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Bush missed opportunity in L.A., even aides admit Crisis handed him a presidential pulpit


WASHINGTON -- The Los Angeles riots handed President Bush a rare opportunity to demonstrate the kind of leadership, sense of purpose and carefully measured response that earned him great credit during the Persion Gulf war.

But even some White House aides concede that he failed to make the most of it.

In dealing with his first major domestic crisis, Mr. Bush was slow to engage and conflicted in his direction, and he failed to reach rhetorical heights that could do justice to the presidency's great power to inspire.

"He didn't blow it," said a senior administration official. "But it was a big fat opportunity that mostly got missed."

Mr. Bush's two-day trip to the riot zone last week did showcase some of his strengths.

The president let people vent their wrath at him face to face in one of the most dangerous parts of the country. He spoke out for justice as well as law and order and tried to bring a message of hope.

"If his trip has done nothing else, it has allowed people who are angry to tell somebody off," said Gerald McRaney, star of television's "Major Dad," who came to hear the president speak Friday at the Challengers Boys and Girls Club in the heart of the blackened neighborhoods.

Little noted was that Mr. Bush also mobilized the federal government in an unprecedented way to cut red tape and speed disaster relief to the riot victims. Among issues quickly resolved was whether victims of looting could qualify for the same emergency benefits as victims of fire. Bush aides made sure they could.

"This is one of the most important milestones of the George Bush's presidency," said Frederic V. Malek, manager of the Bush-Quayle re-election campaign. "He's taken charge, his adrenalin is flowing, and that's when George Bush is at his best."

Nothing comparable has befallen the country during Mr. Bush's watch except the decline of the economy, a problem that has proved impervious to speedy solutions.

"He can do more about this," Mr. Malek said a few hours before the president headed west last week.

So it was clearly unsatisfying when all Mr. Bush could promise after witnessing some of the worst horrors frustrated people can visit upon themselves was to make a new pitch for tax breaks for businesses that locate in inner cities -- a proposal that has been offered repeatedly over the past 12 years.

The fault lies partly with George Bush himself.

He has never been sure-footed on domestic policy, and he has clear problems relating to people whose life experiences have been so different from his own.

During one awkward moment Friday -- at the hospital bed of a firefighter shot in the face by a rioter -- the president tried to commiserate with the firefighter's wife and wound up talking about his $3 million storm-wrecked vacation home.

"Damn storm knocked down four or five walls," Mr. Bush told Kathi Miller. He explained that First Lady Barbara Bush, whose popular persona he often invokes to show warmth, was off repairing "what's left of our house."

The president's shortcomings on the domestic front make him all the more vulnerable to a staff grown so top-heavy that quantity has outstripped quality.

Disputes continued until after the president's Wednesday night arrival in Los Angeles about how hard he should hit the law-and-order theme and how much criticism he should level at what spokesman Marlin Fitzwater disparaged as the "liberal social welfare programs" of the 1960s and 1970s.

vTC In the first few days after the Rodney King verdict, these officials were split into two camps, with White House Chief of Staff Samuel K. Skinner, budget chief Richard G. Darman, Mr. Fitzwater and William Kristol, chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle, advocating the anti-violence theme.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack F. Kemp, Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan, speech writer Tony Snow and campaign issues aide Jim Pinkerton were among those looking for a more conciliatory approach.

After a lot of presidential to-ing and fro-ing to the tune of these competing themes, Mr. Bush finally wound up with a hodgepodge most of his staff flew to California to oversee.

An extraordinarily large contingent -- at least 50 top-level White House aides -- accompanied the president on his trip. A half-dozen Cabinet secretaries, their aides and a whole middle-level team of crisis managers were already there. Also in the area (but kept out of sight) were his top campaign officials.

The massive White House force that developed under Mr.

Skinner, who took over in December from John H. Sununu, has become a subject of ridicule in the executive agencies. Many of the double layer of top Bush aides are viewed as incompetent or in the wrong jobs.

By going to Los Angeles, Mr. Bush saw a slice of life a rich president hardly ever encounters, and he heard America speak back to him as it almost never does in his presence.

But he did not leave with a message of greater sympathy for the have-nots of American life.

"I've heard the shouts of anger and heard some whispered prayers," he told a gathering of Los Angeles police Friday. "We've seen utter devastation, . . . we've seen the beginnings of restoration. And we've seen the worst that human beings can do and then we've seen some of the very best."

Even though the not-guilty verdict in the police beating of Mr. King was the spark that touched off the riots and Los Angeles police were criticized for being too slow to respond when violence broke out, Mr. Bush said of the overall police performance, "You did what's right and you did what's demanded of you."

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