McGovern ponders '92 run Newswatch...on politics today

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

January 22, 1991|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Deeply frustrated over President Bush's decision to go to war in the Persian Gulf and the disintegrating state of the economy, former Sen. George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic standard-bearer, is considering a third try for his party's presidential nomination in 1992.

McGovern, now 68, has been in increasing demand on college campuses ever since the American military buildup in the gulf in August. He says he is being urged by Democrats around the country to enter the race as a voice of dissent to Bush's policies at home and abroad.

In response, McGovern held a meeting of supporters at the hotel he owns in Stratford, Conn., just after Christmas to assess his chances and what it would take to mount an effective campaign. He says he will decide within 60 days whether to run.

Although McGovern is probably best remembered as an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, he says he is motivated toward another candidacy by concerns over domestic matters as much as by his opposition to the use of American force in the gulf.

He expresses disappointment with Democratic Party leadership in failing to tackle the economic recession through deep cuts in defense spending now that the threat of massive military attack from the Soviet Union has receded. Somebody should be out on the campaign trail carrying the debate to the Republicans, he says, and "I have begun to think that if nobody surfaces in the next couple of months I may do it myself."

If the war drags on and if the economy continues to slide, McGovern says, the 1992 presidential campaign will take on greater significance because there has been "no real shift in budget priorities" to meet worsening domestic ills. Even if the war is ended well before the next election, he says, Bush may be so scarred politically by a decaying business climate that he will be defeated -- provided the Democrats offer an effective alternative.

If some other prominent Democrat of like thinking starts running -- particularly Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, who McGovern says "has the best chance of going all the way," or Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana -- McGovern says that would affect his own decision. But if he does enter the race, he is determined to do so early, to build enough support and raise enough money to be a serious candidate.

An overwhelming loser in 1972 to Richard Nixon, McGovern made a relatively late comeback bid in 1984. After considerable ridicule, he ran a much-praised straight-talk campaign with little money and barely missed a second-place finish behind Walter Mondale and Gary Hart in the Iowa caucuses.

Today, he acknowledges a concern that another candidacy might bring him even more ridicule as "another Harold Stassen" -- the perennial Republican presidential candidate who as governor of Minnesota in the 1940s was a serious contender but eventually became a laughingstock. But Stassen after the first few tries merely filed as a candidate and never did much campaigning.

Former Mayor Larry Agren of Irvine, Calif., who attended the Stratford meeting, calls it ironic that McGovern, who was right on Vietnam and Watergate in 1972, remains the subject of ridicule when Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who were wrong, somehow remain respected voices of opinion.

Of more concern to McGovern is that he will be regarded in the present climate as a Vietnam war protest retread, when he would want to focus as a candidate on the state of the economy. "I don't think I can do that as the leader of anti-war parades and demonstrations," he says, because that posture will only remind voters of 1972. And he expresses doubts about the effectiveness of such Vietnam war protest tactics today.

McGovern is developing a theme he calls "The New Patriotism" that calls for the country to get beyond symbolic flag-waving to a policy of "always putting the national interest first." He offers as an illustration bringing 40,000 U.S. troops home from South Korea, which now has a huge army of its own to defend itself, then using the savings to bankroll a new GI Bill of Rights to educate the 40,000 and feed them usefully into the lagging economy. He also says American business should be stopped from "putting the country in hock" to foreign investors.

McGovern is to speak on "The New Patriotism" this week at the University of New Hampshire -- not the worst place to plant the seeds of a presidential candidacy.

Political columnists Germond and Witcover of The Evening Sun's

staff appear Monday through Friday.

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