THE 41ST PRESIDENT of the United States isn't too impressed with the 42d. "I can't believe I lost to this guy," George Bush has been saying to friends about Bill Clinton. The columnist Jack Anderson quotes from a recent letter Bush wrote: "Aren't these people" -- the Clinton administration -- "unbelievable? Can you believe they run things?"
What especially galls Bush, it seems, is Clinton's foreign policy.
"I am very concerned about America's lack of leadership around the world," he said in Salem last year. "I don't believe the administration has gotten it together yet in terms of foreign policy." He derides Clinton's "stop-and-start foreign policy," observing: "It's dangerous to face . . . a crisis with hesitation."
This from the man whose reaction to the carnage bloodying the Balkans in July 1992 was to shrug it off as "a hiccup." This from the man so fearful of offending China's rulers that he refused to say anything after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. "Not the time for an emotional response," President Bush demurred the day after the slaughter. Four days later, though, there was something he felt compelled to say: "I don't think we ought to judge the whole People's Liberation Army by that terrible incident."
Oh, no. Wouldn't be prudent.
Whatever Bush may think of Clinton, there's little doubt what America thinks of Bush. Three years ago the electorate crushed him flatter than a beer can against a fraternity boy's forehead. He drew just 37 percent of the popular vote -- less than George McGovern in 1972. It puts Bush's animadversions upon Clinton into perspective to recall that his defeat was the most utter rejection of a sitting president since William Howard Taft was beaten 80 years earlier.
Clinton may be ejected next year himself, of course. But it won't be because voters are pining for the good old days when George and Bar were in the White House.
Those were the days when America was led by someone whose guiding belief was to have no guiding beliefs. "The vision thing" -- that was Bush's mocking term for commitment to a set of basic principles. Clinton cares overmuch about poll numbers, but the Bush crew was obsessed with them. In September 1989, Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell scored Bush for his "timidity" in the face of Eastern Europe's upheaval. Secretary of State James Baker smirked in response that "when the president of the United States is rocking along with a 70 percent approval" rating, reproaches from the opposition could be safely ignored.
That was Bushism, distilled to its essence: Forget what's right -- what's popular?
A presidency that lives and breathes by opinion surveys is always a presidency aflutter, doing today what it swore yesterday never to do. A "stop-and-start foreign policy?" The label fits Bush's record even better than Clinton's.
(*) When Panamanian officers rose against strongman Manuel Noriega in October 1989, US troops sat on their hands -- even though Bush had been calling for Noriega's removal all year and had been told about the coup in advance. "What some people seem to have wanted me to do is to unleash the full military to go in and, quote, 'get Noriega,'" he snapped when criticized for his passiveness. "But that's not prudent. That's not the way I plan to conduct the military or foreign affairs of this country."
Ten weeks later Bush launched a full-scale invasion of Panama. Its mission: Get Noriega.
(*) As the Soviet Union's ruler, Mikhail Gorbachev, grew increasingly dictatorial, Bush refused to adjust his "Gorbachev-right-or-wrong" policy. He backed him unconditionally, even when Gorbachev demanded power to rule by decree. Even when Soviet troops cut down civilians in the streets of Vilnius. Even when Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze resigned, warning, "Dictatorship is approaching." Even in August 1991, when eight hard-line Stalinists seized control of the Kremlin and Boris Yeltsin climbed upon a tank to stare them down.
Only after Gorbachev became irrelevant and the Communist Party was abolished did Bush at last abandon his Gorbocentric fallacy.
(*) The Gulf War may have been, as many believe, Bush's finest hour. But considering his insistence that Saddam Hussein -- "worse than Hitler" -- had to be uprooted, his victory in the Gulf was incomplete and unsatisfying. Bush ended the war; he clearly didn't finish it.
The far more damning truth is that if it weren't for Bush's blunders, there would have been no war in the first place. His administration pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into Iraq, then turned a blind eye as Saddam built up his war machine. In July 1990, Bush's envoy to Baghdad gave Saddam the green light to move into Kuwait. "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab differences, like your border disagreement with Kuwait," Ambassador April Glaspie told him. Three weeks later, Iraq invaded.
President Clinton's handling of foreign affairs -- from his Japan-bashing over trade to his silence about Chechnya to his mistreatment of Haitian refugees -- has often been inept. But at least he hasn't tempted any country into overrunning its neighbor. Whatever criticism Clinton may deserve, he doesn't deserve to hear it from George Bush.