December 31, 1990 12:00 PM

This was to be the season of George Bush’s content. The Soviet Empire festered in its own rubble, and there were heady predictions that the collapse of Communism could save the United States billions in defense spending. At home the economic expansion was swelling into its record eighth year. Buoyed at one point by a near 80 percent approval rating, the President could make jokes about broccoli and kid reporters to “read my hips.” He might as well have started composing his second inaugural address.

However, as Abraham Lincoln once ruefully admitted “not to have controlled events” but that events had controlled him, George Bush suddenly found discomfiting realities knocking at the White House door. The $220 billion federal deficit and the appalling savings-and-loan scandal encouraged Bush to abandon his “no new taxes” pledge. During budget negotiations with Congress, the President’s shilly-shallying began reviving old doubts about his political fortitude.

Still, Bush’s gravest decisions lay before him in the treacherous Middle East. When Iraq invaded Kuwait last August, the President responded forcefully, rounding up an international posse in opposition to Saddam’s aggression. But having forged Desert Shield, Bush seemed better able to explain it to soldiers (at left) than to citizens at home, and there was growing concern in a restive Congress that the U.S. might be plunging toward a war that could be won only at a terrible cost. In a year that began with ebullience, the President might well have taken his lessons at the end from some other words of Lincoln’s: “I do the very best I know how…. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, 10 angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”

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