Rocky Road To Houston

FRED STEEPER'S OWN Super Tuesday had been spoiled by his latest polling numbers and a gloom index that was the worst he'd seen in 20 years in the business. His findings bore heavily on him when, at a campaign meeting shortly thereafter, he was called on to recite.

"If the election were held 30 days from now," he said, "we would lose."

There was an appropriate moment of silence in the room.

"That's bullshit," said Charlie Black. "In 30 days, we can run a better campaign than they can. In 30 days, the people in this room are better and smarter than Clinton's people."

"Presidents with 40 percent approval ratings don't get re-elected," Steeper said. "Presidents with recessions that aren't stopping don't get re-elected. Presidents facing an electorate who want a lot of change don't get re-elected."

It was a minor collision between men under stress, lasting only a minute. But it was a season of despair for the men in Bush's service, and while angry tones and recriminations were increasingly heard, the trail of blame most often led back to the empty space at the center of the enterprise.

One day that spring, one of Bush's closest and most loyal friends in the government sat sadly cataloging all the things that had gone wrong in the campaign. His list ended with Bush himself.

"His biggest single problem," he said, "is that he hasn't persuaded anyone he has any conviction."

A visitor asked why not.

"Because I don't think he has any convictions," his friend replied softly. "If you asked him why he wanted to be re-elected, he'd have to look at his note cards. That's the fundamental problem."

The polls of spring and summer suggested that America had begun to agree with that judgment. The people were losing faith in Bush as president and, for the first time, as a man. After one particularly dismal briefing, Dan Quayle called Bob Teeter into his office for a reality check.

"We're not telling the American people what we want to do for the next four years," Quayle said.

Teeter could not disagree. Quayle's political savvy was not commonly acknowledged outside the Beltway; the insiders knew better. But his stature was still wobbly in their eyes, and for most of his years as vice president, the men around George Bush had looked on him as an embarrassment that could not be fixed and so had to be lived with. But with the president's swoon in the polls, the search for a human sacrifice began, and Quayle seemed the most tempting offering. Bush began hearing from party leaders, Gerald Ford only the most prominent among them, that he needed to find somebody better to run with. "Boy, there sure are a lot of people against Quayle," the president said in private wonderment during a road trip in July. There were-including, covertly, the senior leaders of what was nominally the Bush-Quayle campaign.

The irony in Quayle's situation was that his rehabilitation seemed till then to have been making some progress. He could not change his accident-prone tongue, which rivaled Bush's own; they were to the language what Bonnie and Clyde had been to small-town banks. Neither could he easily make the sages of Washington believe in him or his long-term prospects. But Quayle was a clever and ambitious politician, and he had surrounded himself with a strong staff-a bright, young, ideological group who thought of themselves as "Fort Reagan" and kept the veep supplied with ideas from their reform-conservative agenda.

It was even possible for him and his people to imagine for a time that his war with the TV sitcom heroine Murphy Brown had done the ticket some good-that it had at least changed the subject from the economy and the polls to the safer Republican ground of family values. Quayle had been doing values speeches for months. His homilies on the importance of whole families and the linkages between crime, poverty and broken homes had gone nearly unnoticed. But the Los Angeles riots had thrown the subject into high relief, and Marilyn Quayle saw the permissive attitudes of American popular culture as part of the problem.

"We have to fight the entertainment industry," she said one night aboard Air Force Two, en route home from a Quayle speech in New York. "Look at all these shows on television."

She paused for a moment. "And then there's Murphy Brown," she said.

Quayle had never seen the program. But he had heard enough of the studio hype to know that Ms. Brown, the fictional TV anchor played by Candice Bergen, was having a child out of wedlock. The idea was accordingly stored away, and when he raised it at a working lunch with his staff not long afterward, he offered further proof he was on to something. James Q. Wilson, the conservative sociologist at UCLA, had breakfasted with him that morning. Quayle had got an earful on the link between illegitimate kids and poverty, all of which fit neatly into his own repertoire. Now he needed a speech for his first trip to the Coast since the riots and, he said, he knew what he wanted to talk about: the breakdown of family, personal responsibility and social order-with Murphy Brown's baby as an example. It was cavalier, he said, for some scriptwriter to romanticize unwed motherhood when so many fatherless children were growing up poor and wild.

