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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Fascination Might Soon Turn to Worry, Former Insiders Say

Leaders: Political veterans cite a rising nervousness among public over chaos. They find behavior of each campaign offers little reassurance.

November 14, 2000|AARON ZITNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The nation has so far been transfixed by the vote-counting chaos in Florida. But public opinion is about to reach a tipping point, a moment when fascination is replaced by worries about the effect on financial markets, government functions and global stability, an array of former politicians said Monday.

"At first, this bizarre election was exciting and unique," said Robert B. Reich, Labor secretary in the first Clinton administration. "This is probably the first thing that has seemed unscripted in the whole long, interminable campaign.

"But I'm hearing more people saying that they're a bit nervous. The world depends on a smooth transition of power in the world's leading nation. And for Americans, the entertainment value is quickly wearing off."

As the days pass with no resolution, the nation is veering toward a dangerous confluence of circumstances, said Thomas H. Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey. Ardent supporters on both sides of the battle may become embittered, he said, making it harder for the eventual winner to govern.

Kean has firsthand knowledge of recounts--he survived two himself, once in a 1974 congressional race and again in 1981 when he ran for governor.

Even amid the danger that the presidential election will be seen as illegitimate, some political veterans found little that's reassuring in the behavior of either campaign.

It is "inappropriate" for the Bush campaign and Gore supporters to solicit contributions for "recount committees," created to fund legal expenses in Florida, said Reich, a professor at Brandeis University outside Boston. Moreover, he said, "neither side should resort to the courts. This is a matter for county and state officials to work out."

Former Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) called for a more conciliatory approach from both camps, "a few little grace notes in there that recognize the sincerity of the other side, a 'we're-all-in-this-together' kind of thing."

Still, few could suggest how either campaign might lead the nation to familiar ground amid the unprecedented events unfolding in Florida.

Simon, now a political science professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, said that the best outcome would be for the two campaigns to agree that the White House will be decided by a recount of all Florida counties and absentee ballots. "And if somebody wins by one vote, that's it. But no one goes after the other legal trivialities," Simon said.

Such an agreement "is possible. I'm not saying it's probable. But part of the test of leadership is a willingness to rise above your own personal situation in the best interests of the country."

Others, however, saw little possibility of such an accord.

Leonard Garment, who served as chief counsel to President Nixon, said that the candidates are "like greyhounds, they're bred for conflict and bred to win. They're not bred for equity and fairness. All the pieties really give way, when push comes to shove, to this great hunger for victory."

Kean said that, because of his two experiences with recounts--neither of them pleasant--he could identify with both Bush and Gore.

"You go slightly mad, you really do," said Kean, who is now president of Drew University in Madison, N.J. "Your supporters are running at you with rumors and most of them are untrue. But they tell you that there's been a new ballot box discovered in this county or that someone's robbed you in this county or that someone's fooling around here and the paper ballots are being manipulated. And I found I just couldn't listen to it."

The stress was hardest on members of his family, who did not have the same thick skin that Kean had developed in politics. Amid the stress, Kean found himself playing a lot of tennis.

Sometimes, "playing touch football is about the best thing you can do," said William F. Weld, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, referring to images of Gore playing football recently with his family.

"When I was in the final stages of a close race in 1990, I went running three times a day to blow off the adrenaline," said Weld, now a lawyer in New York.

A few political aficionados said that they felt liberated at first by the Florida chaos and enjoyed watching as the nation wandered into uncharted political territory.

Garment said that the situation has prompted him to think about the way random events can turn the course of life. "This really is a metaphysical event in that it is something more than what we ordinarily encounter," he said. "It forces me to think about the nature of phenomena that occur randomly, that baseball games are decided by inches."

Perhaps the greatest side benefit, some said, has been how the nation has become immersed in politics.

Simon said that one of his college students, who drives a school bus, told him how one of her young passengers asked her to switch the radio from a music station to the news.

"They wanted to hear what was happening in the presidential race," Simon said. The student who asked was in the fourth grade.

"There is kind of a Super Bowl aspect to this--a Super Bowl where the stakes are real," Simon said. Then he warned: "But fascination will turn to irritation before very long."

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