Bush: The White House Blame Game

Most American voters, it seems fair to say, have never heard of W. Henson Moore. But to listen to the men around George Bush, the deputy chief of staff is responsible for every bad tiding from George Bush's low poll standing to America's loss of faith in government. If victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan, then the administration's precarious state is the bastard child of W. Henson Moore.

At least that's the talk around the White House Mess. It is silly talk, to be sure. Moore, an amiable former congressman, has been in his current job for only four months, and he couldn't be responsible for all of the president's blunders even if he had worked at them night and day. But there must be someone to blame for the kind of time George Bush is having as the White House-and the presidential campaign-seems increasingly to stumble from blunder to blunder.

There was, for starters, the embarrassment of looking like the anti-environment president at the eco summit in Rio de Janeiro last week. By posing the debate as the United States versus the world, Bush alienated not only the green vote but a good many moderates. At the same time, his message was so garbled that White House staffers fear he won few points with the right wing. Bush's side trip to Panama was an unmitigated disaster: schoolchildren fleeing tear gas, Secret Service men crouched with guns drawn, Bush wiping his eyes as he fled the podium. DISSED! shouted the banner in New York Newsday.

At home, Bush failed to persuade Congress to approve a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, a dubious exercise aimed at giving politicians election-year cover. Polls showed the president dropping to record lows; his 37 percent favorable rating was some 36 points lower than his standing a year ago. Many surveys show that if an election were held right now, Bush would come in second to Ross Perot. The late-night comics piled on."But excuse me, George Herbert, irregular-heartbeating, read-my-line-lipping, slipping-in-the-polls, do-nothing, deficit-raising, make-less-money-than-Millie-the-White House-dog-last-year, Quayle-loving, sushi-puking Bush!" ranted Arsenio Hall when the White House said that Bush would be willing to go on a few talk shows, Arsenio's excepted. Hall added: "I don't need you on my show. My ratings are better than yours."

Bush is determined to blame someone for his predicament. Some friends had barely arrived at Camp David late last month when the president began to fret. He had fired his chief of staff John Sununu, just as his aides had insisted, and installed former transportation secretary Sam Skinner as his new chief. Now, griped Bush, some of his staff were saying that he should dump Skinner, while others were fingering the presidential campaign staff. Who was he to believe? Bush demanded. What was he to do? "Do I have to do all the work around here?" he bellowed.

Actually, if anyone was to blame for the mortifying trip to Panama, it was Bush himself. Going to Panama on the way to the ecosummit was Bush's idea; he wanted to remind voters that he was the world leader who had brought democracy to Panama. The riot that ensued rang of Yanqui Go Home, not the New World Order.

Foreign policy, of course, was supposed to be Bush's strong suit, the card he could play to overcome disappointments at home. But even Bush's great victory, the 100-hour ground war in the Persian Gulf, was looking increasingly shabby. Congressional investigators have kept up a steady stream of disclosures that seek to show that the Bush administration tilted so far toward Iraq before the gulf war that it practically fell in Saddam's lap. The administration seems bedeviled by Yugoslavia, unable to persuade the European Community to stop the bloody civil war and unwining, at least so far, to step in with American forces.

Bush is even being outdone by his longridiculed vice president, Dan Quayle. The veep has been on a bit of a roll of late, posing as the champion of old-fashioned American values against the decadence of the "Cultural elite." Quayle's success, with conservatives at least, is galling to Bush's staff. Why, Skinner and campaign chairman Robert M. Teeter wanted to know, did the vice president get more coverage for his remarks on family values than Bush, who couldn't even get the networks to cover a prime-time press conference two weeks ago? Again, the iron finger of blame pointed at W. Henson Moore. The deputy chief of gaff could only remind Teeter and Skinner that it was their idea to avoid the Murphy Brown controversy. Quayle's staff, particularly its chief, William Kristol, is willing to take a chance to get its boss noticed. Rather than back off when Quayle's remarks stirred controversy, the veep's men decided to push further.

Bush's men seem frozen in the headlights of an oncoming truck, driven by Ross Perot. Quayle opened up on Perot last week, referring to him as "some temperamental tycoon who has contempt for the Constitution of the United States." Perot himself was merciless toward Bush for "sending delegations over to burp and diaper and pamper Saddam Hussein, and tell him how nice he was." He blamed the savings and loan crisis on " You know who, or maybe if you don't know who, it was President George Bush."

Some of the White House panic may be premature. If Perot flames out and Clinton never catches on, Bush will win, if only by default. Still, the search is on within Bush's circle for a savior, and inevitably, the cry has gone up to bring Secretary of State James Baker into the campaign. In time-honored Washington fashion, Baker himself may be feeding the rumors. Two weeks ago, Baker had a private lunch with Sam Skinner, who claimed that only three people in the White House were aware of the event. Within 20 minutes of Baker's departure, Skinner had received several calls from reporters questioning whether Baker had come to save his jeopardized job. Skinner naturally assumed the leak came right from Baker's shop.

It was Baker who ran Ronald Reagan's White House from 1980 to 1985 and Bush's successful campaign in 1988. But Baker is more of an operative and tactical genius than a visionary. Reagan and even the 1988 version of Bush ("Read my lips") had a message to sell. These days, Bush has none. And that's where the real problem lie--not with W. Henson Moore.

Presidential Low Points

37% Bush: This month marks the lowest point in a yearlong free fall from the more than 80% post-gulf-war days. 35% Reagan: Even the most popular president since JFK took a hit when the economy stalled in early 1983. 21% Carter: Recession and hostages in Iran meant lowest-ever ratings among recent presidents in July 1980. 37% Ford: A recession, an energy crisis and a presidential pardon brought a dip during the spring of 1975. 24% Nixon: A year of Watergate revelations led to his lowest ratings and resignation in August 1974.