May 30, 1991 12:00 PM

Early one evening in January, George Bush sat down in a small study off the Oval Office to watch the news. In his hand was a television remote-control device that he used to graze from one channel to another until he got the news he had been waiting for: The air war over Iraq had begun.

For Bush the explosions he heard, broadcast live from Baghdad, meant more than the beginning of the war. It meant that he would never be perceived in the same way again. He would no longer be seen as a vice-presidential President, a footnote to the Reagan administration, but rather as an assertive leader who would have his own place in the history books. He had gotten past the wimp factor once and for all.

That change in perception did not stem simply from his willingness to send Americans to war. Rather it sprang from the 66-year-old President’s skill in mobilizing support both at home and abroad for what he called “a new world order”—organized to force Iraq out of Kuwait. If he wasn’t on the telephone talking to world leaders, he was in the White House Cabinet room discussing the situation with top members of Congress.

He faced difficulty on both fronts: a touch-and-go vote in Congress and a sometimes shaky alliance. But Bush held things together, acting with deliberation and firmness, employing diplomacy and economic sanctions as first hopeful steps. Even when he decided that war was inevitable, he held back the ground troops. He told interviewers that he had a special empathy for the men and women in the gulf. During the crisis he observed the 46th anniversary of the day that he, as a Navy pilot, was shot down and rescued in the Pacific in World War II. American troops would have “the best possible support in the entire world,” he said in a speech from the Oval Office. This would “not be another Vietnam.”

And so, before beginning a ground war, he authorized an unprecedented attack from the air, pounding Iraqi and Kuwaiti targets with bombs and missiles. Finally, on the last weekend in February, on a date prearranged with his top military leaders, thousands of allied tanks, troops, armored personnel carriers and helicopters poured into Iraq and Kuwait.

A mere 100 hours later, a stunning victory was theirs, with allied casualties kept to a startling minimum. The palpable relief and euphoria sent Bush’s Gallup Poll approval rating to 89 percent, the highest ever for a President. A joint session of Congress gave him a standing ovation that seemed to last forever. And the staunchest of Democrats conceded that even if they pounded away at his lackluster domestic record, he would be hard to beat in 1992.

It was inevitable, of course, that even a decisively won war would lead to moments of glum reassessment. When Saddam Hussein, whom Bush had likened to Hitler, remained in power, some critics felt the President had shown a frustrating lack of resolve. Then, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf mentioned to TV interviewer David Frost that the President did not heed his advice to crush the Iraqi army in “a battle of annihilation.” Schwarzkopf later apologized for his “poor choice of words.”

But things got worse. While Bush spent a three-day fishing holiday in Islamorada, Fla., at the end of March, Iraqi helicopters brutally pounded Kurdish civilians who then fled to mountainous border regions, where thousands perished from cold, hunger and disease. As the images of their despair flooded American TV, critics charged that Bush had abandoned the Kurds after inciting them to overthrow Saddam. The President, one congressman said, had done “a magnificent job of organizing the war and an abysmal job of organizing the peace.”

Bush soon set about turning things around. In mid-April he announced Operation Haven, allowing the U.S. military to set up refugee camps to shelter, feed and clothe hundreds of thousands of Kurds. “We are going forward to give relief to these people where they are,” the President announced.

If the triumphant, President had been left with egg on his face, he seemed to share with his untroubled predecessor, the enviable ability not to torture himself with self-doubt.

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