BRUSSELS — Vice President George Bush, who has been hoping to make a strong political impression with his trip through Europe, instead may have created a political problem for himself Friday by suggesting that Detroit auto makers might benefit from the expertise recently demonstrated by Soviet tank mechanics.
Bush made the comment after he met here with ambassadors of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and discussed a recent Soviet military exercise in which 350 tanks took part and not a single one broke down.
"As I told them in there (in the meeting)," Bush said, " 'Hey, when the mechanics who keep those tanks running run out of work in the Soviet Union, send them to Detroit, because we could use that kind of ability . . . that's quite an achievement in an operation.' "
Hears NATO Concerns
The vice president had been discussing NATO concerns that the proposed U.S.-Soviet agreement on eliminating intermediate nuclear weapons will leave Europe vulnerable to the Soviet advantage in conventional forces in Europe. Bush was asked by reporters what he had learned from the NATO ambassadors in the meeting.
"It wasn't so much a question of learning what is new--except I learned from the ambassador from Italy, or maybe it was Norway, that the Soviets had an operation recently where they had 350 tanks and never had a mechanical breakdown. That's what I learned that was new."
Then he added the comment about "that kind of ability" being useful in Detroit.
Bush, winding up a nine-day European journey that has taken him to Italy, Poland, Germany, France, Britain and Belgium, has clearly hoped to build up a running start for his presidential campaign, which will officially begin when he formally announces his candidacy Oct. 12.
Heads Soon for Detroit
Ironically, three days after his announcement, his speaking schedule takes him to Detroit, where auto makers are sensitive to criticism of the quality of automobiles made in the United States. And, although Detroit is no Republican Party stronghold, Bush's comment is not likely to draw much applause there, even from Republicans.
Peter Laarman, public relations director for the United Auto Workers, contacted by telephone in Detroit, said, "It's ludicrous to suggest that the Soviet Union's mechanical prowess has advanced beyond the United States'." He added that, if there have been mechanical problems with U.S. tanks in the past, it was because of "over-design," not any failure of U.S. workers.
A press aide to the vice president said later that what Bush meant was that "those quality technicians would be welcomed for the high quality of work that's done in Detroit."
Aide Explains Statement
Craig Fuller, the vice president's chief of staff, said Bush's comment reflected a recent meeting with Ford's top executives, who talked about their emphasis on quality. Thus, said Fuller, Bush's statement meant that auto companies are always looking for good mechanics. He acknowledged that he did not want Bush's remarks to be misinterpreted in Michigan.
But the comment drew attention to the political content of the vice president's journey.
A six-person film crew has accompanied the vice president on this trip, gathering footage of Bush in conversation with world leaders and the top political dissidents of Poland, including Lech Walesa, leader of the banned trade union Solidarity.
He has been traveling on an Air Force plane usually reserved for President Reagan. His arrivals at the airports of Western Europe have been treated as lavish state occasions, with honor guards in full dress uniforms and brass bands playing.
Sees Trip as a Plus
A top political aide to the vice president acknowledged earlier this week that the trip was seen as a political plus for Bush but discounted speculation that domestic American politics was its primary purpose.
"It's my view," the aide said, "that any time he travels or is engaged in some foreign policy activity, it helps him politically because it accentuates what is a strength for him. It highlights his experience, so I'm not the least bit reluctant to have him travel on trips, although, really, the desire was to make sure, if we traveled this year, that the trip had some meaning and significance."
The film crew is being paid out of Bush campaign funds, but the cost of the trip, estimated at more than $1 million, is being paid by U.S. taxpayers.