PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH COINED THE TERM A "kinder and gentler nation." He envisioned the American Dream as too aggressive and unforgiving in its daily pursuits.

Mutual distrust has been one of the most glaring dynamics of the relationship between new-car dealers and their manufacturers.

Time was when unethical dealers played havoc with warranty reimbursements as factory audit teams descended on the general dealer population with exorbitant charge backs.

The factory-dealer climate was confrontational even when ill-informed government bureaucrats were attacking the entire industry. It was a time when the two sides, manufacturers and dealers, should have banded together to defend the auto industry.

Detroit's "numbers game" (an obsession with No. 1 sales status) was responsible for several bizarre actions by factory reps to garner owner registrations by year's end.

In the annual sales race between Ford and Chevrolet, the games engaged in by both party, wouldn't tax the intelligence of an average child. One rumor Chevrolet people circulated was that Ford reps were told to visit cemeteries and assign names from the headstones to various Ford automotive products in order to gain registrations. Or so the story goes.

One of the warmest tales attributed to the automobile industry took place in the early days of a struggling General Motors. Three successful Buick dealers, Mssrs. Howard of California, Garber of Saginaw, MI, and Noyes of Massachusetts traveled to Flint, MI (then GM's manufacturing headquarters) with bags of money in order to pay cash for their new cars so that GM could meet its current payroll.

GM responded by allowing these three dealers the benefits of remaining lifetime distributors of GM cars long after other distributorships were phased out.

The period following World War II, when American consumers were starved for new vehicles, resulted in many shoddy practices by new-car dealers. Undeclared taxable income brought several dealers to the bar of justice for charging new-car buyers exorbitant cash bonuses for cars and hiding the income from the IRS.

Following this period the United Auto Workers challenged the management power of Detroit. Prolonged strikes created a wage and benefit imbalance that resulted in inflationary pricing, and may have been partially responsible for the erosion of dealers' wholesale pricing discounts. Currently, UAW workers continue to enjoy the most out-of-balance contract in U.S. industry.

Domestic auto company CEOs have forever preached the gospel of a vacuous partnership between themselves and their dealers. During my years as a new-car dealer I have often heard CEO references to stockholders, customers, bureaucrats and others - with dealers' interests a non-existent or low priority. A serious void exists in manufacturer's perception of dealer' values. It cries out for resolution before any significant dealer-factory improvements can be realized.

Events during the most recent GM debacle over their intended venture into retailing new cars and trucks has created a deeper schism between dealers and the current GM management. It will take a long time to heal.

It is amazing that GM keeps attracting mid-level management who are consistently shooting themselves in the foot. It's as though their playbooks are outside the boundaries of the rest of the industry.

GM, ignoring the experience of Ford's scaled-back attempt to enter the retail marketing of new vehicles, is a prime example of GM's mismanagement.

Lots of Detroit CEOs believe a loss of market share can be remedied by simply appointing additional dealers. GM's loss of market share is the result of untimely products, not from their dealer organization, which is the finest in the industry.

It's a prime example of marketing and production execs ducking responsibility and attempting a fix on something not broken. As the biggest automobile company in the world GM has a leadership responsibility.

It is one thing to earn huge profits. It is also important to represent the industry with new technology and exciting consumer-friendly products.

Unfortunately, many new-vehicle dealers shun involvement in dealer association and legislative activities, and feel if they are operating a profitable dealership, this is their only responsibility to the well-being of the industry.

If this be the case:

* Dealers Bill Hancock and Ed Mullane would not have established the Dealer Election Action Committee.

* Dealer Doc Yager's testimony before a Senate Anti-Trust Committee and a dozen GM lawyers would have failed to create the multi-year selling agreement.

* Dealer Ron Tonkin's lawsuit against Chrysler would not have eliminated discriminatory pricing creating lease and fleet subsidies.

* Mechanics certification would not have seen the light of day without the efforts of Dealer Jack Pohanka.

* NADA board members would not have spearheaded the creation of Northwood University and NADA's Dealer Candidate Academy, two of the prime training environments for future dealers.

If the new century is going to be a kinder and gentler environment in which to be a car dealer, it will take association involvement and support.

Nat Shulman was owner of Best Chevrolet in Hingham, MA for many years.