His campaign for the 1988 presidential race has been characterized by conservative colum-
nist George Will as “a carefully calibrated plan of tactical blandness.” His stump rhetoric has proven so undistinguished that syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak termed one key address “the longest 27-minute speech in memory.” And his failure to stake out his own positions prompted one network TV interviewer to ask him about his image as a “wimp.” But the uncharismatic campaign strategy of Vice-President George Bush has been very deliberate. His aim: to keep a low public profile during and after the three-month congressional investigation into the Irancontra affair. His advisers told him that if he did not rock the boat and witnesses did not further implicate him, Bush could maintain his status as front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
In fact, as the hearings wound up last month, that strategy seemed to be working. Said campaign director Lee Atwater: “It does feel like a cloud is passing.” But the relief may have been premature. New documents from incarnera hearings released by the congressional panel last week include testimony that Bush’s top advisers were involved in planning the resupply of Nicaraguan contra rebels at a time when aid was prohibited by Congress. Indeed, those revelations—and Bush’s public clashes with his closest rival, Senator Robert Dole of Kansas—underline a central paradox: despite an 11point lead in the polls, a powerful political organization and a $10-million war chest, Bush’s candidacy remains shaky.
Hard-line conservatives remain unconvinced by his attempts to woo them. And in an election where personality and passion are crucial factors, Bush scored low on both points in a recent CBS-New York Times opinion poll. Said Tom Cole, chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party: “If you’re talking about deeply committed personal support, there’s not much there.” Since he took office in 1981, Bush has been content to bask in the reflected glow of Ronald Reagan. But his eagerness to prove unswerving loyalty only won him the derision of those who, like columnist Will, termed him Reagan’s “lap dog.” At the same time, his attempts to use the vice-presidency to set him above other candidates have led to increasing criticism. And his reluctance to debate with his rivals led one of them, TV evangelist Pat Robert-
son, to comment, “We begin to get the feeling he is afraid.” Bush agreed last week to appear in a televised debate on Oct. 28.
Aides have urged Bush to step out from Reagan’s shadow, but so far his departures from White House orthodoxy have been so cautious that they are barely discernible. Instead, Bush has worked at toughening up his image. Last week, addressing 5,000 dele-
gates to an American Legion convention in San Antonio, Tex., even those attempts appeared to backfire. Bush attacked Congress for having “tied the President’s hands” on foreign policy, but that led Dole to claim that it certainly did not apply to Republican congressional leaders such as himself.
It was one of a series of disagreements between the two candidates. Three months ago Bush’s aides publicly accused the Dole camp of spreading rumors that Bush had a longtime liaison with a Washington woman. The vice-president’s son, George Jr., declared, “The answer to the Big A question is N-O.” But the battle between the two camps grew so bitter that they finally met privately to negotiate a truce.
Still, other issues surrounding Bush’s character remain. One is why— despite his experience as United Nations ambassador and head of the CIA—he failed to speak out against the Iranian arms deal. In an Aug. 5 interview, Bush claimed that he had been “denied information,” and he blamed the congressional panel for the “distorted view” that he was lying. But recently released documents raised new concerns. A memo by Gen. Paul Gorman, former chief of the U.S. army’s Southern Command, claims that Felix Rodriguez, an ex-CIA agent sent to El Salvador by Bush’s office,
told Gorman his “primary commitment” was to help the contras—not to fight Salvadoran guerrillas, as Bush aides have insisted. And Alan Fiers, CIA Central American task force chief, testified in camera that, at an August, 1986, meeting in the vice-president’s office, Bush’s top security adviser was pressing him to use Rodriguez’s services and not to invest in those of retired Maj.-Gen. Richard Secord. Since the release of the memo and the testimony by that senior CIA official, Bush’s advisers have privately conceded that he could still be hurt by the Iran-contra panel’s final report, due later this month. Said one: “The worst may be yet to come.”
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