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Bush Confident Texas Vacation Is Appropriate : Presidency: The press asks about his enjoying himself while U.S. troops fight in Panama. 'I think the American people understand,' he replies.

December 29, 1989|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEEVILLE, Tex. — Two snapshots from one day of the George Bush presidency:

--Challenged to prove his prowess as a fisherman, the President Wednesday displayed a redfish caught during an afternoon of fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. It is a proud moment of success after a summer of well-publicized fishing failures off the coast of Maine. The President bragged: "I was the only one to catch an elusive drum (commonly known as a croaker). Very difficult to pick one of these up."

--On that same day, 1,800 miles away in Arlington, Mass., a presidential honor guard of young, grim-faced sailors carried the flag-draped coffin of a Navy lieutenant killed in the invasion of Panama--the first major military operation that Bush has ordered. "We grieve at the loss of young American life--and, frankly, I grieve at the loss of innocent Panamanian life, caught up in this battle," Bush said.

At the end of his first year in the White House, as he vacations in Texas, these images of Texas folklore and military funerals run in tandem. They present the reality of a presidency that has been tested in the crucible of tough decisions and is now at ease.

To the suggestion when he arrived in Texas that his leisure-time activities might be sending an improper signal while U.S. troops fight in Panama, Bush scoffed.

"No, I'm not concerned about that at all. Why should I be? Things (in Panama) have gone well. It's winding down. I am in close touch by telephone, by secure links, and the secretary of state is here, and we have important things to go over."

Indeed, Secretary of State James A. Baker III is a long-time partner in Bush's annual year-end vacations here and has joined him for the fishing and quail hunting expedition.

The idea that there might by anything wrong with his taking a vacation "never occurred to me," Bush said.

"Look . . . I'm going to be enjoying myself, and I think the American people understand that. And I think I've worked pretty hard all year long. So I'll keep on this path, and I hope it's correct," he said.

So far, it has been the press that has raised the questions--and only in passing, at that--about the propriety of presidential recreation on the heels of the dramatic military operation that, by White House count, has brought the deaths of 25 American GIs, 293 Panamanian troops and many Panamanian civilians.

But George Bush--not one to talk effusively about emotions or to easily face in public the human dimensions of his decisions--is tramping through the mesquite and scrub brush of South Texas, protected from 2-inch thorns by thick leather chaps and from the barbs that come with his job by confidence that he has chosen the right course.

"At times, you have to make a decision--what is in the national interest, what is right, what is the right signal to send to the world. And this one (in Panama), in my view, worked out well," he said to a crowd that turned out for a welcoming barbecue Wednesday night.

Outside the Bee County Coliseum, a plastic sign said that the barbecue was "A Big Texas Howdy to PRES BUSH and SEC BAKER." In reality, it was more an opportunity for a by-invitation crowd to see the President of the United States.

Well before Bush arrived, Beeville firefighters in bright red jumpsuits and blue baseball caps directed a stream of pickup trucks into the dusty gravel parking lot.

Inside the coliseum--a vinyl-floored, ocher-walled meeting room with cattle stalls out back--there were the seemingly obligatory images of country kitsch. A hand-lettered paper banner declared: "Bee County is Bush's Quail Country/South Texas says Howdy Y'all." Around the presidential podium, bales of hay were neatly stacked.

And Bush, outfitted in dark slacks, a sporty herringbone jacket and a dark green shirt, responded with down-home sentiments:

"I get teased for picking up the phone and calling people and being a somewhat frenetic kind of a President. But I enjoy staying in touch with friends. I hope I never will forget how I got to be President of the United States. A lot of it came through dedicated, loyal friendship."

Then, after winding up a 15-minute speech, he spent more than twice that amount of time on a determined hike between the rows of dozens of tables, shaking hands with most--and hugging a few--of the 750 or so residents of Beeville and the surrounding countryside who were there.

For 26 years, Bush has come here to hunt quail this time of year.

On Wednesday, the first day of the hunt, the President and the secretary of state claimed 10 quail between them, but it was not clear how many of those Bush shot during the outing on privately owned San Jose Island.

On Thursday, the hunting ground was the 10,000-acre Lazy F Ranch owned by the President's friend and financial adviser, William S. Farish III, a Houston oilman whom Bush has known since the two set out to make a living bringing oil up out of the West Texas prairie after World War II.

The ranch is about 20 miles outside Beeville, a town of 15,000 that is 60 miles north of Corpus Christi. Conditions were not the best: A fog settled across much of South Texas, including the Lazy F Ranch.

There was no word about how the President did Thursday at the ranch. Like presidential golf scores and plans for military invasions, his hunting record was being kept secret.

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