ANYONE looking at the TV screen could get the impression that a war protest of Vietnam proportions was emerging. But the presidential candidate behind whom those Vietnam protesters rallied - George McGovern - says this is not so. He agrees that the vast majority of Americans have rallied in support of the troops and President Bush. While he hopes he is wrong, McGovern thinks the president made a ``catastrophic mistake'' in taking the country into war. But he doesn't see the protests becoming like those during the Vietnam war unless the casualties approach Vietnam levels.
The president, too, indicated in his State of the Union speech that he doesn't view the protest as a threat to the presidency. Indeed, he stood up for ``thoughtful'' dissent and indicated that he felt that most of the protest today was ``responsible.''
Of Bush's apparent tolerance, Washington Post columnist Stephen S. Rosenfeld wrote:
``Some think he's doing it by design, faking it, so as to avoid falling into the old bitterness and polarization. Others think he can afford to show tolerance because he's way ahead in public opinion, and still others believe he's being respectful because he's decent. No matter, he's absolutely right to set an example of civility. This is a marvelous contribution to a country at war.''
McGovern, while growing increasingly unhappy over the war, is also providing an example of civility that should be commended. The McGovern anger and passion that he expressed over the Vietnam war simply isn't there - at least, not yet.
``Obviously, as an American,'' he told reporters at a recent Monitor breakfast, ``I hope Americans prevail and the president's objectives of a relatively short war with a minimum of casualties succeed. And I applaud his effort to minimize casualties on both sides.''
But he added: ``I hope my foreboding about the war is wrong. But I don't have a good feeling about it at all.
``Not that I accept Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait,'' he emphasizes. ``That obviously makes it a different situation than we faced in Vietnam where there was no invasion - and where all the people we were fighting lived in Vietnam.''
McGovern went on: ``I supported the sanctions, the condemnation, and even the defensive deployment to see that [Iraq] didn't get into the central oil fields in Saudi Arabia. But I think this war is extremely ill-advised. I seriously question the military and political judgment of the president. I think he made a costly mistake and there are all kinds of problems ahead.''
Detractors of George McGovern have often asked me what makes him ``tick''. They see him as soft, wrong-headed, naive, and much too liberal.
I have traveled long miles with McGovern along the campaign trail. He is a compassionate and moral man. There is a lot of the Protestant minister in McGovern. I also sense in him a touch of the populist, and of the Midwest isolationism of the 1930s and early '40s. And he is honest to the core. I remind his detractors that had McGovern beaten Nixon in 1972, the country would not have been put through the ordeal of a Watergate scandal.
The media turnout at the McGovern breakfast was small. He had a big audience in New Hampshire where he was testing the waters for a possible try at the presidency. But Washington reporters apparently don't see McGovern playing an important role in today's war dialogue. One newsman, who says he likes McGovern, called the North Dakotan a ``sad'' figure. But others said they found him ``thoughtful'' and his words ``very useful.''
Reporters kept pressing for McGovern's evaluation of the protest and what it might become.
``If the casualty rate doesn't begin to approach Vietnam levels,'' he said, ``I think we may not have the same reactions. If it does, I think the reaction is going to be very strong.''
Asserting that the vote in Congress on supporting Bush reflected a divided country, McGovern said: ``I think that with this kind of support it was very risky for the president to take us into war. Woodrow Wilson once said that the worst mistake a president can make is to go into war with a country divided.''