President Bush on Wednesday praised Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev for encouraging the Polish Communist Party to take part in a coalition government with Solidarity, describing the Soviet role as helpful and calling Gorbachev's own effort "very positive."
The President's comments, delivered at an informal news conference on a bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean near his home here, were his first public remarks on the likelihood that a non-Communist government would assume power in Poland for the first time in more than four decades.
Phone Call From Moscow
On Tuesday, Gorbachev spoke by telephone for 40 minutes with Polish Communist Party leader Mieczyslaw Rakowski, and a party spokesman said that the Soviet leader encouraged the party to join in a coalition government in which the Solidarity labor movement would play a decisive role.
Asked whether it appeared that the Soviets were playing a helpful role in a tense situation in which their Communist Party allies in Poland face deep threats, the President replied, "It does."
"There's a lot of change taking place. The change is dynamic. It will be far-reaching. There will be bumps in the road as these countries move towards more democracy. There's no question about that," he said, adding later that he was trying to approach the shifts in Eastern Europe in "a prudent fashion."
But, Bush said, referring to reports of Gorbachev's telephone call, "I felt that the statement that I saw attributed to Mr. Gorbachev was very positive in this regard--very."
As for the prospects of extending an invitation to Gorbachev to visit this seaside village, Bush said, "He'd be welcome."
Backs Quayle on Contras
On another issue, the President supported Vice President Dan Quayle's declaration in a speech Monday that the United States has a "moral obligation" to continue supplying humanitarian aid to the anti-Sandinista rebels until elections take place in Nicaragua. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has pledged an election next February.
"I don't want to see the mandatory demobilization of these Contras before the elections," he said.
Bush, expressing frustration over the inability to secure peace in Lebanon, said the French naval deployment near Lebanon, which President Francois Mitterrand says is to protect French citizens, had not complicated efforts to free Western hostages there.
"The French have a longstanding interest in Lebanon," he said. "I am not about to criticize the French for what they are doing."
Punishment for Terrorists
Bush also said that those responsible for the death of U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, apparently killed by kidnapers in Lebanon, would be punished "if we can find them."
Bush spoke for 39 minutes with a group of reporters, most of them from Maine, invited to his 11-acre compound as he completed his first week of a nearly three-week holiday--a break that he called "total vacation."
Indeed, the President had but one complaint: "The fishing is lousy. I've fished every single day and haven't gotten one yet."
Asked to assess his first eight months in office, Bush said, "I try not to measure my presidency by personal pride or in personal wins or personal losses--who's up, who's down, victory or defeat. . . . It's too early to take pride in accomplishment. I'm really just beginning here."
Factors in Poll Standing
He criticized Congress for not taking "quicker action" on his nominations of government officials and on his budget proposals. As for his high standing in public opinion polls, Bush suggested several factors:
"Some of it is my wife. Some of it is the fact, I think, people see that we're trying hard. Some of it is that I've tried to calm things down and work with Congress."
He also said that "there's a good feeling in the country about our institutions now--quite a change from 20 years ago," but that the polls can be fickle: "What comes up can come down, and I'm well aware of that."
On other matters, the President said:
-- He would not relax his opposition to abortion "one single bit," but he would not seek "to dictate to each state what that state should do in terms of state law."
-- Criticism of his education program by the National Education Assn. left him unmoved. "They've got their approach to education, and I've got mine--and I am right and they are wrong," he declared.
Defends Vacation Style
The President also defended his vacation style, when asked by a Maine reporter at the start of the news conference whether the average Maine citizen could afford his vacation.
"I don't think so," said Bush, a millionaire whose 26-room house offers spectacular views of the ocean surf. "I'm very privileged and lucky in that regard. But I also don't think the average Mainer begrudges me a vacation of any kind."
After extending the news conference several times, Bush escorted reporters to his tennis court, where First Lady Barbara Bush was in the midst of a doubles match, teamed up with a friend, Betsy Heminway, against her daughter-in-law, Margaret Bush, and Debbie Stapleton, one of the President's cousins.
"She won't mind," the President said as the 30 or so journalists, with boom microphones, television cameras and cables in tow, headed toward the court.
'You Dirty Dog, You!'
But Mrs. Bush, who on Tuesday underwent an eye examination in Washington related to a thyroid condition, displayed mock anger and exclaimed to her husband: "Oh, you dirty dog, you!"
"I thought there were some things George Bush wouldn't stoop to," she said. "It may be the first divorce in 44 years of our marriage."
"Let's see some action," he teased, complaining that watching Mrs. Bush and her partners play tennis was "like watching grass grow."