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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Once More Unto the Breach for L.A. Veteran of Myriad Crises

Election: Warren Christopher has long been known for skill and calm in volatile situations. So he was Gore's obvious choice to send to Florida.

November 10, 2000|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like so many other Americans, the small group of Los Angeles' legal and political luminaries who gathered at the stately home overlooking Griffith Park rolled with the punches Tuesday night, flinching as the networks first awarded Florida to Al Gore, then took it away, then wallowed in indecision.

Television sets were scattered throughout the Spanish-style Los Feliz house, but one by one, people pulled their gazes from the screens and edged out of the knots of anxious viewers to exchange a few quiet words with the party's most distinguished guest, Warren M. Christopher, former secretary of State.

Quietly amiable--dapper as always in his conservative suit, silk tie and pocket square--Christopher sipped a small glass of chardonnay as he shared political insights on a campaign that had left another of his candidates within reach of the White House.

After an hour or two, Christopher and his wife slipped away for their home, departing so inconspicuously that many of the guests did not realize they were gone. A short time later, however, just as Christopher was preparing to go to bed, the phone rang, and he was plucked back into the fray again. By dawn, he was on his way to Nashville; by midafternoon, he was in Florida.

It was no surprise that, in that moment of deepest and most uncertain crisis, Gore turned to Christopher--whose storied discretion and almost preternatural diplomatic skills have earned him the nickname "the cardinal."

Lacking a comparable "elder statesman" in his personal circle, Texas Gov. George W. Bush responded to the Florida crisis by reaching back to tap one of his father's intimate advisors, another former secretary of State, James A. Baker III.

In one fashion or another, Christopher has played a central role in the political lives of Bill Clinton and Gore for more than eight years. Christopher led the search committee that recommended Gore to then-candidate Clinton in 1992, and this year directed the group that suggested Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman to Gore. In between, he served as secretary of State in Clinton's first term, a capstone to a storied career that has seen Christopher move back and forth from Southern California to Washington over three decades, leaving his mark on both places.

But none of his missions has riveted the public--or caused it to hold its collective breath--as much as the one on which Gore dispatched Christopher this week.

Once in Florida, Christopher took charge of a group of lawyers drawn from around the country. Their job: to supervise the recount for the Democrats while investigating potential legal challenges to the results in a state whose governor, Jeb Bush, happens to be the younger brother of the Republican candidate.

Thursday morning, Christopher announced his team's conclusion.

"We've come to believe that there are serious and substantial irregularities resulting from the ballot used only in one county," he said, his voice flat and matter-of-fact. "That ballot was confusing and illegal."

A Curiously Modest Figure

For a man whose careers in law and politics have often thrust him to the center of events, Christopher cuts a curiously modest figure. Slight and wizened, almost elfin, he does not possess a natural television presence. Christopher, whose friends call him Chris, speaks in a soft, slightly high-pitched voice and invariably dresses with impeccable precision. He possesses a twinkly, impish sense of humor that he shares in private company but rations in public.

His reticence--even in private conversation--is legendary. In meetings with reporters and others he listens, offers selective insights and carefully guards anything that could be regarded as a confidence. Not only will Christopher refuse to discuss private meetings, he also habitually declines to confirm that they took place--a quality politicians find invaluable. Associates who have known him for years search their memories in vain when asked to recall a strong display of emotion.

Coolly rational as a political advisor, he is strikingly thoughtful on personal matters. A few years ago, longtime friend and associate Mickey Kantor, the Clinton administration's former trade negotiator, mentioned to Christopher that he and his wife were considering a move back to California. Three days later, a packet of real estate listings arrived in the Kantors' mail.

Christopher's career in politics and public service stretches back decades. It crosses the lives of such historic figures as California Gov. Pat Brown, whom Christopher advised, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, for whom Christopher clerked. It includes service in the administration of every Democratic president since John F. Kennedy.

But it was Kantor who made the introduction that set the scene for this week's emergency mission. An old friend of Christopher, Kantor was an early supporter of the candidacy of then-Arkansas Gov. Clinton, and he took it on himself to bring Clinton and Christopher together.

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