There stood George Bush the sportsman, sharing a laugh with a new Aussie friend about a subject that both like best. But Bush, the politician, wound up the chat with a word of caution.
"Please don't repeat that for the people back in the United States," he said. "I think sometimes they think the only thing I like to do is go fishing."
On the road in Australia, Bush, once again a candidate, has been ever on his guard. He lugged his "sticks" halfway around the world but decided he had better not play golf. He chose as a New Year's resolution better times for the folks back home. And the man who rarely seems to notice when a malapropism escapes his lips may have begun to watch his tongue.
He pronounced to a Canberra audience that the recession back home meant that "we're enjoying very sluggish times." But as the audience began to chortle, he somehow found the kind of phrase with which gaffes are saved. "And not enjoying them very much," he said.
Those who remember Bush's come-from-behind victory in the 1988 New Hampshire primary think he is at his best when he is down. And as he is forced now to look over his shoulder from Australia, his sense of vulnerability may once again be helping him to pick his political way.
Facing criticism at home for paying too much heed abroad, Bush has acted here as foreign basher of sorts, effectively asking Australians to gang up on Europeans to halt an "avalanche" of agricultural exports. But when Australian officials asked Bush to end unfair U.S. trading practices that have hurt Australian farmers, his voter-pleasing answer was, essentially, that he was sorry but he would take care of America first.
And in what may or may not have been a mistake, Bush on Thursday returned a protester's hand gesture by displaying a "V for victory sign" with the back of the hand turned toward the subject--the Australian equivalent of an upraised middle finger.
Still, from his conversations with Australians here, it is evident that the President, who once seemed to shrug off domestic criticism, now is well aware that he is not always popular at home.
In Sydney, he marveled at a world with "so little hostility on the street." At home, he said, "I'm a man who knows every hand gesture you've ever seen."
Indeed, among the easy-going Aussies, he has seemed to recover the touch for the self-deprecatory. In the Great Hall of the Australian Parliament on Thursday night, he allowed in a dinner toast that "somebody in Sydney said I was the leader of the free world." When he mentioned the conversation to his wife, Barbara, he continued: "She says, 'Hurry up and get out of the bathroom--we're late. Run.' "
Here in Melbourne on the final stop of his Australian tour, Bush today renewed his pledge to seek freer trade as he continues to Asia. But he also vowed to resist election-year pressure to impose trade sanctions against Japan.
He also met with officials to help commemorate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, in which American and Australian naval forces joined to halt the Japanese southward advance in May, 1942.
Bush travels from here this afternoon to Singapore, where he is expected Saturday to lift the U.S. trade embargo against Cambodia in recognition of that country's progress toward democratic rule. Administration officials traveling with Bush said the President would make the announcement when he visits with officials from friendly Southeast Asian countries during his two-day stop in the island-state.
The embargo has been in effect since April, 1975, when Khmer Rouge rebels forced the pro-Western government from power. The lifting of the trade barrier marks a further step toward reconciliation between the United States and Cambodia as part of a process that began after the signing of a peace treaty by Cambodia's warring factions two months ago.
But even as Bush continues his 12-day foreign tour, an election-year White House effort designed to improve communication with the American people meant that he would be far from invisible back home.
In an interview with David Frost, to be carried tonight on the Public Broadcasting System, Bush said he expects a "dog eat dog" campaign. "I will do what I have to do to be reelected." He also suggested he is willing to consider cuts in defense spending, but he did not provide specifics.
And in a separate interview, he told Parade magazine that the nation's young people ought to "stop watching television so much and get outdoors and do something."