No one at the table said no; they liked the allusion precisely for its shock value, and when it was pruned from three sentences to one in the final draft of his speech, the sole purpose was to make it a crisper sound bite. His people decided against clearing the finished text with the president's staff, fearing, as one aide put it, that it would come back reduced to rice-pabulum crap. The White House first saw it four hours before Quayle went on. The campaign got its copies with an hour to go, along with a covering note saying, with some understatement, "We may make some news."

They did; the newscasts that night splashed Quayle's one-bite attack on Murphy Brown for "mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice." The veep's party went to bed euphoric that night, already planning the next rounds in his newly declared war on Hollywood's "cultural elite." Their pleasure lasted till morning, when a Quayle aide, Al Hubbard, emerged from a White House command meeting and phoned chief of staff Bill Kristol on the road.

"They're worried about Murphy Brown," he reported matter of factly.

"Panicked" might have been a more apt word, given the Chicken Little response back in Washington. Nobody objected to Quayle's thematics; Republicans had been winning elections with social issues since 1968, and family values had a subliminal extra dimension in a race against a man of Bill Clinton's tabloid reputation. But for Quayle to pick on Murphy Brown was the equivalent of a Democrat attacking Ozzie and Harriet in their prime-time prime. She was, as the deputy campaign manager Mary Matalin remarked, the second most popular woman in America after Barbara Bush. The pro-choice crowd, moreover, was hooting at Quayle for attacking her for having the baby-a decision that, as a pro-life fundamentalist, he ought to have applauded.

The attendant laughter gave the Bush staff a collective case of the williwaws, and White House spokesmen spun in a 180-degree gyration, from backing Quayle to praising Ms. Brown for her strong family values.

News of the White House cave-in reached the Quayle party in a holding room in Los Angeles, where the veep was having a VIP breakfast. His man Kristol, normally a witty and mannerly sort, reached for the phone in a fury and began punching up numbers at the White House and the campaign; a colleague thought it best to clear the room so Bill could scream in privacy.

"I think the vice president should praise her decision to have the baby," Bob Teeter instructed him.

"There is no bleeping baby!" Kristol exploded. "It's just a scriptwriter!"

He was still simmering when he reported to Quayle.

"They're squishy," Kristol said. Their White House friends were, as a colleague had put it, moonwalking backward.

Quayle picked up the phone and dialed Bush. The president was in a meeting, and the veep, while he waited, was put through to Sam Skinner instead. Skinner, in deep squish, argued for caution-they were, after all, taking on a very popular show.

"Hey, this is a winner, believe me," Quayle said.

"That's a minority view around here," Skinner replied.

The minority turned out to include the president, as Quayle learned when they finally connected. Bush said he had read the speech and thought it was terrific. Quayle hung up, smiling. "As usual," he said, "the president is better than his advisers."

His master's voice was sustaining, and so were the early returns from his assault on the cultural elite. Quayle's message was a hit with its target blocs of political and cultural conservatives. Field operatives were happy, for a change: somebody in the campaign had finally seemed to stand for something.

But gratitude, in politics, is fleeting, and so was Quayle's redemption. It ended the day he did a media event at a grade school in New Jersey and spelled the word "potato" with what nearly proved to be a terminal "e." The flub endeared him anew to standup comics and armed his enemies in Bush's circle with fresh ammunition to use against him.

The faction flirting with his removal was led by Bob Teeter and Fred Malek, the two top operating officers of the campaign. Early on, Teeter had considered shrinking Quayle's name on the official Bush-Quayle bumper sticker; by summer, he and Malek had come to prefer that it be replaced instead. The problem was that Bush was all but unapproachable on the subject. It wasn't just that he was a stubbornly loyal man, or that he abhorred scenes. It was that he had created Quayle as a national figure, raising him out of the backbenches of the Senate against the advice of his most trusted counselors. To fire him from the ticket would be seen not just as another flip-flop but as a confession of error.

There was no way to budge the president without compelling evidence that Quayle might cost him the election. Teeter went looking for some; without clearing it with Bush, he had a series of questions about the veep inserted in three national polls taken by the campaign during the summer. Their purpose was to measure whether Quayle was indeed dragging the president down-and if he was, to confront Bush with the potential cost of his loyalty.

