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Prevailing winds


THE beginning of the end came at a moment of great triumph. The sound is what I remember best about the State of the Union message George Bush delivered to Congress on Jan. 29, 1991, just two weeks after the gulf war began -- the sound not of his voice but of the huzzahs, the cheers, the roars that interrupted him time after time.

No matter that the speech was long on the self-congratulation of a country engaged in foreign conflict and very short on a domestic program. The room was stuffed to bursting with approval, like helium, threatening to levitate the man.

Did he remember that night when he looked into the unforgiving eye of the camera Monday and pleaded with the American people to vote for him, a little plaintive, a little perplexed?

There is an omnipresent argument in civics: Is an elected official meant to follow his own principles or is he meant to be a surrogate, to stand in always for the desires of those he represents?

In his public life George Bush has epitomized the latter, the man who puts a wet forefinger up to the prevailing winds. His repeated accusation in the final debate that Bill Clinton does not stand firm on principle is disingenuous. Unlike Clinton, George Bush has never been canny enough to cast his pragmatism as a signal virtue. But he has always been an adaptable man.

When the prevailing winds blew against Saddam Hussein in favor of an America puffed up by a battle against a detestable foe, the president was in luck. His ratings soared. He believed his press; so did we.

Over my desk hangs a column I wrote in March 1991 that contains the sentence "George Bush will be re-elected president in 1992." It is there to remind me of the dangers of hubris. Unlike Mr. Bush, I will not lose my job because of the miscalculation.

But what is a man to do when there are no prevailing winds? It would be a simpler matter if the voters could tell Mr. Bush what they require. But they don't know exactly, particularly within the complicated confines of economic policy.

If only it could be like the Persian Gulf war: quick, decisive, sure-handed. It was easy for the president to pick out his friends and revile his enemies. It must be hard to realize now that the electorate can be both friend and foe. Bush talked over and over again during the last debate about a Clinton pattern of constantly shifting positions. But the Clinton pattern that has loomed largest in this campaign is one of indefatigability. The women, the draft, the anti-war activities, the trip to Russia -- Bill Clinton has come to resemble one of those inflatable children's toys with sand weighting the bottom. You knock him over, he pops back up.

It is a compelling image for voters battered by the economy and eager to get back on their feet. The attacks everyone thought would bring him down may just help elect the man in the long run.

The debates are done. There was a great irony to the idea that they were George Bush's best chance for salvation; he has never been a person who does well off the cuff. That was clear when he almost offhandedly evoked the "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" question. It is a question Mr. Bush should never, ever ask.

For me, the beginning of the end was that speech nearly two years ago, when the internal needs of the nation were drowned out by cheering for the commander in chief, drowned out for too long.

And the end was in this final debate, a small moment really,

when Mr. Bush referred to the state of Arkansas as the "lowest of the low." We all knew what he meant, that it is a poor state, a state with problems, a state whose governor is not the political prestidigitator he claims. But that's not how it came out.

Paired with his heated defense of the "national honor" when Ross Perot asked some very pressing questions about the diplomacy preceding the gulf war, Mr. Bush's low blow made Arkansas seem disposable. The prevailing winds blow cold for a president who so clearly prefers statecraft to states.

"Three weeks from now," the president began his closing statement, then looked skyward and began again, groping for how much time he had left. "Two weeks from tomorrow."

Nov. 3, Mr. President. That is the deadline for the invasion of Washington by opposition forces, if that makes it easier to remember.

Anna Quindlen writes a column for the New York Times.

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