It was an image-maker’s nightmare: three minutes of raw television footage that flashed around the world mercilessly replaying the scene of public humiliation. At the centre setting of the head table for a state dinner opening his four-day visit to Japan, the last leg of a gruelling 12-day, 26,000-mile Asian journey designed to showcase his talent for personal diplomacy, President George Bush was picking his way gingerly through his medallions of beef in pepper sauce when he suddenly turned pale, collapsed in his chair, vomiting, and slid to the floor in a faint. As an unmanned video camera from Japan’s public NHK network recorded the ensuing Secret Service panic, it captured a rivetting tableau: Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, at 72 five years older than Bush, was kneeling on the floor, cradling in his lap the head of the
prostrate leader of the world’s only remaining superpower.
Despite Bush’s later assertion that he was only suffering a “little tiny bout of flu,” his collapse and continuing pallor even after returning to Washington late last week provided a disturbing metaphor for both his own political fortunes and those of the United States. Not only did his illness help tum his four-nation Pacific goodwill tour into the first public-relations disaster of his 1992 presidential campaign, it also raised awkward election-year issues related to his age and health—as well as his stillcontroversial choice of a possible stand-in, VicePresident Dan Quayle. But most damaging of all was the fact that, after riskily recasting the trip as a presidential trade mission aimed at creating “jobs, jobs, jobs,” Bush failed to wrest any significant trade concessions from Tokyo.
With that, he incurred the anger of U.S. automakers—and the ridicule of Democratic presidential rivals. Some analysts predicted that the trip itself, crafted to improve his declining domestic popularity with yet another diplomatic triumph abroad, had ended up tarnishing his vaunted reputation for foreignpolicy prowess. In fact, as the still-haggard President disembarked from Air Force One insisting that his visit had been a success, political scientist Larry Sabato of Charlottesville’s University of Virginia termed it “an incredible example of image-making gone awry—one of the low points of the Bush presidency.”
Punctuating that perception was a New York Times-CBS News poll released last week which reported that Bush’s approval rating is at an alltime personal low of 48 per cent, with 67 per cent of respondents voicing disapproval of his handling of the economy. His plummeting popularity was in sharp contrast to the situation just a year ago, when he was soaring on ratings approaching 90 per cent as he deftly forged an international coalition to begin the war in the Persian Gulf.
But for many Americans, Bush’s ignominious tumble under the Tokyo banquet table signalled not only his own flagging prestige, it also led to unwelcome doubts about the na-
tion’s long-term health. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, U.S. strategic planners are still struggling to define Washington’s role in what Bush has called the new world order. And commentators around the globe last week pointed out that the greatest threat to American supremacy now comes not from a military rival, but an economic one—whose leader had just been seen around the world holding up the President’s head in his hands.
Even before Bush’s arrival in Japan, Miyazawa had provoked protests from U.S. officials when, during a New Year’s Day speech, he pleaded with his countrymen to have “compassion” on the tough-talking Americans whose nation was beset by so many economic problems. And last week, some Japanese officials could not resist reiterating that patronizing image of American decline. Said Naohiro Amaya, former deputy minister of international trade and industry, of Miyazawa’s rush to rescue Bush: “It’s so symbolic. The superpower America is tired, and everyone around it has to take care of it.”
In fact, Bush’s abortive Japanese sojourn sparked the very backlash it had been designed to forestall—calls for a new wave of protectionist measures in Congress to assist weakened U.S. industries. Only hours after Bush had landed at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, after a report that December’s unemployment rate had jumped to 7.1 per cent from 6.9 per cent the month before, the highest since 1986, one of his chief Democratic presidential opponents, Nebraska Senator Robert Kerrey, unveiled a televised campaign commercial that mocked him for going “begging” for jobs to Tokyo. If the Japanese did not open their markets to American goods, Kerrey said, they would find themselves barred from U.S. shelves and car lots in return.
But one of Bush’s fellow travellers, Chrysler Corp.’s superstar chairman Lee Iacocca, made the most emotional demands for trade retaliation. After Japanese officials repeatedly refused to make concrete commitments that would substantially increase American exports—and levelled pointed suggestions that to sell more in Japan, Americans should turn out better and
smaller cars—Iacocca angrily stalked out of the acrimonious meetings. Joining General Motors Corp. chairman Robert Stempel and Ford Motor Co. chairman Harold Poling, the other key figures in a controversial 18-man corporate delegation included on the trip, Iacocca publicly disputed Bush’s claims of “dramatic progress” in the three-day trade negotiations. Then, after flying home early, he electrified a lunchtime gathering of Detroit’s Economic Club with a withering critique of the accords, under which Japanese Honda dealers had promised to triple their sales of U.S.-made Jeep Cherokees by 1994—to 1,200. “Wow!” he said. “How in the hell did we get so lucky?” In an angry hour-long torrent that injected new vigor into his usual Japan-bashing, Iacocca bridled that “I for one am fed up hearing from the Japanese that all our problems there are our own damn fault.” He also warned that unless Congress applied retaliatory pressure, the Tokyo government had no reason to change its policies. “Why in the hell should they?” he demanded. “They’re winning. In fact, they’re beating our brains in.”
That rhetoric raised fears among Canadian officials about a new outbreak of protectionist fever on Capitol Hill, which could spread beyond Japanese imports. In Washington, Ambassador Derek Burney acknowledged that Ottawa harbored “a general concern” about the mounting protectionist mood at a time when, despite the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, the country is still facing bilateral trade disputes on issues ranging from beer to softwood lumber. Said Burney: “Canadians are generally aware that a grievance can quickly be transferred from one country to another.”