The ploy didn't work out; the returns, though intriguing, were not nearly conclusive enough to carry forward to the president. The most provocative came when people were asked if they were more or less likely to vote for Bush if he offloaded Quayle. The raw figures showed that he stood to gain four to six points, a potentially decisive edge in a close race. But a closer reading suggested that the numbers were swollen by Democrats who wouldn't vote for Bush anyway and by Republicans who would, even if they preferred some other second banana.

The results also confirmed the caricature of Quayle as a dim bulb, but the veep seemed not to hurt in straight match-ups with Clinton and Gore. The only alternative who might have helped was Jim Baker, and he moved the needle just a couple of points. The profit in a coup seemed lower still in view of the risk to Bush; a majority in the polls thought that replacing Quayle would be a desperate act.

There was no hanging brief to lay before the president, as Teeter saw and Baker agreed when the two of them talked about the problem. Baker had been appalled by Quayle's nomination in 1988, and it was in fact his wish that the veep simply volunteer to go away. But no one who knew the Quayles believed that he would quit-Marilyn, a friend said, wouldn't let Dan do it.

The last faint hope left to the plotters was that Quayle might respond to smoke signals in the press and understand that he was not wanted. Word mysteriously leaked that his future on the ticket was not ensured. The day before the wave of dump-the-veep stories broke, Quayle himself raised the matter in his daily meeting with the president. Some of his aides would spin a story afterward that Quayle had volunteered to stand down if it would help and that Bush had told him to forget it. In fact, if he had made the offer, the president might by reliable account have accepted it.

THE TRUTH OF THEIR ENCOUNTER was a bit more complicated, a shadow play of things not said and meanings not apprehended. The Quayle-must-go stories, the veep had said with less than total confidence, were ridiculous. Bush agreed, or seemed to. He did say that some unnamed associates had been urging him to consider a change, but if his intent was to slip Quayle a hint, it didn't take. Quayle fastened instead on the boss's assurances that the best response to the stories was to ignore them.

"There's nothing to worry about," Quayle told his people afterward. "He's in good shape."

But his team sensed something less than confidence in Quayle's demeanor, and something less than finality when, at a photo op that morning, Bush said in response to a direct question that the veep's job security was "very certain." Now Quayle was in a high-risk position: to get the door unmistakably slammed, one of his men said, he was going to have to open it first. He was booked for an interview on "Larry King Live," the new arena theater of American politics, and in an afternoon prep session, the veep and his coaches rehearsed his lines. He would say that he was prepared to stand down in an Indiana minute if he thought he was hurting the president. But, he would add, he had concluded after much soul-searching that he was an asset and so would be staying on.

It was guts poker, and in the event, he got only the front half of his bluff out-the part about his willingness to disappear if it would help Bush get re-elected. There was no follow-up, no chance to accentuate his positives; the stories next morning made it sound as if he were bending his neck to the blade. He was still vulnerable, as he and his people agreed over breakfast. Maybe Bush was aboard, but the media scented blood, and the president simply had to stop the feeding frenzy before it got out of hand.

Quayle dropped by the Oval Office that day. The press was going crazy, he told Bush. He wanted to do something to stop the speculation. This time the president gave him permission to leak word that they had talked and that the case was closed-he would be on the ticket.

"Don't worry, the door's closed," Quayle told his staff later, this time with genuine relief. The story was leaked, as authorized.

The speculation quieted. The bluff worked.

The outcome was not quite what the Bush command had hoped for. Marilyn Quayle sensed as much; her antennae were at least a match for her husband's, and her sense of grievance lay closer to the surface of her skin. At the very eve of the convention, she worried aloud that Quayle might still be in jeopardy. She was wrong only about the realpolitik of the situation, not the wish of his enemies; they had lost their nerve at the doorsill to the Oval Office, and once Jim Baker chose sides against a coup, the case was effectively closed.

What the Second Lady did not know was that, even as the Republicans gathered in Houston, Baker was still talking wistfully among friends about what might have been had Quayle bowed out. Baker's interest in stopping the coup had had nothing to do with his feelings for the vice president, whom he held in some contempt. It was rather that dumping Quayle would have made one more mess for him to clean up now that the president had asked him to step in and save the campaign.

