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Waiting in Pain Has Its Precedents

Politicians who've been there know how Bush and Gore feel.

November 17, 2000|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The promotion that stalled, the escrow that unraveled--most people have experienced a big setback at some point in their lives. But when the promotion is to the presidency and the new home is the White House, well, there aren't enough pork rinds in the world to soothe that kind of anxiety.

Of course, neither Al Gore nor George Bush has given in to any public displays of frustration. Whether chucking the ol' pigskin around or just playing a game of fetch with the dog, the two seem preternaturally presidential in their calm. But according to those who have been there--other politicians who have waited out days, weeks and even months of counts and recounts, of court cases and House votes--these are the times that try men's, and women's, souls.

Democrat Frank McCloskey, a former Indiana congressman, can talk about hanging chads with the best of them. His postelection battle for the 8th Congressional District began in November 1984, with McCloskey apparently losing the race by 34 votes. It did not end until six months later. In the interim, there was a recount that McCloskey lost, and a challenge to the recount. Finally, the House, controlled by Democrats, stepped in and conducted its own recount, from which McCloskey emerged the victor by four votes. When the House voted to swear him in, Republican representatives, led by Newt Gingrich, walked out.

"Oh, yes," says McCloskey, now an attorney in Bloomington, "I am the poster child for bizarre elections."

Now, he says, when he sees others going through the recount process, his heart goes out to them. "It's one of the worst political, and psychological, things that can happen," he says. "It almost seems like it would be easier to just hang it up, although obviously I'm glad I didn't."

Those fateful months were exhausting, he says. "On various days I felt fine, energized, then other times it was just stultifying, a deadening effect that was potentially debilitating. My family--I have two kids now grown--and I just took it one day at a time."

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) was sworn in and already serving her term while the results of her 1996 election were the subject of lawsuits and a recount. It wasn't until she'd been on the job for 10 months that her victory was legally confirmed.

This presidential election, she said Wednesday on NPR's Morning Edition, has brought back "memories and nightmares. You can turn lemons into lemonade," she added, "but it's tough. It's very tough."

Twenty years ago, Patrick Johnston, a Stockton Democrat, ran for a seat in the state Assembly. He was making his victory speech when he noticed that the television commentators had just declared his opponent, Adrian Fondse, the winner.

Deflated and stunned, Johnston got up the next morning to discover that Fondse had won by a mere 18 votes. Johnston requested a recount, which began the day Fondse was sworn in. Johnston won the recount; Republicans took it to court where, Johnson says, the judge "looked at the hanging chads" and accepted the results of the recount. When the Assembly came back after its winter break, the Democrat-controlled house voted him in, and the Republicans walked out.

Johnston, now a state senator, has a hard time characterizing the month he spent wondering and waiting. "I'd call it a peak experience," he says. "Your life is on hold--if I'd lost, I had to find a job. If I'd won, I had to get seated and be instantly credible."

He vividly recalls the anxiety he experienced. The first morning after the election, he says, he stood in front of the mirror wearing a leather jacket. "My 2-year-old son, Christopher, comes padding in in his pajamas, rubbing his eyes and he looks up and me and says 'Hey, it's the Fonz.' I yell at him, telling him that's not funny. See, I was so self-absorbed I thought my 2-year-old was making a political joke and calling me by my opponent's name. I was real tense."

According to Sherman Oaks psychotherapist Dennis Palumbo, politicians in situations like these find themselves caught between the Scylla of grandiose expectations and the Charybdis of overwhelming shame.

"For overachievers there is always this potential for great shame," he says, "because events define who they are. And when you are trying to succeed at such a high level, it's very frustrating when the whims of the universe seem to snatch it away."

More than anything, says Palumbo, the ballad of Bush and Gore is a tale of two sons, of competing dynasties. "In Bush's case, he really does seem to think that he is somehow entitled to this, so he probably really can't understand why 'they' won't just give it to him."

Gore, on the other hand, has the expectations of the "good boy," says Palumbo. "It must be very frustrating. He has more popular votes than Clinton did in either election, he's studied hard, went to Vietnam, was faithful to his wife, and put up with Clinton through all that scandal. I'm sure he's wondering, 'Where's my reward?' "

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