Reagan And Bush: Call It A Snub

Ronald Reagan is not called the Great Communicator for nothing. In one brief sentence last week, the ex-president neatly summed up his view of George Bush: "He doesn't seem to stand for anything," Reagan reportedly told friends. The former president later denied ever making the remark, first published in The Washington Post, but in case anyone doubted his true feelings Reagan then refused to be seen with the president in public. He skipped a Bush fund-raiser in Los Angeles and barred the press from his house when Bush came calling.

White House aides responded in the bitter spirit of the 1992 presidential campaign: "Reagan was too senile to make an appearance," sniffed one senior official. Other Bush advisers engaged in their favorite sport, blaming Reagan's wife. "Nancy made him do it," said one aide. "More than most presidents, Reagan knows the power of the camera. And more than most First Ladies, Nancy knows how to settle scores."

There has never been much love lost between the Bushes and the Reagans. The relationship between the ex-president and his former veep was always a marriage of convenience. After eight years of service so loyal that Bush was derided as a lap dog, Reagan only tepidly and belatedly endorsed his number two for president in 1988 and once mispronounced his name ("George Bosh"). Bush was more than happy to use the "Reagan-Bush" legacy to get elected, but he had little respect for the former president's hands-off management style--or for Reagan's hard line against the Kremlin.

As soon as Bush won the White House, he distanced himself from his old boss in ways the press could not fail to notice. Reagan was oblivious to reporters; Bush studied photographs to memorize their names and faces. Reagan almost never held press conferences; Bush held dozens in his first year. Reagan governed by checking the appropriate box on a one-page memo; Bush reached deep into the federal bureaucracy to quiz startled midlevel officials on the nuances of policy. The differences between the two men extended to the visible contrast in style between the two First Ladies. Barbara Bush, in her sensible shoes and matronly suits, was a walking reproach to her glitzy predecessor. She relished gossip about Nancy Reagan and expressed delight when told that the former First Lady loathed her. The feeling was mutual, Barbara Bush assured friends.

At first, Bush benefited from his differences with the Reagans. Americans seemed to welcome his genuine devotion to family and his work hard/play hard approach to the job. But in the past few months, as it became painfully apparent that Bush lacked any kind of vision, at least on the home front, the public became nostalgic for a president who had a consistent stand on the issues. True, Reagan compromised just like Bush and abandoned his own pledge not to raise taxes. But somehow Reagan managed to appear pragmatic, while Bush appears unprincipled.

The bad blood between Reagan and Bush can be exaggerated. Reagan still needs Bush: he knows that if Bush falters, his own legacy will be partly tarnished. And Bush badly needs Reagan, especially in Reagan's home state of California. According to a recent poll, 51 percent of the state's Republicans want to vote against the president in November. Three weeks ago Reagan endorsed Bush via videotape at a dinner of New Hampshire conservatives. Other joint appearances are in the works, according to Bush's campaign staff. But last week's snub may overshadow any future shows of togetherness. "By distancing himself from Bush, Reagan signaled his conservative followers that it is OK to look elsewhere," said one GOP official. "It will take weeks, and a lot of extra time and money, to repair that damage."

But old animosities die hard. Last week at a clinic in San Antonio, a recovering drug addict handed Mrs. Bush a photo of himself and asked her to autograph it with Mrs. Reagan's trademark anti-drug message, "Just say no." Mrs. Bush, signing the picture with her own inscription, just said no.