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The Line in the Sand : The Fate of Kuwait and Beyond : The President : 'What These Guys Did Was Wrong' : George Bush is bitter, sometimes angry, and unwilling to retreat an inch. To him, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait is more than a question of power or oil. It is a moral outrage.

November 25, 1990|JAMES GERSTENZANG

Listen to the words of a man who has come to know George Bush well during these most trying moments.

"Those eyes are scary. Very calm. Very cool. You look at his eyes--there is an angry man there, and every week I think he gets more angry. We say: 'Don't make a quiet man angry, because he's really hard to handle.' "

Now, another look at the President of the United States: It is 5:30 on a morning in late August. He is adrift in a dinghy on the marshes of the Kennebunk River, out behind the Old Grist Mill restaurant in his beloved Kennebunkport, Me. Casting lure after lure in an unsuccessful campaign to snare a bass, he seems impervious to frustration--be it elusive fish, hungry mosquito, or Saddam Hussein.

And one more look at the President, now neither angry nor contemplative. It is October in the heartland. Midterm elections are imminent; time for presidential hoopla: Dwarfed by the requisite backdrop of an oversized stars and stripes, George Bush bounds across the field house stage at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill., and thanks country singer Eddie Rabbitt, who has just stirred up the kids on the floor with a new anthem: "My older brother was GI Joe. Red, white and blue from my head to my toe. I'm an American boy."

Minutes later, Bush is brought back to Earth when a heckler butts into his speech. The United States, the heckler cries, is trading blood for oil!

On that mild, sunny day in January, 1989, when George Bush swore the simple oath of office that each of his 40 predecessors had repeated, he was, it seemed, one of the most familiar of characters ever to assume the presidency. He was something akin to the old tweed jacket of American politics: comfort against the winds of the world. A known quantity. Practical. Good old George Bush.

He had been a public figure for more than two decades: congressman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, ambassador to the United Nations, envoy to the People's Republic of China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, vice president of the United States and, finally, a successful presidential candidate.

Yet, despite all the breakfasts in New Hampshire coffee shops and the quiet, earnest conversations in Iowa farmhouses, despite all the rallies and speeches and biographies, George Bush remains as unfamiliar as he is familiar. He is comforting in the ease with which he seems to undertake his awesome tasks, but disconcerting because he has left few footprints where he has been and offers a still fainter road map of where he would go.

Now, however, his footprints are growing in number. The lines on the map--"the vision thing," he calls it, are growing clearer. The Persian Gulf crisis presents a new picture: George Bush putting his foot down, unwilling to retreat an inch.

He is bitter. Frustrated. At times, angry. But more than anything else, this man, who believes in order among nations, is offended.

"I think he's genuinely offended by what happened--there's a sense of principle, his own sense of international order and his sense of morality and his sense of how things are supposed to play out in the world," says an aide who has watched him closely during the many tense days and nights since Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2.

"Yes, he's interested in energy and the rest," the aide says. "But that's more cerebral. The more gut-type thing is that what these guys did was wrong--and what they're doing inside Kuwait is wrong--and it just can't stand. It's just principle. It's wrong what they've done. There's a strong sense of that."

For good or ill, that's the way it is with George Bush.

In his determination to act, to show immediate resolve, to leave no doubts in the minds of his allies or enemies, he would move swiftly. His troops--hundreds of thousands of young men and women--would be dispatched to the Saudi Arabian desert and seas of the Middle East. But what would they do there? What was their purpose? And how would he bring them home? Where would it all end? The questions began to well up. The answers would wait.

During the months leading up to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Bush's attentions were elsewhere.

In May there had been a summit with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. There was the budget--and the President's politically embarrassing decision to step away from his 1988 campaign pledge of "no new taxes." There was a NATO summit in London in early July and, just days later, an international economic summit in Houston. There were negotiations to reduce conventional weapons in Europe and to slash U.S. and Soviet arsenals of long-range nuclear weapons. And just days before the invasion, Bush was faced with the resignation of Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, and the search for his replacement.

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