WASHINGTON — I started out a phone interview with Sen. Joseph Lieberman the other day by saying I was sure he had been asked a thousand times whether he was going to run for president next time.
I said it reminded me of 1967, when Vice President Hubert Humphrey was being pressed hard by reporters at a Monitor breakfast on whether he would run for president in 1968. I told Senator Lieberman, the Democrat from Connecticut, that when we got nowhere with Mr. Humphrey, the great Chicago Daily News reporter Peter Lisagor tried this approach: "Mr. Vice President, are you salivating when you think of running?" We all laughed, and Humphrey said, "Yes," that he was drooling a bit when he thought about it.
So I then said to Lieberman, "Senator, are you salivating?"
Lieberman, laughing, replied, "No, I can't say that I'm salivating. But I'm certainly meditating and activating."
I concluded that "meditating" meant that he was giving a lot of thought to the subject.
"But," I asked, "what does activating mean?"
"It means," he said, "that I'm moving around the country, meeting with many leaders, speaking out on issues. I'm getting ready to make my decision by the end of the year."
Here he added, obviously referring to Al Gore: "I think that anyone who wants the nomination will have to make the decision by the end of the year. I'm doing all the things I should be doing now in case I make the decision to run."
"So," I said, "you are losing no time if you do decide to run?"
"Absolutely not," he said, raising his voice to underscore those two words.
So here you have a senator with hat in hand, ready to toss it into the ring. What this says is that anyone that's eager to run and who is making all these preparations to run is somehow or other going to get into this race.
Oh, I know, he's made this pledge to Mr. Gore that he won't run if Gore runs. But here is a very attractive fellow who is sounding like a candidate, looking like a candidate, and, except for the commitment to candidacy, is running like a candidate would run at this early stage in the race.
So the feeling of this oldtimer who has been asking this "Are you going to run?" question of potential presidential candidates for a lot of years is that Lieberman is building up the momentum that will again somehow propel him into a situation where he will be able to utter these magic words: "I'm in."
In the interview, I admit to being caught up by Lieberman's enthusiasm for the race. "I'm out around the country helping Democratic candidates," he said, "and telling them about my philosophy and my hopes for the future of this country. People members of Congress, governors, others, I'm not mentioning names have been very encouraging of my running. I'm not asking for commitments, not yet. But I'm getting so much encouragement to run not just from one section of the country but from all sections of the country."
Calling himself a "New Democrat," like Bill Clinton, Lieberman said (if he became president): "My mission will be to carry on with a New Democratic philosophy of centrism of the Clinton years."
But while embracing Mr. Clinton's approach to running the government, including balancing the budget and putting an end to big spending programs, Lieberman certainly isn't running as the former president's man. Most voters would probably remember Lieberman's sharply expressed differences with Clinton: He was one of the first prominent Democrats to speak out against Clinton's personal improprieties. Indeed, Lieberman's position on family values will be attractive to many who were critics of Clinton's excesses in his personal life.
As I think back over this interview with Lieberman, I can see how I could easily have written a column with a headline, "Waiting for Gore." Lieberman didn't mention Gore's name to me. But he is telling other reporters that his own race depends on Gore not running. And I think Lieberman is an honorable man. Yet, again, I feel that this former vice presidential candidate is building up so much involvement in the coming campaign that his candidacy will somehow emerge. We'll see.
Oh, yes, Humphrey did run against Nixon the following year and narrowly lost.