SOFIA, Bulgaria -- The scene in jam-packed Alexander Nevski Square on the last stop of Vice President Dan Quayle's tour of Central and Eastern Europe could not have been scripted better for him.
As many as 40,000 cheering Bulgarians waved small American flags and chanted "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" as Quayle praised their country's drive toward democracy and pledged U.S. support in its efforts to restructure its decimated economy.
At his side as he spoke was former dissident, now president, Zhelyu Zhelev, leader of the anti-Communist coalition that hopes to wrest control of the parliament from the sagging Communists in the next election, expected to be held this fall.
It was an exhilarating experience for Quayle, the highest-ranking American official ever to visit Bulgaria and a fervent anti-Communisthimself for most of his 44 years. The rally capped a tour that earlier had taken him to Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia, all liberated from Communist control in the tumultuous fall and winter of 1989-90.
It was hard to say whether interest in Quayle produced the very large crowd or whether the Bulgarians in Sofia used his presence as an opportunity to demonstrate their increasing impatience with the Communists' narrow hold on the parliament.
Well before the American vice president appeared, the crowd had worked itself up with chants of support for the anti-Communist coalition and the singing of the old anti-war song "Give Peace a Chance," with lyrics denouncing the Bulgarian Communist Party.
But, whatever the reason for the buoyant mood, the rally served as a fitting and dramatic climax to Quayle's five-day swing last week marking his first visit to any country of the old Communist bloc in Eastern Europe. His message here as in the other stops was one of general American support for the reforms the countries are taking, but with limited financial aid to back up his words.
Here in Bulgaria, Quayle brought news of a grant of 200,000 metric tons of corn under the Bush administration's Food for Progress program, worth an estimated $23 million for the feed grain itself and another $10 million for its transportation across the Atlantic. A severe drought here last year sharply reduced Bulgaria's corn crop, and the United States previously had donated 100,000 tons of corn.
But, compared with the country's immense needs in attempting to develop a free-market economy and lessen dependence on the Soviet Union, these grants were essentially tokens of American support. Quayle sought here, as well as in his stops in the other old bloc countries, to drive home the central theme that they must look not to American dollars but to Western markets generally with products and reformed trade policies that themselves will bring economic recovery.
Bulgaria, like the other former Soviet satellites, had much of its economic direction dictated by Moscow, moving the country from its traditional posture as an agrarian state to one with heavy industry imposed upon it. With Soviet markets for Bulgarian goods sharply diminishing, Quayle urged Bulgarians to look to the West for new markets and to privatize Bulgarian industry as an incentive for Western investment.
In this regard, Quayle also signed an agreement with high Bulgarian officials clearing the way for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, set up to facilitate the flow of Western investment into the old bloc countries, to explore possibilities in Bulgaria. He also discussed with Bulgarian leaders the prospects for the granting of most-favored-nation treatment by the United States.
In the other countries visited as well, Quayle had token grants or gifts to make to underscore American commitment to the democratization of the region. But he held fast in all of them to the theme of "trade, not aid" that has drawn criticism in some quarters as failing to grasp fully and imaginatively the opportunity presented by the collapse of the Communist grip on Central and Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War.
"Trade, not aid," however, has emerged as the firm policy of the Bush administration, pleading not simply that the American budget crunch at home prohibits any massive aid but also that it is in the best interest of the countries of the old Communist bloc that they reform their economies and work their own way back to economic health.
In delivering this message, Quayle demonstrated an ability to hew to the policy line, with differences only in emphasis. When he proclaimed in Budapest, for example, that massive aid to the Soviet Unionwas "really a non-starter," it sounded at first as if he were getting ahead of official U.S. policy. But other administration officials later essentially confirmed the position.
In frequent ceremonial events and a high-level schedule that included talks with such world figures as Germany's Helmut Kohl, Poland's Lech Walesa and Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel, Quayle conducted himself adequately if a bit woodenly.
He worked hard in preparing for the talks but was guarded in most of his comments, avoiding the kind of gaffes that haunted him as a candidate in 1988 and on some earlier vice-presidential trips and maintaining an arm's length distance from accompanying reporters.
An earlier vice president named Richard Nixon, who like Quayle today had many detractors, learned in time to convert similar meetings with prominent world figures into political capital at home.
Still, because the trip did not make much news, it is questionable how much Quayle did for himself in breaking down the pesky impression that he is not really prepared to assume the presidency if necessary. It is his plight that the spotlight seldom turns on him unless he does commit a gaffe, or new questions about the state of President Bush's health focus attention on him.
But Bush said after his last bout with an irregular heartbeat that he was sympathetic with Quayle's image problem and would do what he could to help him cope with it. More trips like this one may be in the offing. They always carry risks for a man who has been gaffe-prone in the past. But they can be an opportunity as well if Quayle is really as helpful to the administration as Bush says he is.