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Keep an Eye on Doug Wilder

POLITICS was blooming in Washington on a recent weekend. Robert Kennedy's daughter and Gov. Mario Cuomo's son were married, and this happy event drew more comments about the political implications than about what the bride wore. Clearly, the political watchers were saying, this coming together of the Kennedy and Cuomo clans meant that with the Kennedys now behind him, Governor Cuomo would finally run for president.

Then Virginia's charismatic governor, Douglas Wilder, arrived in Washington. He was meeting with 40 journalists in a ballroom of the Sheraton Carlton Hotel, and he laughed loudly on hearing that the floral centerpiece on his table had been left over from the Kennedy-Cuomo reception.

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It was John Kennedy, Wilder said, who ``destroyed the myth'' that a Roman Catholic couldn't become president and in so doing opened the way for other minorities, including blacks, to be represented in the White House. ``He crossed the Rubicon back in 1960,'' said Wilder.

Thus was the nation's first black governor responding to questions about how ``realistic'' it was that he could be on the presidential ticket in '92. He modestly and dutifully said that he hadn't had time to put together a record as governor which would qualify him for such slating. But, as reporters noted, he certainly didn't say ``no.''

Indeed, it is very possible that Wilder will be Cuomo's chief adversary for the presidency - perhaps in 1996 if not in 1992. Wilder said he had ``every intention'' of completing his four-year term as governor. Yet he left some wiggle room for '92.

I was fortunate to have been, as a reporter, an on-the-scene witness of that Kennedy breakthrough in 1960. It actually began in 1956 when Adlai Stevenson, instead of handpicking his running mate, told the delegates assembled in Chicago that they were to be allowed to fill the No. 2 spot on the ticket.

In the melee that followed, young Senator Kennedy, together with his sisters and his brothers, put on a spectacular display of persuasion that came within a hair of being successful.

Kennedy lost out to Estes Kefauver, who had won a large number of delegates during the primaries. But in his losing effort, Kennedy had shown that the resistance to a Roman Catholic in the highest seats of national power was softening.

But when Kennedy entered the primaries in '60, there still was a dominant feeling among political experts that a Roman Catholic could not win the nomination. ``I'll have to show 'em,'' he told me in an interview. That's why he entered the early primary in Wisconsin, where Catholic voters represented a relatively small minority.

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He and Humphrey broke about even in the voting - but the press gave the ``victory'' to Kennedy simply because he had ``proved'' he could pick up so many votes among Protestants.

Kennedy hadn't quite ``shown 'em.'' That came in the next primary in West Virginia - where the voters were almost totally Protestant and where Humphrey was beloved for initiating domestic programs helpful to West Virginians. Against all predictions, Kennedy scored a spectacular upset win.

The voters clearly liked this young, witty fellow. And voters told me again and again that they didn't think it was fair that Kennedy was being prevented from becoming president because he was a Catholic. They were going to vote for him to show that they wanted to be fair.

I think this same fair-play vote is out there ready to elevate a black - a black who is perceived to be highly competent and one who would clearly be a president of all the people - to the White House.

And this is where Doug Wilder, perceived to be a governor of all the people in Virginia, may well come in. He just might become to blacks what Kennedy became to the Catholics.

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