WASHINGTON — For George Bush, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times. On the positive side of the ledger he has defeated his opposition and now heads a unified party with lots of money, lots of time before the election and lots of campaign talent at his service.
Yet Bush is chained to his office. Haunted by the ghost of Ronald Reagan, Bush labors under the curse of the veep: he inherits few of Reagan's pluses and most of his negatives.
These negatives now center on three problems: Edwin Meese III, the precise departure of Panama's Gen. Manuel A. Noriega and the Iran-Contra affair. No one of these is likely to cost him the election, but together they can sink him. For they are, in a political way, no longer Reagan's problems, they are Bush's. And as vice president he has no power to resolve them.
This institutional impotence will revive last fall's charges of weakness put to rest by Bush's comeback victory in New Hampshire. Bush must have better things to do than play the lead in his own summer sequel: "Return of the Wimp."
The Meese episode illustrates the problem. Bush's aides allowed him to keep his hands clean by giving an unsubtle shove to the attorney general-turned-leper. "Meese is a liability," one said. Yet Bush followed up by saying he knew Meese "favorably" but was "troubled" by the charges, whatever that means. The veep went on to disavow any public position at all on Meese's continuing in office: "I deny I have ever given my opinion to anybody."
What he ought to do is be straightforward. Go to Reagan and ask for Meese's resignation. If he doesn't get it the appropriate leaks to the press on what he recommended would be in order. Followed, of course, by a refusal to discuss what he has told the President. This, alas, is about as straight as vice presidents can get.
On the Noriega caper Bush should go further than his recent efforts to separate himself from previous White House policy. He should go beyond last week's public posturing to let it be known that he is the strongest voice in the Administration--tough on our adversaries, tough on drugs. A hint that Panama's thug could have expected even worse from a Bush Administration would further promote the veep's independence and strength.
More proof of Bush's manliness needs to be given at the office. His trusted trustee, Donald P. Gregg, has been linked to just about all the dirty deeds that George wants to know from nothing about. At the least Gregg should take a leave, at best he can write his own resignation letter and at worst Bush should fire the guy.
On Iran-Contra this writer's advice is premised on an unproved belief shared by millions of other taxpayers: Bush knows more than he's saying and he was involved up to his pedigree. Accordingly he should stonewall. Don't answer the questions, say it's in the courts and whenever a reporter shouts something unclear about Iran, never, never say "Pardon?"
Whenever Bush dodges questions, he re-emphasizes his position as a vice president. In a sense the only person in the country who can't say what he'd do as President is the vice president. If Bush wants to reach for the presidency he will have to loosen his grasp on the vice presidency. That also means unraveling ties to Reagan; while the Gipper can't win one for 'ole George, he can surely lose it for him.