Monday, Jan. 07, 1991

A Tale of Two Bushes

The traditional standard for TIME's Man — or Woman — of the Year is that the person be the one who, for better or for worse, has had the most impact on the year's events. For better or for worse: many selections have qualified on the first part of this criterion, some notable ones on the second. George Bush, however, is unique: the first to be chosen because he fits both aspects of the definition. He seemed almost to be two Presidents last year, turning to the world two faces that were not just different but also had few features in common. One was a foreign policy profile that was a study in resoluteness and mastery, the other a domestic visage just as strongly marked by wavering and confusion.

The march of events since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait has by now acquired an air of inevitability. In fact, it was not at all inevitable that Saudi Arabia would welcome an American army. Or that 26 other nations would join the U.S. in sending troops to the region. Or that the Soviet Union would become an American ally in all but name, voting in the United Nations to approve the use of force against its very recent client state, Iraq. The worldwide coalition against Iraq, the suffocating embargo, the massing of an international army to confront Saddam — all happened because George Bush drew on all his experience of international affairs, all his carefully cultivated relations with foreign leaders (yes, those incessant phone calls that prompted such snickering) to make them happen.

If Bush has led the U.S. to the brink of a possibly wrenching war, he has also raised a vision of a new world order. In it, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the superpowers that kept the world in dread of nuclear annihilation for 40 years, would cooperate to maintain peace and order, and the U.N. would deter aggression as its founders intended 45 years ago. By midwifing this new order, Bush had a decidedly favorable impact on the course of events.

But domestic policy! What could have been more baffling, at times ludicrous, than Bush's performance on taxes. It was not his repudiation of the ''read my lips'' pledge; the only thing wrong with his retreat from that cynical vow was that it took so long in coming. What was truly embarrassing was his whirligig behavior afterward: four reversals within three days on the kind of deal with Congress he would accept. Bush climaxed that bewildering gyration with his ''read my hips'' silliness — then topped it off later with a fresh ''no new taxes'' pledge that nobody could believe.

The actual budget deal, though deeply flawed, will at least begin the painful process of reducing the deficit. But Bush half drifted, half let himself be pushed into it, and that was no accident. His domestic policy, to the extent that he has one, has been to leave things alone until he could no longer avoid taking action. That strategy of deliberate drift burdens the nation with a host of problems that have become worse over the past decade: drugs, homelessness, racial hostility, education, environment. In sharp contrast to his foreign policy performance, Bush affected domestic events decidedly for the worse.

Of course there is only one George Bush, and the following stories explore the paradox of his two policy faces. In part, it is a simple matter of interest. Global diplomacy is what he has trained for and what absorbs him; domestic affairs are just not as much fun. But it is also that he has mastered a technique of policy formulation — hatching backstage deals with a small group of leaders whose confidence he has carefully cultivated over the years — that works much better abroad than at home. The catch is that foreign and domestic policy cannot always be compartmentalized: Bush's love of secrecy and inability to articulate his goals (or is it his aversion to doing so?) could yet cost him the public support essential to waging successful war, if that is where the confrontation with Saddam Hussein is leading.

In any event, Bush put his distinctive stamp — or rather, two distinctive stamps — on the year's news. For better and for worse, the two George Bushes are TIME's 1990 Men of the Year.