WASHINGTON — THERE WERE fighting words from George McGovern in his speech announcing his intentions for 1992, but perhaps because he had decided not to make the fight himself this time, his call to arms to his party lacked the fire that usually marks the kickoff of a presidential campaign.
In announcing that he would not seek the Democratic nomination, McGovern hammered President Bush and the Republicans almost as if he were delivering an acceptance speech at a nominating convention, full of applause lines: "If you want a president who takes the low road to our highest office, George Bush is your man . . . If you want a president so careless that he keeps Dan Quayle one heartbeat from the presidency, George Bush is your man . . . If you want a president who built up Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein and then led the nation into destructive wars against the dictators he himself had helped to arm, then George Bush is your man. . . ."
There was more of the same, but each castigation of Bush was met with only polite applause from his National Press Club audience, if any at all. The reaction suggested McGovern had made the right decision in stepping to the sidelines and letting others carry the fight for his party.
"From the beginning of this year," he said, "I have publicly and repeatedly expressed the hope that a younger, less battle-scarred candidate would become the Democratic nominee in 1992. I now believe that is likely." In the question period, he mentioned Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who has expressed some interest, and Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who is keeping his own counsel. He also mentioned former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, the only declared candidate, and Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, who he said "has the best chance of any Democrat" to beat Bush.
For himself, McGovern said, "I also believe that I can best advance a liberal, principled Democratic message if I can speak without the distraction of personal ambition." But it was also clear that he was listening to other voices, those who warned him of "the risk of ridicule, ineffectiveness and rejection."
In his months of assessing his role, the concern that another presidential bid might mark him as a Democratic Harold Stassen always plagued him, and in the end he elected to save himself that kind of humiliation. When he said the words, "I will not run for president in 1992," there was hardly a stir in the National Press Club audience filled with many of his friends and admirers, indicating a general sense of relief.
In bowing out, however, McGovern issued one clear-cut message to his party: "The time has come to accept the end of the Cold War and of the long twilight struggle that for so long consumed so much of our treasure and technology."
As the country continues to bask in the thrill of the American military victory in the Persian Gulf, McGovern called for bringing home American troops from Europe, Japan and South Korea and turning "to nation-building here at home . . . The Soviet threat has ended and the Warsaw Pact is dismantled."
Noting that only 17 percent of U.S. forces were used in the war against Iraq, he said "we should now be integrating these surplus forces into a full-employment civilian economy" through economic convention planning at local, state and federal levels. McGovern noted that military spending was slashed by 90 percent in the three years after World War II "with no economic hardship," and the 50 percent cut he advocates could similarly be achieved without economic pain, he said. Such a cut is the key ingredient, he said, if the Democrats are to deliver on the new agenda to meet neglected domestic needs they must offer to win.
At the end, McGovern recalled a conversation he had recently with his old 1972 opponent, Richard Nixon. When he asked Nixon whether he should run again, he said, Nixon said he had to answer two questions -- did he have anything to say, and would anybody listen?
HTC He could answer the first affirmatively, McGovern told the audience, but as to the second, he didn't know. Then he added: "I guess I'll never know now." That's true, but the odds were he would have let himself in for more ridicule, and he has already endured enough of that for a man who was right on Vietnam and Watergate in 1972, but lost anyway.