Washington — About this point preceeding the 1976 presidential election, a genial, smiling , articulate politician from Plains, Ga., met with the Monitor breakfast group.
He had been in before, as a new governor of Georgia and after that. But this time there was a gleam in his eye. As they invariably did, the reporters filing out found Jimmy Carter very likable. But a presidential candidate? The consensus: ''A ridiculous idea. He won't go far.''
And now, eight years later, another Southerner, US Sen. Ernest F. (Fritz) Hollings (D) of South Carolina, was expressing these same aspirations. As a former governor and long-time senator, Mr. Hollings was well known to the reporters. But what was this about running for president?
Yes, said Hollings, who indicated he was offering himself as the real Democratic alternative - to front-runners Edward Kennedy and Walter Mondale. Neither could win the South, he said, because of records as liberal spenders. Obviously, he felt he could. Also, he detailed a plan for holding back on government spending which, he contended, would enable him to present a program of fiscal responsibility that would play in the North as well as the South.
This time, departing reporters were a little more sanguine about Hollings than they had been about Carter. Hollings is a particularly attractive political figure, they conceded, more so than anyone else (except Kennedy) in the current crop of presidential aspirants. Also, unlike Carter, Hollings is a forceful personality and able speaker. ''Another Connally,'' several said, pointing out a physical resemblance. ''Another Lyndon Johnson,'' said one or two reporters, referring to his persuasiveness.
But, again, as with Carter, the judgment was that Hollings still had a long way to go before he could be taken very seriously as a presidential candidate.
Sensing this attitude from the questioning, Hollings admitted there was a long road ahead. ''But I'm in for the course,'' he said.
Maybe - just maybe - one reporter commented afterward, ''Hollings may fool us the way Carter did.''
The back and forth with Hollings over the breakfast table went like this:
What do you think of President Reagan's press conference statements on deficits?
It's his familiar litany about inherited problems. Jimmy Carter inherited a $ 66 billion deficit from Jerry Ford and worked it down to $28 billion. Ronald Reagan took that inherited deficit and worked it up. And now he asks for patience. Patience? We don't need patience. Time is not helping us.
There's $200 billion sitting 'round in money market funds that could be used for business and capital investment, but won't be, because of heavier government borrowing and higher interest rates.
The President doesn't recommend anything, but meanwhile the situation gets worse. The constitutional balanced budget amendment is an act of whole cloth. And instead of holding to the Republican budget discipline, he says he won't be held to the agreed-upon defense spending figures. If he doesn't stick to them, this could mean at least a $20 billion increase in defense spending in the 1984 fiscal year and $24 billion in '85. It would make a mockery out of the Republican tax increase bill now in Congress.
What of Reagan's performance?
He's a good performer in a press conference, though, better than all of us. But as far as performance in office is concerned, he has run out of gas.
Ronald Reagan is dedicated to the redistribution of income and to the extinction of government. He thinks government is the enemy, rather than the friend of the people. What is the Democrats' alternative? Do they have any?
The Achilles' heel of the party is the handling of the economy. We sustain President Reagan. We should have jumped at the chance to offer an alternative.
The only alternative is to look at revenues and freeze all COLAs (cost-of-living adjustments) except for food stamps and SSI. We have to do something on social security, freeze defense spending at 3 percent real growth, abolish indexing.
By doing this we can pick up $100 billion and start to bring the deficit down toward $30 billion. We have to control the uncontrollable.
How about Kennedy and Mondale in the Democratic presidential sweepstakes? Do you think you can compete with them?
Fritz Hollings and Sam Nunn will represent the majority in the Democratic Party, not the Ted Kennedys and the Fritz Mondales. I just came back from the Southern Governors' Conference, and I can tell you that neither Kennedy nor Mondale could carry the South.
Can Ted Kennedy be elected?
I think he can be elected, but it would be very difficult. I think the Chappaquiddick thing is behind him, but he still has that image of wanting to spend the store, and that doesn't go over any more.
We Democrats have to get the people over the perception that we've disintegrated into a collection of yapping special interests.
You're virtually an unknown nationally now. Can you overcome it? You didn't actually shine at the Democratic conference in Philadelphia.
Sure, I'm not exactly a national figure right now, but give me time. In Philadelphia, Mondale and Kennedy had their crowds there ready to cheer and whoop and whistle, and I didn't bring any clique along. But I made exactly the same speech in Baltimore before the Association of Cities and Towns and the papers reported that I brought the crowd to its feet. And that was not a fixed audience.
Has Jimmy Carter hurt the chances of any Southerner running for president for some time to come?
I don't think so. I don't have Jimmy Carter's record. Mondale has Carter's record to answer for. Nixon didn't ruin California for Reagan.
How would you characterize yourself, idealogically?
I'm a centrist. I would bring middle America back into the Democratic Party.