Some Fear Extensive Travel Hurts Bush’s Performance
President Bush’s hectic travel schedule, which has included visits to Europe, the Middle East, Mexico and South America in the last three weeks, is stirring serious concern among some longtime advisers that it is adversely affecting his performance at a critical time in his presidency.
With the United States on a virtual war footing with Iraq and congressional critics openly blasting his Persian Gulf policy while he is away, some of the President’s own advisers have said privately that there has been a lack of long-range planning on the crisis.
“The guy’s never in the United States,” said one political consultant who has worked with Bush over the years. “The theme song of this Administration is ‘On the Road Again.’ ”
And, said a former Bush staff member who still advises the President: “I sometimes think he substitutes travel for really coping with serious problems.” Noting that the agenda for the South America trip was more symbolic than substantive, this adviser added: “I worry that it’s hard to keep him focused on major problems.”
Since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, the President has been on the road for 70 days, at times arriving at stops looking drawn and tired. His extensive travels during the military standoff with Iraq also have put him in the awkward position of spending time addressing less immediate issues while major developments were breaking in the Persian Gulf crisis.
While Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was in Baghdad Thursday announcing the release of hostages, for example, Bush was at a press conference in Santiago answering Chilean reporters’ questions about Latin American issues.
But White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said in Caracas, Venezuela, the final stop on the President’s current tour of South America, that Bush has not been isolated from events in the gulf during the trip. “The President’s got all the communications he needs. The President’s on top of it. We have no second thoughts or concerns,” he said.
“The situation’s under control. (Secretary of State James A.) Baker and the President have talked. All the decisions have been made that needed to be made,” he said. But he said Bush had not spoken in recent days with any allied leaders because he “hasn’t found a need to yet.”
Some of the President’s advisers have blamed travel fatigue for occasional gaffes. After tacking a flight back to Geneva onto the end of his already crowded trip to Europe and the Middle East last month in order to visit with Syrian President Hafez Assad, Bush stunned his aides by allowing himself to be photographed in a smiling, animated pose with a cheerful-looking Assad.
White House staff members considered the resulting front-page photos of Bush and Assad a public relations disaster. The Syrian is a dictator whose country harbors terrorists and who many consider as evil as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein--the dictator the President called “worse than Hitler.”
“That would not have happened if he hadn’t been tired or if he had had someone like Jim Baker there to protect him,” one adviser said.
The incident reminded the adviser of the time in June, 1981, when a weary Vice President Bush arrived in Manila after an arduous journey and told Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos that “we love your adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic processes.” Opposition leaders, meanwhile, were condemning the Marcos government’s human rights violations.
Concern about Bush’s constant traveling, especially his marathon overseas journeys, date to the earliest days of his presidency. Shortly after his inauguration, Bush traveled overnight to Tokyo for the funeral of Emperor Hirohito. He then flew on to Beijing, and, after meetings there with Chinese leaders, flew, again overnight, back to Washington, stopping briefly en route in Korea for a speech.
The schedule drew an expression of concern from National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who cautioned the President that his frantic pace was exhausting his staff and setting up the possibility that jet-lagged aides could make potentially damaging errors on sensitive foreign policy issues.
Bush brushed the objections aside and has continued to ignore advice that he should go at a more measured pace.
More recently, sources have reported that White House physicians suggested that the President slow down and curb his travel. “Doctors have warned him, but he’s just jet-propelled,” one adviser said.
“The more he goes, the more he goes. Somebody said he’s a type A personality but he’s not a type A. They hate what they do. He loves it,” the adviser said.
Dr. Lawrence Mohr, deputy White House physician, refused to confirm or deny the report, declaring that “any advice of this nature would be confidential between the President and his physicians.”
But Mohr said that Bush is in good physical shape, “tolerates travel very well and is able to sleep and even take a shower on the new Air Force One.”
Fitzwater said that Bush has not been given medical advice to rest, “although the doctor is always telling him to slow down.”
In September, the President did begin traveling in a new $181-million Boeing 747 fully equiped with a bedroom and a shower. It clearly makes his journeys more comfortable, and aides say that he is able to get a good deal of sleep on the plane.
Nonetheless, some advisers worry that his overseas journeys involve traveling through so many time zones in such a short period that it’s almost impossible for his biological clock to adapt fully.
“It has to take a toll,” one veteran adviser said, “and, when he gets in trouble, it’s usually because he’s too busy and tired. It was when he was going at such a frenetic pace during the 1988 campaign that people said he looked goofy.”
Bush has traveled far more extensively than any other chief executive at this stage of his presidency. In less than two years in office, he has logged more than 225,000 miles, traveling to 28 foreign countries and all but six of the 50 states. And there’s no end in sight.
After his 17,000-mile trip to Europe and the Middle East last month, he returned briefly to Washington before traveling to Mexico, a visit one adviser said had such a thin agenda “it could have been taken care of with a telephone call.”
As for the 11,930-mile journey he is completing today in Caracas, “there doesn’t seem to be a particular need for this trip,” one White House official said.
He returned briefly from Mexico before starting his current six-day trip to South America. Next month, he plans to travel to Moscow, perhaps other cities in the Soviet Union, and Greece and Turkey. Plans are also being made for a trip in February to Australia and probably one or two other countries.
Normally, a President is accompanied on foreign travels by his secretary of state. But Baker, the President’s longtime friend, has caught what one mutual friend described as “a case of Bushitis” and has been so busy with his own travel schedule that Bush has had to do without his advice on some recent trips.
Some of their mutual friends have said that they think both Bush and Baker are traveling too much to think clearly. “You can’t run a country from a plane and, when you’re working and moving, you can’t think clearly,” one of them declared.
Baker has traveled so extensively, especially in connection with the Persian Gulf crisis, that he frequently has appeared exhausted from jet lag. He apparently does not rest as well as Bush during plane trips and frequently takes Halcion, a prescription drug, as a sleeping aid, according to sources who travel with him.
Medical authorities say that Halcion, a hypnotic drug, is an effective sleeping aid and has a wide margin of safety in therapeutic doses. But the 1989 edition of “The Essential Guide to Prescription Drugs” cautions that possible risks include “minor impairment of mental functions (‘hangover effect’)” and “habit-forming potential with long-term use.”
Bush and Baker often joke with each other and with reporters about their extensive traveling. When Bush took his maiden flight on the new Air Force One, he smiled at reporters and said: “Have plane, will travel.”
But it’s no joking matter to some of the President’s longtime friends and advisers, who think that the White House needs to curb his travel and slow him down. “It’s awfully disconcerting,” one veteran adviser said. “Somebody needs to take a careful look at his schedule and persuade him to spend more time in Washington.”
Staff writers Jim Gerstenzang and David Lauter contributed to this story.