THE highly respected pollster Peter Hart reminded reporters the other morning that during the primary period he had dubbed George Bush ``the Don Knotts of American politics.'' Mr. Hart then pointed out the tremendous change in the vice-president. The new George Bush, he said, is ``very tough'' and is carrying on one of the dirtiest campaigns in the history of presidential politics.
Hart said that the inevitable outcome of a Bush victory would be a Democratic-controlled Congress that would make it ``very tough'' for a Bush administration to push forward a legislative agenda.
This transformation of Mr. Bush may well be a subject historians will concentrate on in later years. Has it been a dramatic change - from Don Knotts to Rambo? To many observers - particularly Bush's critics - it would seem so.
I beg to differ. As a newsman, I've known Bush since I first chatted with him when he was beginning to think about running for a seat in Congress. Since then I've had numerous interviews with him. The man I've spoken with has always been the same fellow. He has never been wimpish.
Bush always seemed at peace with himself, and very secure. He's a bright fellow - though not a creative thinker. And the Bush I, and most reporters who interviewed him, got to know was a ``nice guy.'' Those were words I heard frequently about him.
There's a quiet strength in Bush, as other reporters have noticed as well - if they really get to know the man. His harshest critics have made their judgment from afar. They are the ones who gleefully turned him into a sissy, wearing a preppy hat and short Boy Scout pants.
So what has happened to Bush over the last few months? It all began with the Bush-bashing he received months before the primaries, from important newsmen and from the Democrats. They created a false wimp image.
Last spring, at the Gridiron Club's annual roast of public figures, Bush was depicted in a song as weak and bragging that ``I'm bad'' and a ``pit bull,'' but then preppily turning to the audience and asking, ``Anyone for tennis?''
Bush decided that his first task was to make sure voters knew the real Bush - a one-time combat pilot, a college baseball player, a man respected among colleagues in important private and government circles.
Bush got the job done. Some critics who once described him as a weakling now call him a ``bully.'' Others charge he is ``dirty'' and a mudslinger because he implied that his opponent, Michael Dukakis, was unpatriotic and soft on crime.
Some say the ``new Bush'' has been manufactured by Bush's handlers. Jim Fain, a Cox News Service columnist, writes: ``For the presidential run, media guru Roger Ailes recycled Mr. Bush's entire personality, changing gesture, voice, speaking style and stump manner. Campaign manager Lee Atwater, who specializes in attack, prepped him to run the most negative presidential campaign of modern times.''
In an interview with the Washington Post, Bush defended his words and tactics: ``Suddenly, I'm the guy that's the attack dog. I mean, I don't accept that at all. Same old guy I used to be. I don't consider the way I am campaigning as personal.''
The seeds for the ``wimp'' image were sown from Bush's approach as vice-president. He insisted on fulfilling his pledge of loyalty to the President. He avoided public criticism of presidential policy or decisions. This continual subordination of himself, particularly when presidential decisions led to controversy, helped feed the complaint that Bush was weak and wishy-washy.
So when Bush finally came out of his corner swinging at the convention, his first objective, clearly, was to show that he had his own ideas, that he was his own man, and that he was not to be pushed around.
Perhaps he went too far. Perhaps his handlers created a nasty image when Bush merely intended to show strength. Perhaps Bush himself committed overkill in trying to erase the wimp image.
But the ones who prompted this Bush transformation were his critics - those who were urging the public to believe that the vice-president was a marshmallow. That picture of a weak, pampered Bush was presented at the Democratic convention - with loads of ridicule tossed in.
Bush was reacting. Maybe he overreacted. That should be left up to the judgment of the historians, not his critics.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.