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Bush Faulted By Some Analysts For Weak Response To Iran-Contra Question

December 3, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Vice President George Bush must have known he would face questioning on his role in the Iran-Contra affair. Yet he had the look of a boxer saved by the bell when time expired on his answer.

Bush, questioned by rival Alexander M. Haig in the Republican presidential debate on network television Tuesday night, was asked what advice he gave the president when the decision was made to trade arms for hostages.

Bush cited the recent report of the congressional Iran-Contra investigating committees, which found no evidence the vice president knew of the diversion of Iranian arms-sale profits, and President Reagan’s own acknowledgment that ″mistakes were made.″

But when Haig repeated, ″You haven’t answered my question,″ and the chime signaled the end of his minute, Bush said: ″Time’s up.″

While Bush won generally favorable reviews of his debate performance, some analysts said his answer on the Iran-Contra question fell short.

″He’s going to have to do a better job of avoiding answering,″ said Eddie Mahe, a Republican political consultant. ″It was too obvious that he avoided answering it.″

Haig cited Bush’s own previous reference to himself as administration ″co- pilot″ in asking the vice president just what advice he gave Reagan as he decided to go ahead with selling arms to Iran in a trade for hostages.

″Were you in the cockpit, or were you on an economy ride in the back of the plane?″ Haig asked. ″The American people want to know precisely what you advised the president, and if you did not, why not.″

It is a question, political analysts said, that cuts to the heart of whatever political vulnerability remains for Bush in the Iran-Contra affair.

On the one hand, Bush has depicted himself as an activist vice president playing a real policy-making role inside the administration. But when the Iran-Contra fiasco came along, with the administration swapping arms for hostages and diverting profits to the Nicaraguan rebels, Bush’s role is invisible.

″I’m shocked he’s gotten along as long as he has,″ Mahe said. ″It is the biggest single vulnerability he has at this point.

″Either he knew about the policy and agreed with it; or he did not know about it at all, in which case he was irrelevant; or he did know and disagreed,″ Mahe aded. ″What he tries to say is, I had a great deal of influence, and my influence was positive.″

Rep. Dick Cheney, R-Wyo., a member of the Iran-Contra committee who signed the panel’s minority report, said that report should put the Iran-Contra issue to rest for Bush.

″I thought the bottom line was the vice president was not in any way responsible for what transpired. The president made the calls, or (Rear Adm. John) Poindexter and company. ... I think Al Haig wishes it was a problem,″ he said.

Both the committee’s report and the report by some of its Republican minority found no evidence Bush knew about the diversion and generally depicted the vice president as a passive figure in the arms-to-Iran developments.

″The vice president attended several meetings on the Iran initiative, but none of the participants could recall his views,″ said the majority report.

Larry J. Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia, said Bush should have been better prepared for the Iran-Contra question.

″Bush handled his answer very poorly,″ Sabato said. ″It surprised me because he didn’t seem to have a polished, prepared answer for what was an obvious question.

″He’s got to come up with a better answer,″ Sabato said.

Thomas Mann, political analyst at the Brookings Institution think tank, said Bush’s deflection of the question is sufficient for now, in seeking the GOP nomination. But he said Bush will have to provide a fuller answer if he is the nominee in the general election.

″If Bush is the nominee, it’s likely to emerge as an issue in the general election campaign,″ Mann said.

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