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Old Masters Center Stage in Vote Battle

Thursday, 16 November 2000 12:00 AM

Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore both appointed former secretaries of state from their respective parties to pursue and champion their interests in the almost-unprecedented Florida vote recount that looks likely to decide which of them won the Nov. 7 presidential election.

Bush chose James A. Baker III, who served for three and half years as secretary of state to the governor's father, President George H.W. Bush, from 1989 to 1993. Gore chose Warren Christopher, who served as President Bill Clinton's first secretary of state from 1993 to 1997. Gore's choice was entirely understandable and predictable; Bush's was an unanticipated study in deep irony.

Baker and Christopher have many things in common and others in deep contrast. Both men are in their 70s. Both have been at the heart of Washington's and their respective parties' power structures for more than three decades. Both of them are excellent lawyers who, in between their many periods of public service, can expect to earn millions of dollars a year in private practice.

But to the American public, their differences are more striking.

Baker was secretary of state through the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He played pivotal roles in those events and the peaceful reunification of Germany as a stable Western democracy.

By contrast, Christopher had to deal with the messy complexities of the new, unsettled, post-Cold War world. There were no major foreign policy disasters or miscalculations on his watch. Indeed, he had to deal with the mess Baker had left in failing to anticipate or prevent the start of the Yugoslav civil wars in 1991 and the Bush administration's failure to topple Saddam Hussein after winning the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Also, Baker was a master of manipulating the Washington media with appropriate leaks and befriending influential reporters and columnists. Christopher did not play any of those games.

It was natural for Gore to call on Christopher to champion his interests in Florida. Christopher has repeatedly served him well. In 1992, Christopher played a key role in getting Bill Clinton to adopt Gore as his vice presidential running mate.

This year, Gore chose Christopher as his key adviser on appointments, especially the crucial decision of who should be his own running mate. Christopher urged him to choose Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. It proved to be a brilliant choice, sparking Gore's dramatic comeback to neck-and-neck contention with Bush.

But Baker was the last person in the world Gov. Bush might have chosen. Baker had been a lifelong friend of Bush's father. But it was no secret that Gov. Bush and his mother, Barbara Bush, had both scapegoated Baker for President Bush's humiliating failure to win re-election against Clinton in 1992.

Once Gore had selected Christopher to go south to Florida, however, Bush had no choice but to call on Baker, as his father had so often before him.

Bush needed another former secretary of state from the Republican side of equal stature to Christopher. Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, the other two most obvious choices, were too old. And neither of them was a lawyer. Baker was. Also Baker had the reputation for playing hardball politics and had been an architect of dramatic Republican election victories in the 1980s.

Ironically, so far Christopher has proven more adept at putting Gore's case to the U.S. public than Baker has.

Both men have been efficient, thorough and relentless in their efforts. But Christopher has enjoyed the formidable partnership of former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley to handle the political side of things. Baker has lacked a Republican partner with a similar mastery of the electoral process. Also, the very idealism and piety that caused almost all Republicans to so underestimate Christopher during his time as secretary of state is serving him well now in the battles to woo public opinion.

Baker always appears on television as if he is obviously playing political hardball. Christopher makes equally partisan points but, like his friend Lieberman, always manages to present himself as high-minded and of unimpeachable integrity when he makes them. Both men have enjoyed pleasant ironies in their Florida missions. Christopher has confounded the Republicans, who underestimated him for so long. Baker has ably championed the cause of a man who froze him out of the Republican convention in July.

Whether Bush or Gore wins the presidency, both of them will have cause to thank one of the two tireless, relentless old political warriors who fought so hard for them.

Copyright 2000 by United Press International.

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Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore both appointed former secretaries of state from their respective parties to pursue and champion their interests in the almost-unprecedented Florida vote recount that looks likely to decide which of them won the Nov. 7...
Thursday, 16 November 2000 12:00 AM
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