That Baker would be called in to rescue Bush's failing presidency had always been inevitable-a matter not of whether but of when. Though they were old and close friends, neither man was happy with the idea, and they put off confronting it as long as they could. Baker greatly preferred his role as global statesman, and Bush in turn was reluctant to concede to the world that he couldn't win without the man he sometimes called Little Brother-a term of affection with trace elements of sibling rivalry.

Sam Skinner and Bob Teeter, sitting atop the twin peaks of authority in the White House and the campaign, were both well-liked and well-pedigreed men, and Teeter in particular was Bush's close friend. But nothing appeared to be working under their bifurcated command. They had what one colleague, scatologically speaking, called a reverse Midas touch, and by summer, the president had lost confidence in both of them.

Teeter's problem, as even friends conceded, was his notorious prudence-a seeming inability to decide anything quickly or crisply. Bob was a great guy and a real pro, Ailes once said, but how could you spend 25 years in so nasty a business and not have anybody dislike you? The consensus that formed with time was that he had simply been miscast. His real profession was polling, and his habits of mind were more academic than managerial; he tended to see ambiguity rather than certainty, whether reading a poll or counting noses in a strategy meeting. Richard Nixon, for one, puzzled aloud in the spring as to what had possessed Bush to put a goddam pollster in charge of the show in the first place. If you wanted somebody great at analyzing data and talking issues, the former president said, send for Bob. But if you wanted to kick somebody in the balls, which more nearly described Nixon's view of how the game was played, you'd better get somebody else.

Skinner was rather less loved among Bush's retainers; it was only after he was gone that they began to eulogize him as a straight, honest, good-hearted soul and to describe his fall as a tragedy. He had promoted himself to chief of staff when Sununu got fired. But once in the White House, colleagues said, Skinner found himself out of his depth trying to manage government, politics and an increasingly cranky president all at once. His approach to his work struck one senior aide as pure scatter-all chaotic motion with no organizing principle. At times Skinner seemed almost to agree. "I don't have time to fix anything," he complained to a pal early on. "I'm fighting bleeping fires everywhere."

IT WAS PLAIN TO EVERYBODY, the president included, that the machine Skinner had inherited was a lemon. The bipolar structure was a huge mistake; decisions got stalled for days between the dithering on 15th Street and the muddle on Pennsylvania Avenue. There was no discipline, no clarity of message or purpose. Reaction times were slow. Speech texts were chronically late. Scheduling was ragged. An all-star media team recruited by Teeter on Madison Avenue was having trouble producing anything airworthy. Their early works included a summer flight of ads with Bush in tight close-up, free-associating earnestly to the camera. "The president as elevator music," one of the admen said dryly. "He's alone, he's there, he's a nice guy who just doesn't get it."

With intimations of mortality spreading through the White House, Dan Quayle could take little pleasure in his own deliverance; his midsummer's assessment of the situation was politics reduced to prayer. "Even if we run a perfect campaign," he told a friend, "we can't win unless we get a break."

Thus Jim Baker became a kind of cult object at the White House and the campaign-a distant totemic figure who, if the right prayers were uttered, could be induced to return from his realm in the middle air and put the world right. Teeter himself was an early advocate of his recall in private conversations with Bush. So, ironically, was Skinner; he raised it with the president in April, in one of their serial discussions of why the machinery was malfunctioning.

"It isn't structured right," Skinner said. "It isn't working."

Bush asked what could be done.

"We may need to get Baker back," Skinner said. "With this economy, we have no choice."

Both Skinner and Teeter imagined till the end that they could survive a putsch with their titles and authority intact; it was Teeter's assumption, indeed, that it was Skinner they were talking about superseding, not him, and he became an active supporter of a coup. At one point, he urged Quayle to press Bush for a change of command at the White House; at another, he tried to enlist George W. Bush. Both men favored Baker's return. "I don't have the brass to tell my old man how to run his White House," Junior demurred. Bush seemed bent on trying to make the existing arrangement work; it wasn't that bad, in his stubborn view, and if he started making changes, he said, everybody would paint it as panic.

Bush finally had to surrender to reality, and so, reluctantly, did Baker. On a fishing holiday at his getaway spread in Wyoming during the Democratic convention, he said yes to the president's plea for help. It was a trap he had hoped to avoid. The saving fact for him was that he couldn't lose either way. His strategically late arrival ensured that nobody could blame him if Bush lost. And if he won? Baker would be the hero of 1992 and perhaps the front runner for 1996.

