WASHINGTON. — Washington -- The Dec. 21 New York Times told the deadpan truth in a front-page headline: ''Cuomo Says He Will Not Run for President in '92.'' What the headline lacked was a little spin control. It should have read, ''Cuomo SAYS He Will Not Run for President in '92.''
Am I skeptical? You bet. Mario Cuomo's renunciation should be taken with two tons of salt. I have heard this song before. The Mario Scenario hasn't ended.
Let me turn the clock back by 40 years. We are now talking about the upcoming presidential election of 1952. The Democrats would like to grab Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, but it looks as if the Republicans have snared him.
Whom to run? The most ambitious Democratic candidate is Tennessee's Sen. Estes Kefauver. He isn't much. Mr. Kefauver has a long face and a large jaw; he affects a coonskin hat, which does nothing to improve the aspect; he peers at the world through large glasses that seem often to be just a little askew. His reputation as a senator charitably may be summed up as modest.
Who else? Sen. Richard Russell might be a possibility, but he is -- ugh! -- a Southerner. Sen. Bob Kerr of Oklahoma is too buddy-buddy with the oil interests. Averell Harriman has good experience but no pizzazz. Hubert Humphrey's time has not yet come. Gov. Edmund Brown of California seems a lightweight. It is, in brief, a weak field.
Sound familiar? You begin to get the drift. One real prospect was Adlai Stevenson, governor of Illinois. He was an acknowledged intellectual, which made some of the power brokers uneasy, and had a way of looking at issues as if he were winding up a Rubik's cube: Every issue had at least 12 sides to it. But he was a heck of a fine speaker.
Harry Truman, who detested Kefauver, broached Stevenson. He got the polite turndown. ''I have repeatedly said that I was a candidate for governor of Illinois and had no other ambition.'' Stevenson spoke of the ''unfinished work in Illinois.'' He was firm: ''I could not accept the nomination for any other office this summer.''
A reporter asked: ''What would you do if the convention nominated you anyhow?'' Stevenson had a wry sense of humor: ''Guess I'd have to shoot myself,'' he said.
So Kefauver slogged his way from New Hampshire to California, rolling up an impressive 3.1 million votes in 15 primaries. No one else was even close, but the dissatisfaction continued. Could the reluctant governor of Illinois possibly be persuaded? The governor said thank you, but no, thank you.
Both conventions in 1952 were in Chicago. The Republicans came first and nominated Eisenhower. Late in July the Democrats assembled. The convention was in tumult. Southerners were threatening to walk out. Louisiana, Virginia and South Carolina were in open rebellion.
Then came the governor of Illinois to welcome the fractious delegates to Chicago. He began by scoffing at the Republicans who so recently had been sitting in the same folding chairs:
''For almost a week pompous phrases marched over the landscape in search of an idea, and the only idea they found was that two great decades of progress in peace, victory in war, and bold leadership in this anxious hour were the misbegotten spawn of socialism, bungling, corruption, mismanagement, waste and worse.
''After listening to this procession of epithets about our misdeeds, I was even surprised the next morning when the mail was delivered on time.''
The delegates went ga-ga. They looked at Kefauver, and Kefauver appeared more inadequate than ever. Under the blazing sun of Eisenhower's prestige, his coonskin cap would molt. Truman began to strike deals. Others found a way to ease Harriman out of the picture. Southerners suddenly turned on Dick Russell for playing footsie with the auto workers' union.
Stevenson won on the third ballot. His acceptance speech seemed a trifle sacrilegious: ''If this cup may not pass from me, except I drink it, Thy will be done.'' No matter. In November he carried only nine Southern states and lost to Ike in a landslide.
What Mr. Cuomo said on Friday was that he could not turn his attention to New Hampshire while a budgetary crisis hung over New York. Well, the budgetary crisis will be gone by Monday, July 13, 1992.
That is when the Democratic convention opens in Madison Square Garden. And guess who will give a welcoming address?
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.