ACCORDING to Marlin Fitzwater, the White House press secretary, President Bush thinks the reaction to his irregular heart beat "is a lot of hoopla about nothing." But that's not what the rest of Washington thinks. It gets a heart flutter of its own every time a president's heart skips a beat. It is not worried about Bush's physical condition, but it is thinking psychologically in a different way.
It is reassured by his doctors' optimistic medical reports, but not by the suggestions that he will soon be back on his regular routine. For that routine is a frenzy of physical activity, even during vacation, and his closest friends worry that his problem is not a "shortness of breath" but a shortness of rest -- and patience.
His daily engagement calendar tells us more about his heart problem than his medical charts do. He is physically in motion and mentally impulsive. Even Camp David is not a refuge but an arena for sports and argument. He saw more congressmen, held more news conferences, flew more miles and saw more world leaders in his first eight months in office than Ronald Reagan did in eight years.
He promised a "gentler America" but went to war in Panama to get rid of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, and didn't know what to do with him when he caught him. And he went to war again, to get rid of Saddam Hussein, who was, he said, "worse that Hitler" -- an obvious impossibility.
One result of this activity was that he stood higher in the popularity polls at this point in his first term than any president has since Franklin D. Roosevelt -- so much so that most observers have assumed his re-election. But this heart problem has revived the question of succession, the doubts about his choice of Dan Quayle as vice president.
He has even awakened the Democrats from their long sleep -- an astonishing development.
Unlike Ronald Reagan's mistakes, Bush's catch up with him. Noriega was on the CIA payroll when Mr. Bush headed that agency. Bush was involved in rearming Iraq before the Mideast war, and has refused to publish the record of those arms deals or accept responsibility for encouraging Saddam Hussein to believe that Washington did not intervene in Arab disputes.
All these issues had been virtually forgotten until this sudden warning about the president's health.
Just a few days ago, chief of staff Sununu was saying that there was no doubt but that Quayle would be on the Bush ticket in 1992, but today other Republican leaders are not so sure. Not that Quayle has been a surprise. He has performed precisely as expected. He has been discreet, obedient, modest and devoid of presidential pretensions -- or evidence of ability to govern. In a way, he has been badly treated -- chucked into a position for which he was not prepared -- mainly for Bush's personal and political convenience.
Accordingly, recent events have restored two of the most pressing but neglected problems in Washington: How our political leaders are chosen, and how decisions of great impotance are made.
George Bush was probably better prepared for the presidency than any other nominee since the Second World War. His career in politics, diplomacy, business and intelligence was ideal training, but he has acted as his own secretary of state, without much attention to the world's best Foreign Service; concentrated on foreign policy, using cold war tactics, and left the mounting domestic problems of debt, education, race and health primarily to John Sununu's political mind.
Meanwhile, he talks of a new world order in a new American century, which can be directed only by the power of the United States. But simpler and more urgent questions now come to the fore.
As Dwight D. Eisenhower said when he got out of Korea and refused to plunge deeper into Vietnam, nothing is more unpredictable than war and more uncertain than human life. Ike benefited by his heart attack in 1955. It made him more cautious than he was in the early days of his first term -- more suspicious of what he called the military-industrial complex -- and more eager to assure himself of the support of Congress and the allies before risking war. It could be that this minor accident will do the same for Bush.
James Reston writes for the New York Times.