TOKYO — There is in George Bush, as in many successful politicians, an element that is always on stage, an element of the eternal campaigner who responds with the instinctive gesture, sometimes incongruous and sometimes just right.
And so it was in Tokyo, notwithstanding the dreary mood of a rainy February afternoon, the solemnity of the state funeral of Emperor Hirohito and, on top of all that, the worrisome political problems posed by his troubled nomination of John Tower to be secretary of defense. Incongruity and the perfect touch, moments apart.
The funeral for the emperor who had reigned in wartime Japan was not a simple rite. It was a precisely staged ceremony of official mourning. The name of the man it memorialized brought back from fading memory the atrocities of World War II.
Arriving at the U.S. Embassy after this affair of state, the formally attired President flashed a thumbs-up sign--the simple gesture in incongruous contrast to the somber tenor of the occasion.
Moments later, he tossed aside a prepared address, delivered an off-the-cuff speech to a crowd of Americans at the embassy, and then spied a cluster of youngsters in the group. That gave him an idea.
Singling out the personal aide who accompanies him throughout his day, whether in Washington, Tokyo, or points in between, Bush said, "Tim McBride's a good photographer." With that, the President invited the children to hand McBride their cameras. They obliged, and he posed with each of them for pictures, McBride snapping away as the brief visit was stretched out by 15 minutes.
"It was like a campaign stop," said the senior White House official who recounted the story, satisfied with his boss' spontaneous, crowd-pleasing gesture.
Bush's presidential campaign was marked in its final months by its careful control of each week's agenda. No matter how Michael S. Dukakis would attack, Bush steadfastly kept to his script, making sure that the focus remained wherever he shined his light. Thus, Willie Horton and the American flag became the enduring symbols of the autumn.
In the opening days of the Bush Administration, however, the light has occasionally flickered. Its beam has been cast with less certainty, as outside events have distracted public attention from the President's message. And nowhere has that become more evident than here in Tokyo.
Bush was invited to Japan to attend the Hirohito funeral. He took advantage of the ceremony to schedule individual meetings with nearly two dozen other leaders from countries large and small, squeezing 17 into a 30-hour period.
Much as Bush threw open the doors of the White House on the morning after his inauguration to a symbolic sampling of the American populace, he opened the Spanish-style residence of the U.S. ambassador to a representation of the world leadership--prime ministers and presidents and even a king (Baudouin I of Belgium).
One after another, they arrived in the same room in which Gen. Douglas MacArthur received Hirohito in September, 1945, a month after the end of World War II.
And with time running out, the President arranged a dinner Friday with one more visitor to Tokyo--meeting King Juan Carlos I of Spain, in a hotel restaurant.
But it was the Tower-\o7 mondai\f7 , as the Tower problem is called here, that riveted the attention of the White House staff and most of the 80 or so American reporters who accompanied Bush to Tokyo when they woke up Friday morning to the news that the Senate Armed Services Committee was about to reject the nomination.
Those who struggled to keep track of the funeral on large television screens in the White House press room at the Okura Hotel were swimming upstream: The tide Friday was swelled by a torrent of stories bearing Tokyo datelines and they were all about Tower.
And what about the President's daylong effort to review the issues of the day with such foreign leaders as Presidents Richard von Weizsaecker of West Germany, Corazon Aquino of the Philippines and Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan?
What about evolving East-West relations, Afghanistan and Iran, U.S. support for President Aquino? All became afterthoughts.
The White House took particular pains not to offend Japanese sensitivities on a day of mourning.
Tokyo had instructed dignitaries on proper funeral attire, down to the black handkerchief in the pocket of the rented morning coat Bush brought from Washington.
Communications went back and forth between Tokyo and Washington, for example, on one particular point of concern: Barbara Bush's request to wear her trademark triple string of fake pearls.
(Mrs. Bush's identification with fake pearls has become so well known that it came as a surprise to some aides when she made a quick shopping stop after the funeral and purchased real Japanese pearls--a double-strand bracelet, with a silver clasp. Mrs. Bush herself was surprised when the jeweler refused to take a personal check. So she cashed her check--about $200--with U.S. Embassy personnel and paid in cash.)
The Japanese said pearls would not be suitable at the funeral. But after a time, this difficult decision was reversed. It seems that the pearls--artificial or otherwise--would be permissible, because pearls are, in the Japanese view, "the tears of the oyster."
Times staff writer Betty Cuniberti contributed to this story.