule out raising the minimum age for Social Security eligibility and that he would be inclined to oppose purely humanitarian military interventions, such as those in Somalia and Haiti. He said people should be able to sue their managed health care companies, staking out a critical area of disagreement with congressional GOP leaders.
While most of what Bush said in yesterday's interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" was not new, he did offer several nuggets of nuance on a range of foreign, domestic and economic policy areas under sometimes aggressive questioning by host Tim Russert.
It was a busy day on the morning news programs, with GOP presidential candidates Steve Forbes and Arizona Sen. John McCain, and Reform Party candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, also making appearances. While Forbes and Buchanan spent much of their time criticizing Bush, McCain used his appearance on CBS's "Face the Nation" to defend himself against charges from his political critics that he is too emotionally unstable to be president.
McCain, who was a prisoner of war for more than five years in North Vietnam, said not only was he stable but that he would release his medical records. He said he did not believe that his GOP Senate colleagues were responsible for the rumors--as has been reported--and asserted that, as president, he would be able to work with those with whom he has clashed.
McCain, who some polls show is drawing even with Bush in New Hampshire, tried to flip the criticism to his advantage by reinforcing his image as a maverick politician. "Have I gotten angry?" he said. "Sure, I get angry. I got angry at this [budget] bill that we just passed, that really is such an outrageous waste of the taxpayers' money."
When Russert asked Bush how he would be different from Clinton as president, Bush repeated a familiar theme from his stump speech, "Well, first, I'd bring honor and integrity to the White House."
In the interview, Bush added: "I won't make decisions [based] on polls and focus groups. I've been frankly amazed at the amount of polling that goes on to determine the behavior of the White House, starting with, for example, where to take a summer vacation. I was floored."
Also revealing was what Bush did not, or would not, say. For instance, when Russert asked him which Supreme Court justices he likes most, he named Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Russert asked about Souter, the New Hampshire judge appointed by Bush's father.
"I'm not falling into that trap," Bush said, refusing to answer the question. Souter is scorned by many conservatives for joining with two of the moderate conservatives on the court in a 1992 case that upheld Roe v. Wade, the 1973 high court decision that established abortion rights.
Bush also held steadfast to his refusal to answer whether he had ever used drugs. He responded to a question about whether as president he could be blackmailed with anything from his past by saying, "If someone was willing to go public with information that was damaging, you'd have heard about it by now." But if blackmail were attempted, he said, "I'd tell them to get lost. That's what I'd tell them to do."
Bush offered murkier responses to some other questions. When asked whether he would demand to know a person's position on abortion before making a nomination to the Supreme Court, Bush did not answer yes or no. Instead, he said he would want to know whether that person would "strictly interpret the Constitution." Some abortion opponents have expressed dismay over what they call Bush's lack of commitment to the cause.
Bush also had trouble clarifying his policies toward China and Russia, which he had laid out in a major foreign policy address on Friday.
He said the United States should hold up a half-billion dollars in Export-Import Bank assistance to Russia because of that country's brutal human rights abuses in its conflict with Chechnya. But when asked by Russert why he wasn't applying that standard to China, which Bush has criticized for suppressing religious freedom, Bush said: "We have got to work with the Chinese. . . . We have a great opportunity in China to help an entrepreneurial class and a freedom-loving class grow and burgeon and become viable."
It was also in the area of foreign policy that Bush offered something new. In the past, he has been critical of the Clinton administration for involving the military in numerous foreign conflicts, but he has refused to say which interventions he opposed. When asked yesterday by Russert if he would "ever send American troops to a place like Haiti or Somalia," Bush responded: "I strongly doubt it. I strongly doubt it."
When Russert noted that Bush's father made the initial decision to send 30,000 troops to Somalia on a humanitarian mission, Bush cut him off, saying, "I'm not going to second-guess my good father. My good dad."
On a key domestic issue, high on the voters' agenda, Bush said he would support legislation allowing patients to sue HMOs--provided the proposal was fashioned similarly to Texas's law. In Texas, a patient must first appeal an HMO's decision to an independent review panel. If the HMO refused to honor the panel's finding that a certain medical procedure was necessary, the patient would be able to sue.
Bush also said he probably would not meet with the gay group, Log Cabin Republicans, saying it would create a "huge political nightmare." In his interview on CBS, McCain pointed out that he had already met with the group. And Forbes said on CNN's "Late Edition" that he would be willing to meet the group.
CAPTION: George W. Bush says he won't "second-guess my good father."