You see it everywhere: in newspaper stories, on the news and on talk shows, the Democratic contenders for the 1988 presidential nomination are referred to -- and then dismissed -- as the "seven dwarfs."
There are slight variations on the theme. The other day, a leading Democratic pollster called the Democratic contenders "midgets in the public mind." It's gotten so bad that New York Gov. Mario Cuomo has felt the need to decry the dwarf characterization as "unfair." On the contrary, he said, the seven candidates represent an "embarrassment of riches."
Dwarfs. Midgets. Those who dismiss the Democrats' candidates as too "diminutive" to be president are saying these candidates lack the stature of some of those who have chosen not to run this year: Sens. Sam Nunn and Bill Bradley and Cuomo himself. They are also saying that the candidates now slugging it out in Iowa and New Hampshire do not measure up to Democratic nominees of the past and particularly to past Democratic presidents.
Cuomo is right. This characterization is patently unfair. In the last half-century or so, the Democratic Party has nominated -- and the country elected -- three presidents who have come to exemplify the best attributes of the Democratic tradition: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman and John F. Kennedy. Yet, none of these three was viewed as a particularly significant figure prior to his nomination. No one called any of these three larger than life.
FDR had been governor of New York for a grand total of four years at the time of his nomination for president. His last government position prior to the governorship had been assistant secretary of the Navy, a job he relinquished 12 years before his 1932 nomination. Walter Lippmann spoke for many in the Democratic Party and the nation when he dismissed Roosevelt as "a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president."
Harry Truman so little excited the kingmakers of the Democratic Party that some of them tried to block his nomination in 1948 even though he was already president, having moved into the White House upon the death of FDR. He was dismissed as the "little man in the White House," and leading Democrats tried to entice Justice William O. Douglas and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower into contesting Truman for the nomination. Even at the convention that nominated Truman, there were still delegates singing about how they were "just mild about Harry."
John Kennedy was hardly viewed as a heavyweight when he sought the nomination for president in 1960. Top party figures said he was too young to be president, too inexperienced, and thathe should step aside for a more seasoned politician such as Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson or Hubert Humphrey. Eleanor Roosevelt said that she couldn't be enthusiastic about Kennedy until he began to show "less profile and more courage."
The parallels with the current cropof candidates should be obvious. Butthere is one big difference. Many ofthe seven Democratic contenders in 1988 have more impressive records than those possessed by the leaders of the past.
Look at the issue of experience. As I mentioned, FDR had been governor of New York for four years when he was elected president in 1932. Mike Dukakis is in his ninth year as Massachusetts governor. Bruce Babbitt was governor of Arizona for eight years.
Harry Truman had been a U.S. senator for 10 years when he was picked as Roosevelt's vice president (and then quickly moved up to the presidency). Joe Biden will have been in the Senate for 16 years by November 1988. Paul Simon will have served in the House and Senate for 14 years and Al Gore -- at 39 -- for 12. Dick Gephardt will have been a member of the House of Representatives for 12 years. And Jesse Jackson has been a national civil rights leader for more than 20 years.
That is why this "dwarf talk" is a bum rap. The Democratic contenders are a competent, experienced group. None of them yet has voters on their feet cheering, but it's still five months until theIowa caucuses. It is way too earlyfor candidates to jell. Just give themtime. And, better yet, give them a closer look.
The eventual winner of the Democratic presidential nomination will, like past nominees, find his image instantly transformed by the mere fact of his success. That is the way it works, and always has.
The writer is a Democratic senator from Michigan.