It wasn't till the day of the announcement that Bush broke the news to Skinner that Baker would be coming in as chief of staff and that Skinner would be shipping out to the national party as something called general chairman. "I wish we didn't have to do it this way," Bush said. "It's no problem," Skinner said, swallowing his pride. "Whatever it takes. We've got no margin of error."

"Sam," Bush said gratefully, "you're a broad-gauged guy."

The coup was accomplished, and Baker moved smartly into his new role, bringing with him four favorite colonels from his past commands. Lines of authority became magically clear. Decisions that had taken days were made in minutes. The number of people in the room doing campaign business was slashed from a peak of 43 to a core group of 10, eight of them from the Baker bunch; Teeter was permitted to bring one person, usually Malek, from the campaign to their twice-daily meetings. The word "task" metamorphosed from noun to verb, as in so-and-so was tasked to do such-and-such. Deadlines for taskees were ruthlessly enforced, and so was Baker's First Law of Coherence, limiting meetings to a single subject; there were, as one regular said, no little speeches anymore.

Baker did not pretend to be happy in his work. "This job is miserable," he groused to a friend one week in. "I thought I was past this point in my life." Neither did he delude himself about Bush's prospects. The nearest he came to optimism was his assertion, often repeated, that the race was uphill but winnable. It was plain that Bush needed a boost, and the likeliest instrument, conveniently near at hand, was the Republican convention.

It began with a mistake-a deal making Pat Buchanan the de facto keynote speaker-and ended with a pasted-up acceptance speech including practically everything except poetry, promise or hope. The acts between got mostly negative reviews for their uniformly negative tone. For four nights in Houston, it was as if the melancholy state of the union counted for little as against the scarlet sins of liberals, lesbians, gays, Democrats, feminists, Congress, Greens, trial lawyers, single women who had babies, all women who aborted them-and, at the head of their advancing columns, Bill and Hillary Clinton.

The show in some measure followed the normal thermodynamic of party conventions: the cooler the voters to your own man, the higher the heat applied to the opposition. But some of Bush's handlers conceded afterward that they had let the brimstone quotient get out of hand. They had arrived in Houston with four strategic goals-first, to coax home the party hard core with large helpings of red meat; second, to tiptoe past the abortion issue without anybody noticing; third, to put forward a credible domestic agenda, and, fourth, to showcase Bush as a leader with a vision for a brighter tomorrow. They succeeded only at the first of these goals; the red-hots, a campaign topsider gloated, were white-hot now. The rest of the scenario somehow got left on the cutting-room floor.

The die had been cast with the decision, after the primaries, that Buchanan had to be appeased, that he and his brigades could wreck the convention if they were not made part of it. Sam Skinner was against doing him any favors, as was Rich Bond, for whom politics was a higher form of demolition derby. Bush, in his continuing pique, had directed his people not to make any overtures. "Look," he said, "I don't care whether he speaks at the convention or not, but we're not asking him." But among the rituals of political survival was the ancient precept that it was better to have the enemy inside the tent peeing out than the other way around.

Accordingly, a deal was struck. Negotiations, which began in the unlikely venue of a Sixth Avenue deli in Manhattan during the Democratic convention, concluded several weeks later in Bob Teeter's suite at the Jefferson Hotel. Buchanan, having muscled his way onto prime time, couldn't resist tweaking his former adversaries one last time on the president's swan dive in the polls. "Why are you guys so down in the mouth?" he asked mischievously. "When we hit 30 percent, we broke out the champagne."

America's first glimpse of the convention on network TV was Buchanan declaring the election a jihad-a religious and cultural holy war for the soul of the nation. God, he suggested, was on the Republicans' side; the Clintons had thrown in with the criminals, deviates and baby-killers. The speech opened the proceedings on a note of intolerance, a smallness of spirit from which it never wholly recovered. Even Dan Quayle complained privately that Pat had been far too harsh-that the pitch he struck and others sustained was jarringly at odds with the president's need to recreate himself as a man of broad and generous vision.

