Inside China's Great Hall of the People, President Bush was having what a spokesman called "a remarkable and unprecedented dialogue" with Chinese Premier Li Peng on Afghanistan, Taiwan, terrorism and nuclear proliferation when an urgent telephone call came through from the White House.
An anxious John H. Sununu, Bush's chief of staff, quickly excused himself and scurried to take the call on a White House telephone installed in a nearby reception room for just such critical moments.
But this was no sudden foreign policy crisis or similar emergency. Instead it was the looming confrontation with the Democratic-controlled Senate over the nomination of John Tower to be secretary of defense. And the call reflected the way the controversy has dogged Bush throughout his six-day trip to Asia.
Benefits of Travel
Traveling abroad normally offers a President an opportunity to present himself to the American people in a highly favorable context, as a statesman meeting with other world leaders in a dignified and carefully staged setting. The normal result is relatively favorable news coverage and at least a temporary boost in a President's stock back home.
But the media's coverage of Bush in Asia has been focused to such a great extent on the Tower controversy instead of foreign affairs objectives that it is doubtful the President will get any political mileage out of the trip.
Bush and his two top foreign affairs officials--Secretary of State James A. Baker III and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft--submitted to television interviews several times during the trip in an effort to focus on the President's foreign policy objectives. Each time, they were bombarded with questions about Tower.
Bush himself has had to take time out from his hectic schedule to make telephone calls to Washington in search of support from Democrats. His message has always been the same, said aides: "I hope you keep an open mind, listen to the arguments."
The call that pulled Sununu out of the Bush-Li meeting in the Great Hall of the People was from Frederick D. McClure, White House director of congressional relations. The Tower nomination has been at the brink of death since the Senate Armed Services Committee, acting along party lines, voted 11 to 9 to kill it, and McClure needed Sununu to plot strategy on a last-ditch lobbying blitz.
Watch in Frustration
The placing of such a call by the White House on a domestic political issue is just one more sign of how preoccupied Bush and his aides have been with the Tower nomination, and of the high stakes they attach to the outcome. Grappling with the controversy ever since leaving Washington last Wednesday, they have watched in frustration as it has not only overshadowed the Asian trip but threatened to end Bush's honeymoon with Congress.
In both Beijing and Tokyo, Sununu has presided over late-night and early-morning brainstorming sessions with other presidential aides as they sought desperately to come up with a strategy to save the nomination.
Using the highly sophisticated communications system that accompanies the President on his trips, Sununu has been in frequent contact with McClure, Senate Republican leader Bob Dole and others in Washington as they worked feverishly over the weekend preparing for the showdown on the Senate floor.
Could they come up with a "sanitized" version of the FBI report on Tower that would be appropriate to use in arguing their case on the Senate floor? The White House contends the report shows that the allegations of drinking and womanizing either were not serious enough or backed up by enough evidence to warrant rejecting Tower.
Could they count on the vote of Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.), who had made it clear he liked Tower and had not yet made a decision on how he would vote?
Could they perhaps count on a couple of other independent-minded Southern Democrats, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (S.C.) and Sen. Charles S. Robb (Va.)?
Rough Out Strategy
Those were among the questions Bush aides debated as they roughed out a strategy they hoped might just eke out a victory: Hold all 45 Republican senators firmly in Tower's camp and try to win the support of at least five of the 55 Democratic senators. That would cause a 50-50 tie vote and Vice President Dan Quayle could cast his first vote as vice president, breaking the tie and confirming Tower's nomination.
As Air Force One flew Bush and the presidential party from Tokyo to Beijing on Saturday, both Sununu and White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater walked to the back of the plane to explain to pool reporters that, despite suggestions that the Administration was not mounting a full-court press, both the President and Tower were committed to an all-out fight for the nomination.
The President insists he has no fall-back position ready if the Senate rejects Tower. If he sees any political gain from fighting for what most political observers believe is a lost cause, he has never mentioned it publicly.
Sununu, when asked whether there was anything to be gained by simply fighting regardless of the outcome, hesitated several seconds, then said: "If there were, I wouldn't tell you."
However, another Bush aide working on the Tower nomination said Bush can score political points early in his Administration by showing he is willing to stand up to the Democratic majority in Congress "on a matter of principle" even if he faces almost certain defeat.
Fighting for Principle
"It's obvious that if you stand up and fight for something you believe in, people respect that," said the aide, who declined to be identified. "Even if they don't agree with you, they respond if they see you fighting for a principle."
Bush, who reportedly has chafed in private over the news media's focus on the Tower case during the trip, several times has expressed his irritation publicly when pressed on the issue by reporters accompanying him.
At a press conference before leaving Tokyo on Saturday, the President became so exasperated at such questions that he admonished reporters about their "preoccupation" with the issue. He said he realized they had editors back home who were interested in the issue, but insisted he had also "laid some good groundwork" in foreign relations on the trip.
Bush had opened the press conference with a long statement on his bilateral sessions with other heads of state only to be confronted by a sharp question about Tower. He retorted that serious students of foreign policy would view his trip in the context of foreign policy objectives and "not in the context of the flap over the John Tower nomination."
"I think there's much more serious points in foreign policy to be made and if it's beclouded by some political battle back home right now, so be it," he finally declared.