WORLD

MATTERS OF THE HEART

BUSH’S QUICK RETURN TO WORK DID NOT CALM PUBLIC DOUBTS ABOUT QUAYLE’S ABILITY TO LEAD

HILARY MACKENZIE May 20 1991
WORLD

MATTERS OF THE HEART

BUSH’S QUICK RETURN TO WORK DID NOT CALM PUBLIC DOUBTS ABOUT QUAYLE’S ABILITY TO LEAD

HILARY MACKENZIE May 20 1991

MATTERS OF THE HEART

WORLD

BUSH’S QUICK RETURN TO WORK DID NOT CALM PUBLIC DOUBTS ABOUT QUAYLE’S ABILITY TO LEAD

At the White House, it was pointedly business as usual. After returning to the Oval Office from his 39-hour stay at Maryland's Bethesda Naval Hospital, where he was rushed after suffering from an irregular heartbeat while jogging on May 4, U.S. President George Bush resumed his typically harried work schedule last week: meeting UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Cameroonian President Paul Biya. Bush’s doctors diagnosed his problem as Graves’ disease, a condition that causes an overactive thyroid and, in turn, produced the irregular heartbeat. He drank a prescribed dose of radioactive iodine that, doctors said, should swiftly restore the near-legendary vigor of the 66-yearold Bush. But neither the frantic display of presidential activity, nor the reassuring medical report, could calm the heart flutters of the American public over a suddenly pressing issue: the ability of Bush’s second in command, Vice-President Dan Quayle, to adequately replace him. “It downright scared people to death,” said Atlanta pollster Claiboume Darden. “The country doesn't feel comfortable that he is a heartbeat from the President and the red button.”

That was evident throughout the week in newspaper columns, on talk shows and in public opinion polls. Despite his 28 months in office, the 44-year-old Quayle has been unable to shake his image of a lightweight pretty boy that has dogged him since Bush chose the relatively obscure Indiana senator as his running mate in 1988. Last week, 62 per cent of respondents to a New York Times/CBS News poll said that they worried about the prospect of a Quayle presidency, while 54 per cent said that Bush should replace him on the party ticket in 1992. Despite Quayle’s conservative politics, even syndicated right-wing columnist Patrick Buchanan concluded, “Mr. Quayle is not seen as having exhibited that visible strength of character the Romans called gravitas.” Foreign observers also weighed in on the Quayle question. In London, The Guardian editorialized: “When George Bush clutches his chest and fights for breath, so do millions around the world.”

The President quickly jumped to Quayle’s defence. Having himself suffered under a persistent so-called wimp image during his eight years in the thankless vice-presidential post, Bush told a news conference that he sympathized with Quayle, and added: “I think he’s getting a bum rap in the press, pounding on him when he’s doing a first-class job.” Bush repeated his pledge to retain Quayle as his running mate. And, many analysts said, the President was certain to honor that pledge—unless his current public-approval rating, now at 81 per cent due to the outcome of the Gulf War, should drop precipitously.

For the moment, at least, the President’s newly diagnosed illness does not appear to pose a major problem. Bush’s wife, Barbara, also has Graves’ disease—doctors say that is strictly coincidental. The President’s thyroid, they said, should fully return to normal functioning in two to three months. Meanwhile, he will continue to take several drugs to prevent a recurrence of the erratic heartbeat and related problems. “The heart is perfect,” Bush told reporters, “so I’m very lucky.”

The President’s political health was also good, despite potential dangers. He has been embarrassed by recent media reports about White House Chief of Staff John Sununu’s frequent flying on military aircraft, often for personal business. In response, Bush issued a new set of guidelines last week, banning the chief of staff from using military planes for most personal and political trips. At the same time, Democratic legislators are considering whether to open a formal inquiry into allegations that a member or members of the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign, trying to defeat thenPresident Jimmy Carter, struck a deal with Iran to delay the release of American hostages until after the U.S. presidential election. Last week, Bush did not specifically comment on that charge. But he characterized allegations that he was personally involved in such a deal as “bald-faced lies.”

No matter what the outcome of that issue, the questions about Quayle seem unlikely to go away. In Bush’s 1988 run for the presidency, supporters say, he believed that the senator’s youth, good looks and conservative credentials would appeal to several constituencies. But critics contend that Bush, after eight years in Ronald Reagan’s shadow, was intent on having the limelight to himself, with no competition from a strong second. In any case, the choice of Quayle, the son of an Indiana newspaper publisher, quickly became controversial: his academic record was lacklustre, and his decision to enlist in the Indiana National Guard rather than serve in Vietnam offended veterans’ groups.

Quayle also hurt himself by committing a series of verbal miscues. “I didn't live in this century,” he once declared, trying to explain an earlier blunder about the Holocaust. And he became the butt of countless jokes. “Dan Quayle is not a bad guy,” said pollster Darden. “He’s 5-foot-9, but the water is six feet deep.” Even the Secret Service seems to make light of him: they have code-named him Scorecard, a reference to his passion for golf.

Last week, Quayle’s defenders mounted an intensive campaign, peppering influential Washington columnists with copies of hardhitting Quayle speeches crafted by his handlers. They played up his service as head of the National Space Council and his role in support of the Gulf War. He has also been a champion of such right-wing causes as government spending cuts, tax breaks for the rich and a drastic overhaul of social programs.

In fact, many political analysts dismissed suggestions that Bush would drop Quayle. Some argued that the President was intent on showing his loyalty to the younger man—and on not admitting that he had made a mistake. Said Republican consultant Charles Black: “Even if he thought that Quayle was hurting him, he’s not going to desert him.” Some cynics even suggest that Quayle plays a useful role by placating the Republican right while the President pursues middle-of-the-road policies. Besides, some analysts say, the political price of dumping Quayle would be unpredictable—and possibly high. “You can’t ensure that it won’t blow up like a grenade in your hand,” said Richard Scammon, director of the Washington-based Elections Research Centre. Added Richard Viguerie, chairman of the United Conservatives of America: “He’d be saying in 10-foot neon signs, ‘I made a mistake in 1988.’ ”

Some analysts, however, argue that Bush could tum a drop-Quayle manoeuvre into a political virtue, offering him a respectable cabinet post and choosing a stronger man to replace him. Respondents to public opinion polls last week suggested several candidates: Defence Secretary Richard Cheney, Secretary of State James Baker, Persian Gulf hero Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell, who is black, offers the intriguing possibility of breaking the traditional Democratic grip on the black vote.

Republican strategist Lyn Nofziger said that “George Bush could justify picking Powell without saying that Dan Quayle is not qualified or that he made a mistake.” Bush, added Nofziger, could package Powell as the man who could secure the Republican grip on the presidency into a bold new era. Harrison Hickman, a Democratic party pollster, said that dumping Quayle “would remove the one doubt people have about Bush—if he died, this idiot would become president.” But as long as Bush retains Quayle as vice-president, he can at least take comfort in one inescapable fact: millions of people will be praying for his health.

HILARY MACKENZIE in Washington