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Gasps and Cheers as the Curtain Falls

* Directors and writers dream up the perfect theatrical endings to the potboiler of the presidential race.

November 09, 2000|MARY McNAMARA and J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Withdrawn concessions, the Buchanan/Gore ballot confusion, reports of a lost ballot box, the anxious vigil for the overseas absentee vote--for the last day Americans have watched, transfixed and horrified, as their presidential election has taken on the hallmarks of a farfetched movie of the week.

Whatever the outcome, the theatrical elements cannot be denied, although some might wish another writer-director was calling the shots. Frank Capra, say, who might open the action as he did in "It's a Wonderful Life"--a fade into heaven, reverberating with prayers and pleas from each side, ultimately answered by angelic authority.

Or "The West Wing's" Aaron Sorkin who, for better or worse, would at least wrap the plot line up in an hour.

"My first thought was, 'Who in the world was the scriptwriter for this election?' " says Texas political columnist Molly Ivins. "It's so over the top that the perp should be thrown out of the screenwriters guild."

"Of course," she adds, "what you really want if you're a political geek like me is a tie that goes to the House. There, you only get one vote for each state, and since we have more Democrats than Republicans in our delegation, then Texas would support Gore. You could have stuff like that all over the lot."

"I've never seen a big race this tight," says Ivins. "It was just tremendous fun for us, even though I realize the civilians were not amused."

Some civilians and creative types said Wednesday morning that the fate of a presidential election is too serious to think about in a fanciful way. But some novelists and screenwriters find a sort of solace in contemplating how the last scene would go if they were writing it.

William Link, co-creator of "Columbo" and "Murder, She Wrote," sees a possible conspiracy-action thriller revolving around two brothers and a canny federal agent. "The candidate's brother is the governor of the embattled state," he says. "He rigs one set of the ballots so voters vote for the wrong candidate--not for his brother, which would be too obvious--but for another candidate. Then, when his brother becomes president, they try to invade Cuba. Not another Bay of Pigs, but a well thought-out invasion, because it turns out that their father was head of the CIA and has had a paramilitary offshoot secretly training for years."

The nefarious plot would be revealed moments before the invasion was to occur by "your Harrison Ford character," Link says, and order is restored. Thinking a moment, he adds: "They'll probably make a movie just like that."

Larry Beinhart, author of "American Hero," the novel that was adapted for the movie "Wag the Dog," also leans toward a conspiracy drama. "The best one [ending] is to find a little box under Jeb [Bush's] desk from a Democratic precinct, " he says. Failing that, he says, "the best thing is that we just do without one [a president]. Another possibility is a do-over."

For CNN political analyst and novelist Jeff Greenfield, summoning up a fictional ending for this year's race is fairly easy--he essentially did just that in his political thriller "The People's Choice." "Of course, I killed off my president, which made it a little easier," he says. "For me the most intriguing question right now is 'what if?' What if, for example, some of the electors [of the electoral college] decide to change their votes? Half of them are not bound by law, and the other half, well, what would Congress do? Shoot them?"

His fictional plot line, then, would focus, as his 5-year-old novel does, on one elector who could change history. What if she has had an affair with one of the candidates and chose this moment to take her revenge? Or what if a successful attempt was made to bribe one or several of the electors?

"Or think of 'The Mouse That Roared,' " says Greenfield. "What if you have an elector from a tiny impoverished town who wants something specific, a government contract? Anything could happen," he says, adding with a laugh, "maybe one of them turns out to be an alien. . . ."

The Spielbergian touch is exactly what screenwriter-director Rod Lurie is hoping for, both fictionally and in reality. An avowed Gore supporter, he says he has already had enough of political scheming in his current film "The Contender." In a scenario based on the Bush/Gore election, he envisions a fairy-tale ending in which a winsome young child finds a forgotten Florida ballot box, brings it to his despondent Democratic parents who leap in their SUV and rush to the attorney general's office.

"They'd run into all sorts of obstacles, get pulled over for speeding by a cop wearing a Bush button, and then, at the last minute, arrive just in time," he says, lowering his voice dramatically. "They open the box which has only a few ballots and then, "Survivor"-like, they count them out, and Gore wins by a single vote."

The movie's final scene would feature the young child standing outside the Oval Office. "The door opens and the child is greeted by Al Gore, played by a thin Tom Hanks. The music comes up," Lurie says, "there's a happy ending, and America is good again."

Michael Tolkin, who wrote "The Player," sees no room for happy endings or lighthearted spin. "This is too baroque for me," he says. "It's just too serious. I'm so angry at [Ralph] Nader right now, I can't even speak. It's not a time for cleverness. That's all I can say."

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