COLUMN LEFT / GEORGE McGOVERN : Cut the Clinton Sniping, Give Him His Due : He's not perfect--who is?--but he has demonstrated assets no other Democrat can match.

George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972, is president of the Middle East Policy Council

I think it is time for Democrats to quit agonizing about their support for Bill Clinton. He's a battle-tested candidate, and a worthy one.

Clinton is a Rhodes Scholar with a law degree from Yale, a man who has kept a sometimes troubled marriage together for many years. He is a conscientious father, a regular churchgoer, the longest-serving governor in the nation after first being elected as the youngest, a presidential candidate who has won more Democratic primary elections this year than anyone else--including Washington, Oregon, Texas, Florida, Michigan, Illinois, New York and Wisconsin.

Yet it is said that he is not fit to be President because he is too "slick," avoided serving in the Vietnam War, made dubious business deals, yielded to the lusts of the flesh and offered evasive answers about all of this.

When I listen to the litany of sins charged to Clinton--the idealistic young man who worked in my presidential campaign 20 years ago--several thoughts recur. There is the confession of St. Paul: "I am the chief of sinners." And those other biblical words: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." I recall also the disarming words to me of Lillian Carter, whose son had just won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976: "I wish Jimmy wouldn't promise never to tell a lie. I lie all the time!"

I don't believe that Clinton is "the chief of sinners" (and, of course, neither was St. Paul). I don't believe that I'm in a position to cast any stones at his personal life. And I don't believe that he lies all the time (and, of course, neither did Ms. Lillian).

What I do believe is that Clinton embodies the personal temptations and failings that afflict most of us. I also believe that he has the brain-power, compassion, humor, imagination, courage, tolerance and toughness to win a hard-fought presidential nominating struggle, to handle George Bush in the fall, and to make a good President. If he is "slick," maybe that is an asset in today's shark-infested political waters.

It is said that two-thirds of the voters want someone else in the race. But whom do they want? The potential candidates who lacked the courage and imagination to seek the nomination when George Bush was sky-high in popularity? Or do they want Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman or John Kennedy to return from the grave--all men who were bitterly assailed when they were alive?

Although I have always liked Clinton, he wasn't my first choice for President because of his identification with the so-called Democratic Leadership Conference. But, paradoxically, he has gone up in my opinion as he has been probed, mauled, kicked and derided by the press, by his opponents and by the Democratic cocktail circuit. He has risen in my judgment because he has taken everything we can throw at him while maintaining his composure, his sense of humor and his dignity. Just now I can't think of a politician in America who could have better withstood such a ceaseless barrage of personalized attacks.

There is a peculiar phenomenon in Democratic presidential politics that I know something about: When a front-runner emerges, he is suddenly fair game for every frustrated politician, pundit and armchair critic in the country. The front-runner always leaves a trail of defeated contenders, disappointed and angry supporters of other candidates, and potential contenders who know that if only they had been willing to offer their superior talents, we would surely have a better front-runner.

But each time the list of names is cited of those who can best save us from Clinton, I wonder where the evidence is that any of them could do better under actual combat conditions than he is doing. Indeed, where is the evidence that any one of them is better qualified for the presidency?

I confess to having had a yearning to enter the presidential competition of 1992 myself. My family and friends persuaded me that the results would have been disappointing, if not disastrous. The truth is that no one really knows how he will do in a political competition if he doesn't try. Bill Clinton is trying, and I'm beginning to think he may win his case--both in July and in November--especially if those of us who aren't in the fray ease up on the fun of bashing the front-runner.

Washington Post cartoonist Herblock offers a note of reality about all of this when he depicts a fortuneteller saying to Miss Democrat '92: "The bad news is you won't find your Mr. Perfect--the good news is he won't be running against Mr. Wonderful."

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