WASHINGTON — THIS IS one of those times when it seems America has been locked in a time machine and hurtled back to the early 1970s.
There's enough deja vu with 500,000 U.S. troops in another distant war. Echoes of 20 years ago are haunting: Fleets of bombers, grisly TV pictures, cheerful generals, no certain end.
But now comes more bizarre evidence it's 1972 all over again: George McGovern is threatening to run for president.
The gulf war will run its inexorable course. But please, spare us a melancholy trip down memory lane with George McGovern.
Unfortunately, under a chilling op-ed headline in the New York Times -- "I'm Ready to Run in '92" -- McGovern sounds serious.
XTC "In my soul, I know my qualifications for the presidency -- wisdom, wit, historical perspective, toughness -- are better at 68 than they were at 48. Perhaps another candidate is even now waiting in the wings to announce. If not, get ready for McGovern in '92."
I'm not ready, George.
Up front, let me add that I don't sneer at McGovern as a naive Mr. McGoo whose landslide defeat by Richard Nixon was a deserved comeuppance. Sure, his '72 campaign was inept comedy. But McGovern was a decent politician who was right about Vietnam, right about Watergate.
I even found McGovern's quixotic run in 1984 Democratic primaries heartwarming. Small towns in Iowa and New Hampshire cheered his revived motto, "Come home, America." McGovern basked in nostalgia like an aging ballplayer at an Old Timers' game.
Now that his country inn in Stratford, Conn., is sinking into bankruptcy, McGovern is restless for another presidential road show.
One farewell tour is enough, George.
There's something ineffably sad about a celebrity who lusts for one more shot at glory, but finds changed times have left him extinct, a political Tyrannosaurus.
You wonder whether ex-California Gov. Jerry Brown, gearing to run for Sen. Alan Cranston's seat, will find his moonbeam rhetoric sells to a new, tax-pinched generation.
Or whether Frank Rizzo, two-term mayor of Philadelphia and ex-talk show host, can make a comeback with his tough cop, "I'll-make-the-streets-safe" swagger.
Sure, it's human to root for comebacks. They stop time for us. If Jim Palmer, 45-year-old radio announcer and Jockey shorts model, thinks he can pitch again, good luck.
But there are rarely second acts for politicians. The passions and constituents that once fueled their power go stale. At least now, McGovern will find the anti-war fury of 1972 is missing in the gulf war.
McGovern says he'll get together an "exploratory group" for his own presidential run unless an acceptably liberal Democrat starts a 1992 move.
"I'm going to seek a presidential candidate who challenges the policies that set the stage for the war," McGovern says.
Lots of luck, George.
So long as the shooting war is on, the leading Democratic contenders are meekly silent as church mice. Not a presidential peep out of Mario Cuomo, Dick Gephardt, Sam Nunn, Al Gore or Lloyd Bentsen.
"Nobody wants to take a swing at a commander-in-chief during a war," says a senatorial aide. "Lousy timing."
No '92 Democratic hopeful dares hit the mashed-potato circuit in New Hampshire. Sure, Jesse Jackson's perpetually running. And mortal danger of becoming a reincarnated Harold Stassen.
But I can't see a retreaded McGovern, despite his admirable ideals, as the Comeback Kid to fill the Democrats' vacuum.
If we're in another war and McGovern's running again, are we trapped in some weird 1972 time warp?
I'll get worried if Gordon Liddy, Howard Hunt and John Dean suddenly appear at the White House. Or Gen. William Westmoreland starts briefing at the Pentagon.
Or President Bush says he sees a light at the end of the tunnel.
In that case, George, saddle up.
Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.