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Want to Be President? Have Breakfast First

After more than 31 years of Monitor breakfasts with public figures, it should come as a surprise to no one to learn that this has been a forum where many of our guests have disclosed an interest in becoming president. Most politicians, when pressed, will admit that the idea has at least crossed their minds.

But there also are those who, after disclosing their intentions at the breakfast, did become what is known as "serious" candidates for the presidency. Bobby Kennedy was the first. It was a decision he made during the hour of questioning - or so it seemed. First he said "absolutely not." Then the prospect of running, he said, was "not conceivable." Soon it became "not foreseeable." Before we left that day it was clear that Mr. Kennedy was in the race. Indeed, Kennedy historians have recorded it that way, too.

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Jimmy Carter also disclosed his presidential intentions first at our gathering. It wasn't dramatic like Bobby Kennedy's decision to run. Mr. Carter was still a relatively unknown former governor from Georgia, and the 1976 presidential race was still some three years away. Carter simply told us that he was going to make the run. We didn't rush to the phones. A few of the reporters, in a post-breakfast conversation, said they thought Carter's prospects were nil. One sage uttered this pronouncement: "Carter isn't forceful enough to become president." Others agreed.

Hubert Humphrey, our most-frequent guest for many years, told us early - and, I think, first - of his intentions to run in 1968. Famous newsman Peter Lisagor prodded him into an admission of his decision to make the race.

It seems that Bill Clinton finally decided to declare a run for the presidency after meeting with our group in September 1991. Up to that point the Clintons were undecided, even reluctant, about running. They were afraid that Mr. Clinton "carried too much baggage" - possible allegations of infidelity - to make it to the White House. They talked about what had happened to Gary Hart. They held back on getting into the race.

But then the Clintons made the decision to deal with their marital problems head-on. Both of them came to a Monitor breakfast and offered this answer: "Yes, we have had problems in the past - but we have worked them out." Here was a couple talking about the healing of marital difficulties. For the reporters, the answer seemed to suffice. Indeed, the approach worked so well that Clinton let us know before he and Hillary left that morning that he was going to become a candidate. Not quite an announcement. But he clearly had decided.

WE'VE had no recent announcements of candidacy for 2000. But there have been near-misses. When Jack Kemp met with us a few months back it seemed clear, from what he said, that he'll run in 2000. Steve Forbes left us with that same clear impression. Sens. Bob Kerrey and John McCain also sounded as though they're headed for a presidential run - as did Fred Thompson. Bill Bennett actually declared his intentions. He said flatly he was planning to run in 2004. "My kids will be grown by then," he said, "and I'm going to run."

Richard Gephardt, the Democratic leader in the House, is "definitely" running next time around. He'll be taking on Al Gore, the experts say. The other morning I tried very hard to persuade Mr. Gephardt to admit to this intention, but he only smiled and stuck to his thesis - that new tax cuts should aid the poor more than the wealthy.

The next morning at our breakfast I worked hard on John Kasich, the personable and talkative Republican who heads the House Budget Committee, to pry out of him an admission of interest in the next presidential contest. He let us know that he was thinking about it. "What should I do?" he asked one of the reporters sitting with him at the oval table. Then he laughed. We laughed too. Was this the genesis of a presidential race?

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It could be.

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