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To Critics, Practice Emphasizes Diminished Role of U.S. : Presidential Hopefuls Stressing Ties to World Leaders

Times Staff Writer

Their presidential campaigns may not have much else in common, but Vice President George Bush and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a Democratic candidate, have shared one approach to voters this year.

Both men have made a point of telling audiences how, in their travels abroad, they personally witnessed the leader of a communist regime turning toward religion.

Bush, who once headed the U.S. liaison office in China, has recalled in speeches how he heard China’s revolutionary hero, Mao Tse-tung, say not long before his death in 1976 that he would soon “go to see God"--and then quickly correct himself to say, “go and see Marx.”

Took Castro to Church

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Jackson, when asked in a televised debate about a 1984 meeting with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana, volunteered that he had “taken Castro to church for the first time in 30 years.”

As predictions of the behavior of foreign leaders, these stories may not mean much. There is no evidence that either Mao or Castro, both committed Marxists, ever underwent religious conversions.

Yet the two stories provide an example of the way several of the presidential candidates have been emphasizing, as one of their principal qualifications for office, that they have held face-to-face meetings with world leaders.

The current campaign has witnessed the advent of what might be called the “My Dear Friend Margaret Thatcher” syndrome. More so than ever in the past, candidates are competing with one another to weave their acquaintanceship with foreign leaders into campaign speeches and debates.

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“Did you talk to Margaret Thatcher?” Bush asked former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. in one campaign debate after Haig had mentioned a recent trip to Europe. “Did you talk to (German Chancellor) Helmut Kohl?”

Spoke to Margaret

“Yes, I spoke to Margaret Thatcher directly,” Haig replied.

To some critics, the candidates’ behavior in the current campaign serves as an uncomfortable reminder of America’s diminished role in the world.

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“In the heyday of Americans’ personal and national preeminence, American candidates didn’t need to boast of their meetings with foreign leaders,” said Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser. “Foreign leaders boasted of their meetings with Americans.”

Others view the candidates’ name-dropping more benignly.

“If the American people have any image of foreigners these days, it tends to be negative, because of the preoccupation with pocketbook issues, the trade imbalance and so on,” maintains Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the Brookings Institution. “And so it’s a good counterbalance when candidates tell the public they think it’s important to be a part of the world.”

It is far from clear that it makes good politics for an American candidate to emphasize his experience in foreign affairs.

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Over the last 15 years, for example, three sitting chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee--J. William Fulbright, Charles H. Percy and Frank Church--have been defeated in efforts to win reelection to the Senate. Neither of the last two presidents, Ronald Reagan and Carter, had any significant foreign experience before coming to the White House.

‘Brainwashing’ of Romney

Overseas travel, too, has sometimes proved to be more of a liability than an asset. George W. Romney’s campaign for the Republican nomination in 1968 ran aground after he sought to explain away his support for the war in Vietnam by saying that, during a trip to Vietnam, “I just had the greatest brainwashing that anyone can get.”

But many of this campaign’s candidates clearly see it as a way of enhancing their stature, perhaps mindful of the political dividends Richard M. Nixon realized from his 1959 trip to Moscow and his “kitchen debate” with Nikita S. Khrushchev.

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Among the Democratic presidential candidates this year, Jackson has been the quickest to make use of his meetings with foreign leaders in campaign appearances.

“I know more foreign leaders alive than anybody here,” he said during the Dec. 1 presidential debate. “If you add in the dead ones George Bush has met with, then he outdistances me.” (As vice president, Bush represented the United States at the funerals of three Soviet leaders, Leonid I. Brezhnev, Yuri V. Andropov and Konstantin U. Chernenko.)

Jackson has placed particular stress on a trip to Syria four years ago, in which he met with Syrian President Hafez Assad and conducted negotiations that obtained the release of a Navy flier, Lt. Robert O. Goodman, who had been shot down and captured by Syrian forces in Lebanon.

This fall, Jackson set out on a swing through the Persian Gulf, saying he hoped to arrange the release of American hostages in Lebanon. But, within a day after setting out, he cut short the trip and returned home to attend the funeral of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington.

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“Jackson clearly has been trying over the past few years to get some profile and gain some stature from foreign travels,” Sonnenfeldt said.

Hart Traveled to Moscow

One of Jackson’s rivals, Gary Hart, has traveled twice in the last three years to Moscow--traditionally among candidates’ favorite stops on overseas political trips.

Hart’s first trip, in January, 1985, was preceded by a European swing in which he pronounced French President Francois Mitterrand “one of the most impressive world leaders I have ever met . . . . We get along very well.”

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On the other trip to Moscow, in December, 1986, Hart met with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and afterward seized the opportunity to press his campaign theme of youthful leadership. Noting that he had previously met with Soviet President Andrei Gromyko, Hart said that Gorbachev “is much more like my generation of American politicians than the . . . Gromyko generation were.”

The Democrats’ most prominent non-candidate, New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, also made a weeklong journey to the Soviet Union last September.

But none of the candidates can match Bush for frequency in emphasizing his contacts with world leaders.

“I’m just back from Europe, and I talked to Margaret Thatcher and to Francois Mitterrand and (French Premier Jacques) Chirac and (Italian Prime Minister Giovanni) Goria and (Belgian Prime Minister Wilfried) Martens and all the NATO Council,” Bush announced during one Republican candidates’ debate in October.

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Dropping Names

Dropping names in this fashion serves two purposes for the vice president. In broad terms, it reminds voters of his experience as former ambassador to the United Nations, emissary to China and CIA director.

And, specifically, it helps focus attention on one of Bush’s strongest campaign issues of the moment, his support of the intermediate nuclear forces treaty signed last month by President Reagan and Gorbachev. “When I talked to Margaret Thatcher, she’s strongly for the treaty,” the vice president said last month.

Although Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) has endorsed the treaty, it has been attacked by the other Republican candidates--among them Haig, who has been reminding voters of his experience as NATO commander and secretary of state.

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Typical of the style of the campaign, Haig has based his criticisms of the treaty in part on what he said have been his own conversations with European leaders.

“It unnerved them,” he said.


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