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Sound of Silence--Momentarily--Music to Bush's Ears

January 28, 1988|JOHN BALZAR | Times Political Writer

PIERRE, S.D. — The sweetest sound Vice President George Bush heard on Wednesday was the sound of silence.

"Are there more questions?" Bush asked. "I just didn't want it said that I didn't answer them all."

And for a moment there were none--just a quiet press conference room, the shuffling of feet, a nervous cough.

Lingering Perception

Having taken on Dan Rather on Monday, Bush held a formal give-it-all-you've-got press conference to try to take on the lingering perception that he will not come clean on what he knew of the Iran-Contra scandal.

The questions came, sure enough, about his confusing role in the arms-for-hostage deal. But in the end the matter seemed to be about third in importance, behind interest in the Bush-Rather encounter and local farm matters.

Bush said he was surprised to learn that CBS had "surreptitiously" left an open microphone on him following his angry confrontation with the nation's No. 1-ranked network anchorman. And he apologized for using the word goddamn afterward.

"I wouldn't have taken the Lord's name in vain and I apologize for that. I was not amused . . . (but) please understand you're looking at a competitor and the adrenaline gets flowing, and when I finished those 16 minutes it was flowing, believe me. But I didn't know it was being taped or I wouldn't have said it."

But he dismissed charges by Republican presidential rival Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas that the off-the-air outburst raised doubts about the vice president's ability to deal with world leaders.

Kept Composure

"Yeah, I was mad when that was over but I think my composure was represented beautifully before the American people," Bush said.

"Can he stand up and take the pressure?" Dole asked at a high school in Berlin, N.H. "If he can't stand up to Dan Rather . . . you've got to deal with Mikhail Gorbachev and a few other people."

Bush, campaigning in South Dakota and Wyoming, continued to be barraged with evidence of how deeply moved voters have been by the Rather interview--buttons, petitions, signboards and stickers. All seemed to be pro-Bush and anti-Rather.

"It's clear that a chord was hit. Something important happened," Bush told a group of legislative interns at a brown-bag lunch here. "Something important happened . . . it may be that they (viewers) saw a guy standing up there by himself, defending himself, and people like that."

At his news conference, Iran-Contra questions chiefly focused on a July, 1986, meeting Bush had with Amiram Nir, then Israel's top counterterrorism official. A staff memo recapping the meeting suggested Bush was briefed about efforts to gain the release of U.S. hostages.

Piece of a Puzzle

Bush had previously given hazy accounts of how he recalled the meeting. On Wednesday, he told reporters he listened to Nir, but did not ask questions, and treated the information as "a very tiny piece of a very complicated puzzle."

He added: "We did what we should do. My chief of staff passed it immediately back to the National Security Council, where it would be analyzed. . . ."

If he knew then what he knows now, Bush insisted the briefing would have struck him differently and "set off alarm bells."

"But I don't have 20-20 hindsight," he added.

Other questions about the arms-for-hostage deal involved Bush's continuing refusal to disclose one element of his involvement--the nature of his advice to the President. As he has said before, Bush said this was a matter of principle that he would not violate.

As he welcomed all comers at the press conference to ask him about the subject of the Iran-Contra deal, Bush stuck with his view that rank-and-file voters do not share interest in the matter.

"People are not concerned. They had questions and their questions have been answered."

Staff writer Frank Clifford contributed to this story from Berlin, N.H.

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