ANOTHER AUGUST IN MAINE But this year, Bush puts golf clubs aside


KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine -- Last summer, when an international crisis marred President Bush's vacation for the second year in a row, White House photographers had a special T-shirt made.

It features a photo of Mr. Bush, golf club in hand, grimacing toward the heavens and obviously teed-off. "What is it about August?" the caption reads.

Now, it's another August in Maine and another Bush vacation. But this year, the president, facing an uphill battle for re-election, seems eager to throw his golf clubs aside and answer the call of duty in world affairs.

"I hope you'll say that, because it's the truth," Mr. Bush told reporters summoned to his seaside home Saturday afternoon for an update on the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. "This is something that a commander-in-chief and a president has to deal with, and I plan to do it."

Mr. Bush had nothing new to announce. But he took several questions from almost every reporter and -- in another departure from routine -- kept going until they had nothing more to ask.

The golf clubs, which Mr. Bush refused to forsake during the PTC tense weeks following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, and last August's coup against Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, were nowhere in evidence.

Mr. Bush has avoided any activity that would allow photographers to show him relaxing. He hasn't even taken his beloved speedboat, Fidelity, out for a spin since his arrival Friday.

"I'm trying to conduct the foreign affairs and the national security affairs of this country . . . doing what's right and not be influenced by political criticism," Mr. Bush insisted Saturday.

A White House spokeswoman sidestepped the question of whether Mr. Bush was deliberately avoiding the golf links, noting that yesterday there was "bad weather." This was offered with a laugh -- Mr. Bush once played 18 holes in Bermuda in a driving rainstorm.

Golf is important to Mr. Bush. He likes it because it's social and it allows him to get some exercise without putting as much strain on his knees and hips as running. He plays the game so fast -- with a personal record of one hour and 59 minutes for 18 holes -- that local players call it "cart polo."

But he seems to have finally gotten a message that Democrats have been hammering home for months: that his recreational pursuits show little in common with average Americans struggling in the stagnant economy.

"The golf course is just the worst single place you can put him," Democratic pollster Peter Hart said. "The image is of a country club Republican who seems very comfortable with the way things are going."

Republicans, too, have been critical of the signals that Mr. Bush's golfing and speedboating send to the millions who have never known his wealth.

"It appears to 'Kmart Republicans' that 'these are not folks who understand the way we live,' " said Gary Bauer, a former adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

Even so, Mr. Bush has bowed to the point only reluctantly.

Not long ago, this vacation was scheduled to last nearly two weeks as the president prepared to claim his nomination for a second term at the Republican National Convention in Houston next week.

After Yitzhak Rabin won the post of Israeli prime minister in June, a gleeful White House hastily invited him here -- partly to give Mr. Bush's holiday the luster of a foreign policy summit. That two-day session begins today.

But when Mr. Bush's position in the polls failed to rebound after the big boost that Democrat Bill Clinton got from his July convention and bus tour, the rest of the president's vacation was scrapped.

He is scheduled to return to Washington with Mr. Rabin tomorrow.

But he will get a chance for recreation today, when he and Mr. Rabin take an afternoon break.

It will probably be tennis or boating, the White House says. Definitely no golf.

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