He Doesn't Get It
One day in the spring of George Bush's decline, a man of cabinet rank in the government and impeccable loyalty to the president sat sadly cataloguing all the things that had gone wrong in his friend's campaign. Most of them were the obvious ones. Buchanan had damaged Bush. So had Ross Perot and the tidal wave of anti-incumbency he was then riding. Bush's own late start was a continuing handicap. His staffing was weak. He had no message, no agenda for prosperity at home to lay alongside his prodigies of peacemaking in the world.
"But his biggest single problem," the president's comrade said, "is that he hasn't persuaded anyone he has any convictions."
A visitor asked why not.
"Because I don't think he has any convictions," his friend replied softly, almost sadly. "If you asked him why he wanted to be reelected, he'd have to look at his note cards. That's the fundamental problem at the core."
It was a season of despair in Bush's service, and while recrimination was its common currency, the trail of blame most often led back to the empty space at the center of the enterprise. The sustaining hope had been that a rousing recovery would render a Vision Thing unnecessary. The reelection effort, Fred Steeper said, would then have become a no-brainer -- a race so easy that it wouldn't much matter whether Bush seemed to stand for anything or not. But as the economy limped along at stall speed, his people found themselves counting more on a wounded Clinton to lose the election than on the president to win it.
Bush had left them no other option; neither he nor they had come up with a positive rationale for his candidacy, a compelling argument for reelecting him beyond his blue-chip curriculum vitae and his reassuringly familiar face. His speeches, during the spring, had taken on a certain hangdog tone -- an air of helplessness that reminded Dan Quayle, for one, of the late days of Jimmy Carter. The veep showed up for lunch in the Oval Office one day in April with a copy of Carter's famous lament over the Great Malaise of '79. For effect, he had under-