But the protectionist rallying cries emanating from Bush’s Far East flop were music to the ears of the man whose shadow had loomed over the trip: conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan. Stumping through the small towns of New Hampshire last week, where he is challenging Bush in the state’s Feb. 18 primary, the campaign’s first major electoral test, Buchanan trumpeted his unabashed “America first” platform. In what most analysts consider a fight for the soul of the fractious Republican party, he argued that in the absence of the Soviet threat it was time for Americans to withdraw from their
self-appointed role as global policemen and tend to the country’s own problems.
At Cersosamo’s Lumber in Rumney, N.H., Buchanan attacked the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement for permitting Canadian mills to import U.S. logs for processing, then re-export them back across the border for sale. And at a conservative-sponsored forum later in Boston, he attacked Bush for a 1988 election promise to create 30 million new jobs. Said Buchanan: “What he didn’t tell us is that they would be in Yokohama, Guangdong province and Mexico.”
Buchanan’s message—protectionist, isolationist and, some analysts charged, riddled with implicit racism—is a direct rebuke to Bush’s bedrock internationalism. But in a re-
cession-haunted landscape, Buchanan has tapped a powerful and periodically recurring American sentiment. And last week, as Bush limped back from a trip that he had already cancelled last November after criticism that he was neglecting the nation’s domestic problems, then rescheduled a month later under the guise of beating the drums for American exports in the Far East, he had to confront new evidence of its appeal. According to the New York Times-CBS News pollsters, 67 per cent of Americans protested that Bush was spending too much time on foreign affairs.
No less a political strategist than former president Richard Nixon last week predicted that Buchanan could take as much as 40 per cent of the vote in New Hampshire, an economically beleaguered state whose unemployment rate has tripled in the four years since Bush squeezed to victory in its last primary. And that prospect has galvanized the $50,000-a-day White House campaign machine to schedule a flying stop in the state this week.
But while Bush was otherwise engaged in Japan with his influenza attack last week, he sent one of his chief electoral surrogates into the breach: self-proclaimed campaign pit bull Quayle. The vice-president’s 36 hours of statewide glad-handing had been aimed at demonstrating how much his campaign style had matured in the four years since he emerged as Bush’s contentious running mate. And in fact, when new White House Chief of Staff Samuel Skinner called Quayle at 6:20 a.m. to notify him of Bush’s illness, the vice-president was busy reading the fourth of a seven-part Washington Post series by journalists David Broder and Bob Woodward that attempted to re-evaluate his bumbling public image.
In exhaustive, almost mind-numbing detail,
the writers’ investigation showed that contrary to the perception that Quayle had haplessly stumbled into dubious prominence at Bush’s side, he and his lawyer wife, Marilyn, had carefully planned his transformation from an obscure Indiana senator into a vice-presidential contender through a shrewd mix of political calculation and discreet lobbying. But to some of Quayle’s severest critics, responsible for turning his more memorable malapropisms into the butt of TV talk-show jokes, that report came as no surprise. Said Jeffrey Yoder, the Connecticut-based cofounder of the humorous Quayle Quarterly. “To be politically astute is a lot different than being a political leader. It doesn’t necessarily qualify you for high office.”
Yoder said that he welcomed the fact that the press was finally taking Quayle seriously— especially in light of the fact that the controversial President’s Council on Competitiveness, which the vice-president chairs, has led attacks against regulations to monitor the emissions from public utilities that cause acid rain. Cali-
fomia congressman Henry Waxman declared in May that Quayle had “sabotaged the most important rule-making to date under the Clean Air Act,” consistently undercutting its provision. And Waxman has also accused Quayle of mounting, through his secretive council, an “illegal shadow government” to circumvent laws without any responsibility to account for its actions. Two months ago, Waxman disclosed that the council’s executive director, Allan Hubbard, a friend of Quayle’s, held shares in an Indiana utility responsible for releasing 550,000 tons of acid-rain-producing sulphur dioxide a year.
Still, just as Quayle was savoring his new image as a defender of free-enterprise orthodoxy, Bush’s health scare suddenly refocused the national spotlight on him. In the process, it revived old concerns about Quayle’s position a heartbeat away from the presidency—not to mention spawning a new spate of jokes. In New Hampshire, former Republican congressman Charles Douglas, chairman of Buchanan’s state campaign, derided Quayle as a “pit puppy.” And the Cable News Network reported that its polls showed that 53 per cent of those asked still considered Quayle unqualified even for the vice-presidency, while 23 per cent said that his presence on the ticket again this year would make them less likely to vote for Bush. Said network political consultant William Schneider of Washington’s American Enterprise Institute: “There’s no evidence that Quayle’s image has turned around.”
But the very nervousness over the possibility that Quayle could take possession of the Oval Office added an ominous note to renewed speculation over Bush’s health—the only factor that he has said would keep him from making his re-election bid official later this month. Most analysts, both medical and political, readily accepted the White House announcement that he was merely suffering from a routine attack of influenza. And they predicted that a rash of new campaign photo opportunities would soon succeed in supplanting the frightening spectre of his Japanese collapse with images of a vigorous 67-year-old presidential exercise addict.
Still, only eight months after he was rushed to hospital from a weekend run at Camp David with an uneven heartbeat that was caused by a previously undiagnosed thyroid condition known as Grave’s disease, Bush heads out onto the election trail this week suddenly facing a series of challenges unimaginable a year ago, when he reigned as the apparently invincible commander-in-chief of Operation Desert Storm. One comes from Buchanan, another from self-proclaimed Louisiana Republican David Duke and yet another from the stagnant economy itself. But the most threatening of all is etched on a snippet of Japanese television footage that betrays a moment of human weakness—a lapse that American voters tend not to forgive—or forget—in their leaders.
MARCI McDONALD in Washington with correspondents’ reports
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.