Bush ambivalent about new status He likes mingling but misses action


WASHINGTON -- George Bush's journey from the center of global power to almost instant obscurity turned out to be a little rougher than he expected.

In the nearly two months since he left the White House, the former president seems to be flaunting his new freedom. He sits in the stands at baseball games, flies coach on commercial planes, even carried a new hand-held video camera aboard a cruise ship to film his fellow passengers.

Yet, in the nondescript Houston office building where Mr. Bush now spends most of his days, he feels rudely cut off from the world. There, he devotes long hours to telephoning old friends in Washington, sometimes on a daily basis, just to keep in touch.

"It's information withdrawal; we're all going through it," says Marlin Fitzwater, Mr. Bush's White House press secretary. "One minute you're plugged into the most sophisticated communications network in the world, and the next you don't know what's going on. It's the thing I miss the most about the White House."

The former president will get a chance to reconnect a bit tomorrow when he makes his first return trip to Washington to accept an award from the defense industry.

Although he said in January he had had enough of head tables and told friends he planned to keep a low profile for at least a year, Mr. Bush is scheduled to appear at a dinner in his honor sponsored by the National Security Industrial Association.

Mr. Bush is fulfilling a commitment made before he surrendered the Oval Office to Bill Clinton, and has no plans to say anything to the audience except "Thank you."

He and his wife, Barbara, will be in the Washington area just the one night, staying with their daughter, Dorothy Koch, in Chevy Chase. A breakfast with old friends is planned for Friday morning before the two return to their home in Texas.

After 30 years in politics, the former president can be forgiven if he can't quite live up to his own standard for departing without a backward glance.

"It is a kind of a decompression thing," says Vic Gold, a Washington writer and long-time Bush friend. "He's been in the public eye since 1979.

"It's not like we're batting around the Clinton tax plan," Mr. Gold says of his telephone conversations with Mr. Bush. "It's just jammering, what people are doing and who's where."

Mr. Bush has been besieged with requests for speaking engagements, but is sifting through them very carefully, Mr. Fitzwater says. All requests for interviews have so far been denied.

The former president has been advising Brent Scowcroft, his one-time national security adviser, on how to set up a new foreign policy institute. But a decision on a new direction for his own life is still seems to be months off.

Yet Mr. Bush seems to be inching back into a new kind of limelight.

In mid-February, he and Mrs. Bush took a Caribbean cruise, during which the former president walked around on deck with a new video camera filming other passengers.

"He'd walk up to them and say, 'Hi, I'm George Bush,' They just go, 'Oh, wow,' and he'd keep filming the whole time," says Andy Maner, Mr. Bush's current spokesman. "I love to watch the film. He has a different little humor nugget on everyone he talked to."

In early March, Mr. Bush traveled to Alabama to take part in a charity fishing tournament. Last week, Mr. Bush shared some of his recollections on the presidency with a small, private group in Vancouver, British Columbia, headed by longtime friend Jim Pattison.

Air Force One is no longer at his disposal for such trips, of course, and friends' private jets are not always available, either. But Mr. Bush is not averse to flying commercially, even in coach class.

"One time, he and Mrs. Bush each sat on an aisle with other people on either side of them," Mr. Maner says. "He loves it. He says people just come up to him and talk, say hello. He doesn't mind it at all."

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