The show was also less than pleasing to Jim Baker, who had signed on too late to stage-manage it and so watched it from the shadows at a secure distance from blame. He was by no means squeamish: his own view of the field of battle was much as it had been in 1988-that there was no nice way for Bush to prevail.

"You've got the hard part," Charlie Black teased him one evening on the convention floor. "You get the president's positives where they need to be, and I'll get Clinton's negatives where they need to be."

Baker laughed in agreement. Redoing Bush was the hard part, perhaps impossible; for him to win re-election, Clinton would have to be destroyed.

BUT BAKER, TOO, worried that the negativism in Houston had gone a bit overboard. He was most visibly bothered by the one-note stress on family values as defined by men who appeared to have overdosed on reruns of "Father Knows Best." The president, in Baker's view, had problems enough with women voters over the issue of abortion without having his friends invent new ways to offend them.

The problem had been one of management: Bush's handlers had too easily yielded control of the podium and the platform to the scorched-earth ideologues of the right. That only intensified the pressure on Bush himself to deliver what the brokers of expectations in the press were saying would have to be The Speech of His Life. To succeed would have required Bush's metamorphosis from the in-box problem-solver he was by nature into a national leader of clear purpose and cogent views. Dick Darman, the budget director, had been arguing for months for what he described in a memo to the president as "Domestic Storm!"-an attack on America's home-front weaknesses as aggressive and focused as the war effort in the gulf. The agenda never came together, but the analogy was central to Baker's own ideas about framing the campaign. Bush, it would be argued, had been preoccupied in his first term with a world turned upside down, but he was home from the wars now and ready to take on the economy as he had Saddam Hussein.

The theme survived only in the blurriest form in his acceptance speech-a work doomed from the beginning by the manner of its composition. A babel of contributors was assembled. One draft was produced by Ray Price, who had furnished some of Richard Nixon's nearest approaches to poetry and was invited, at 62, to try his hand at a Vision Thing for Bush. A second was largely the work of Darman and Robert Zoellick, who commissioned Darman's deputy Bob Grady to cram it full of public-policy initiatives. The first version seemed a bit wet, the second too dry; Roger Ailes said it read like a mattress tag. Both were rejected, and Bush, to his great annoyance, arrived in Houston without so much as a workingscript. "We'd better start from scratch," he grumped.

His mood worsened as his people wrote, rewrote, scissored, pasted and bickered about priorities. Baker had stepped in with the convention already in progress and dragooned Ailes and Steve Provost, Bush's new chief speechwriter, to try to bring order to the chaos. What they created was a kind of policy sandwich, with some of Price's elegances wrapped around Darman and Zoellick's programmatic agenda. Shots at Clinton and Congress were freely salted in. So were the obligatory nods to God, country and family-and, at the close, the debut of George Bush of Andover, Yale and Kennebunkport in his unlikely new role as Give-'em-hell Harry Truman.

His performance, in the end, was better than his script; the speech was prosy, cluttered and long-longer even than Clinton's wordy celebration of himself and his candidacy at Madison Square Garden in July. It did little to fill in the large blank spaces in America's understanding of what the president stood for; his wordsmiths apparently despaired of finding the True Bush. The Bush they pieced together was a figure of grievance rather than hope-a president libeled by a liberal opponent and thwarted by an obstructionist majority on Capitol Hill. Blame was the most conspicuous element in his speech. Coherence was the least; it was as if he had emptied a truckload of bricks on the podium and said they were a house-or would have been if only Congress would let him assemble it.

The notices were mixed, but Bush seemed almost preternaturally calm and confident. To the well-wishers who came by his rooms at the Houstonian, he recommended David McCullough's new biography of Harry Truman, particularly the parts about how Truman had come back from the dead and won re-election in 1948 by running against an obstructionist Congress.

But as summer faded away, so did some of the president's optimism. "This is gonna be the worst two months of my life," he told an intimate a few days before his kickoff tour over Labor Day weekend. It seemed plain by then that he wasn't just talking about the wear and tear on a man of his advancing years. He knew his presidency was in peril, and, in unguarded moments, an uncharacteristic fatalism crept into his conversation. He was going to win, he said to a chum in the waning days of August, but if he should lose, hell-that had happened to other people, and life would just go on. His confidant was surprised; it was the first time he had ever heard his old friend concede even the possibility of his defeat.