WASHINGTON — There is a story that a longtime associate of Gov. George Deukmejian recently told to corroborate the California governor's professed lack of presidential ambition. It went like this:
Shortly after having been sworn into office in 1983, Deukmejian was attending his first national governors conference in Washington and was invited to return home aboard Air Force One with President Reagan.
"Guess what!" an excited aide told the governor. "We're going back to California tomorrow on Air Force One with the President."
"Why?" the governor asked.
Surprised by the response, the aide explained that Reagan was flying to Santa Barbara for a holiday, people had been booted off the plane to make room for the governor and he could talk to the President about any issue on his mind, old times in Sacramento--or whatever.
"But we've got that fund-raiser tomorrow night in Long Beach," the aide was reminded.
No problem. A Marine helicopter would be waiting at Point Mugu to take him there, the governor was assured.
"Oh, I don't know. Sounds like too much trouble," Deukmejian said, ending the conversation.
So the next day, the governor and his aide fought rush-hour traffic and drove to Dulles Airport, far outside of Washington, and caught a commercial plane to Los Angeles.
The teller of the story went on to talk about the California congressmen who had flown across the continent to Washington just so they could board Air Force One and return home with the President.
Deukmejian's reason for declining the White House invitation was pragmatic: In his mind, the best route to Long Beach is a straight line. But it also demonstrated a genuine absence of presidential ambition.
And five years later, on Monday, California's popular two-term governor was standing on the White House lawn exhibiting no more interest in the Oval Office than he ever has. He had just come from a meeting in the East Room between the President and the nation's governors. The night before, he and Mrs. Deukmejian and the other governors and their spouses had been hosted at a White House black-tie dinner by the President and First Lady.
Had such heady surroundings gotten his juices flowing about, perhaps, running for the office himself someday?
"No, no," the governor told reporters without hesitation.
Not even the vice presidency? he was asked.
"Not at all," he insisted, adding he was sure that Reagan must be relieved to be nearly rid of his job.
"When I see the President this year," Deukmejian said, "I'm thinking to myself, he must certainly be waiting until the end of the year. And what a relief it's going to be for him to no longer have the significant responsibilities that he's had to carry for the last eight years."
Standing only a few feet from the "Western Duke," as some Washington journalists have nicknamed the Californian, was the "Eastern Duke"--Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. And the contrast could not have been sharper.
Deukmejian was surrounded by no more than a dozen reporters and photographers and there was ample room for everyone. But photographers had to bring in their own ladders to see Dukakis, who was being swarmed over by dozens of journalists as he discussed his quest for the presidency.
Dukakis Back on Stump
After his session on the lawn with reporters, Dukakis left Washington to return to the campaign trail, where he had been before Sunday night's White House dinner. Deukmejian returned to the tedious meetings of the governors conference, where he had been all of Sunday and would be most of Monday--listening intently, chin on his left hand, saying virtually nothing except when he chaired a discussion about AIDS in prisons.
At the last winter meeting of the governors a year ago, Deukmejian was seriously considering running as a favorite son presidential candidate. He went around Washington seeking the advice of seasoned politicos, such as Vice President George Bush. But he got almost no encouragement and gave up the idea.
Asked whether he now has any regrets about not going on the California primary ballot as a favorite son, Deukmejian winced in jest and said, "No, I look at these guys (campaigning). . . . My hat goes off to them."
One Deukmejian adviser, speaking on condition he not be identified, said a favorite son candidacy "would have led to a blood bath." He reasoned that the real presidential contenders would have aggressively challenged the governor in the primary if the nomination battle still were close.
Deals Have Been Struck
Deukmejian aides say deals have been struck with the leading Republican candidates, however, to allow the governor to chair the delegation of the California primary winner. This presumably could give the governor extra clout at a brokered national convention.
Deukmejian's next really big political decision will be whether to seek a third term in 1990. Advisers say he will wait until after the November election, gauge the political climate and the strengths of his potential opponents, and probably decide by spring, 1989.
"We're moving ahead so we'll have a lot of flexibility. We've already raised around $2 million," said one strategist.
Another adviser theorized that if a Democrat is elected to the White House this year, and Deukmejian wins a third term in 1990, he would be in a good position to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1992.
Asked Monday whether he might consider running in 1992, Deukmejian's words left some wiggle room but his body language didn't. "I don't expect so, no," he replied, turning and heading for the White House gate.