"Between the compelling idea of leading America into the 21st century and the reality of preparing for one's inaugural address as president, there falls a shadow," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV yesterday, announcing that he would not be a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992.
He was paraphrasing a line from T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men." That's the 1925 poem of despair that also includes these lines: "We are the hollow men/We are the stuffed men/Leaning together/Headpieces filled with straw. Alas!" That is a pretty good description of the Democratic Party's presidential contenders this year.
Or perhaps Senator Rockefeller and such colleagues as Rep. Richard Gephardt, Sens. George Mitchell, Sam Nunn, Bill Bradley and Lloyd Bentsen and Gov. Mario Cuomo, who have flatly stated or strongly hinted that they will not run for president in 1992, are, to shift literary venues, not strawmen but cowardly lions.
That impression grows stronger each week that passes without a nationally known Democrat of stature announcing for president. The clear implication is that the leading Democrats themselves believe George Bush is unbeatable in 1992. Don't they understand that their stated refusals to allow the public to consider them as presidential prospects are campaign events that work to strengthen President Bush as an opponent next year?
A little-known former Massachusetts senator, Paul Tsongas, is the only announced candidate. Sen. Tom Harkin, almost unknown outside of Iowa, is said ready to enter the race. Gov. Bill Clinton, almost unknown outside of Arkansas, is thought on the verge. Gov. Douglas Wilder and Sen. Charles Robb, well known beyond Virginia, have been mentioned as possibilities, but after the mud they've splattered on each other this year, neither is now the man for the moment. Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee ran a fair race for the nomination in 1988 and probably could do better in 1992 -- but not if he waits much longer to run.
George Bush is very popular, but fear of him is no excuse for timidity. Walter Mondale, a former vice president, was not afraid to challenge a popular President Reagan in 1984. Party giants Hubert Humphrey, Edmund Muskie and Henry Jackson sought the nomination in 1972, when President Nixon was at the peak of his popularity. Adlai Stevenson, the party's titular leader in 1956, was not afraid to run against war-hero incumbent President Dwight Eisenhower.
Non-candidates of stature -- Messrs. Mitchell, Bradley, Nunn, Bentsen, Gore and Cuomo -- should reassess the situation. To allow the Democratic Party to be led by a straw-weight in 1992 could harm it and them more than any can foresee.