ALBION, Mich. — Vice President George Bush, beginning a series of speeches aimed at outlining themes on which he intends to run for President in 1988, urged American educators Saturday to teach "the basic values, the differences between right and wrong."
With the speeches, Bush is trying to take the first steps away from President Reagan's shadow to establish his own political identity.
Speaking at the commencement for Albion College, a small private college here, Bush emphasized the importance of ethics and personal values in public life. Acknowledging that the Iran- contra s candal has damaged the Administration he has served for more than six years, he condemned those "individuals who haven't had the judgment or integrity to put the public's business above their own selfish interest."
"And if they're accurate," he continued, "I find these reports of people setting up meetings at the White House for large sums of money especially disturbing."
With the Democratic front-runner for the presidential nomination, Gary Hart, out of the campaign because of damaging revelations about his private life, attention is likely to focus more closely on the character of all the other candidates, especially Bush, the early Republican favorite.
In eight commencement speeches over the next month that will take him to different regions of the country, including several key early battleground states such as Michigan, Iowa and New Hampshire, Bush hopes to overcome a public perception of him as a weak and relatively ineffectual leader.
While Bush continued to rely strongly upon Reagan's optimistic vision of the future, he also clearly sought to draw a line between himself and those who committed acts that some critics argue have been encouraged by the Administration's zealous support for the contras fighting the leftist regime in Nicaragua and by its ideological commitment to unfettered free enterprise.
"Many in this country still have much to learn about right and wrong. Recently, we've seen stories about illegal insider trading schemes on Wall Street and improper influence peddling in Washington," Bush said. "But just because we support free enterprise doesn't mean we can't be critical of its excesses. And as for those who go over the line into criminality, I say throw the book at them."
Later, in a similar commencement address at Waldorf College, a two-year institution in Forest City, Iowa, Bush expanded on his theme that the nation "cannot deal with the future unless we let go of the past."
Bush, demonstrating the difficulty of his delicate balancing act, hinted at a few ways in which he might differ from Reagan's policies while also seeking to bask in the reflected benefits of today's relatively favorable economic climate.
Thus, without separating himself from Reagan's agriculture policies, Bush acknowledged that the current situation has also produced widespread hardship that has forced many farmers to lose their land. "We cannot allow a particular region of the country to suffer the way the Farm Belt has when the country as a whole has had 53 straight months of economic growth and prosperity," Bush said.