In Chicago, talking politics in the language of commerce

October 23, 1992|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,Staff Writer

CHICAGO — One of an occasional series of articles on conversations with voters around the nation.

CHICAGO -- A great, antlered stag's head, symbol of the hunter's victory and man's dominance over his world, hangs high on a wainscoted wall in the Rendezvous Lounge of the Union League Club. Middle-aged men in suits arrive from another day in the commercial wilderness and settle into chairs with leather arms and seats. Uniformed waiters bring cocktails. Cigar and cigarette smoke rises in the room. A clock chimes the hour. Then, the faces of Ross Perot, George Bush and Bill Clinton splash across a large video-projection screen, just beneath the stag's head.

The last presidential debate of 1992 has begun, and the men in this big, private club (founded in 1879, opened to women in 1989) listen closely but impassively. The only reactions are a few nods of approval (for what Mr. Perot says about federal deficit spending) and one harrumph (for Mr. Bush's defense of Washington lobbyists). Otherwise, the mood is somber. No candidate receives applause.

Here at the Union League -- and earlier during lunch at Chicago's University Club -- conversations with businessmen send two strong messages: pessimism for economic recovery in the near future and, along with that, an uncomfortable ambivalence about the presidential choices.

Mr. Perot is seen as the candidate with a fresh, compelling message, but he is not considered a winner. The choice is between Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton, one investor says, but neither candidate seems serious about attacking government spending and the federal deficit.

"They are just delaying the pain," says Warren Shore, an affable man, senior vice president of G.V.R. Co. and a veteran of the options and commodities markets here. "A vote for either one is a vote to delay the pain."

"Coin toss between Clinton and Bush," snaps Clyde Harrison, a financial consultant with a long list of trophies to his name, including a successful investment company that was eventually purchased by corporate raider Carl Icahn in the high-flying 1980s.

"I'll probably vote for Perot, and I'll tell you why," he says. "One, I don't believe he can be elected, but he is talking about a problem that drastically affects our future -- the federal deficit and government spending. Two, he's a statesman worried about the next generation, not the next election. And three, I don't want Clinton going to Washington with a landslide that will be construed as a mandate."

"I'll vote for Clinton for two reasons," Mr. Shore says. "First of all, I don't think it's going to be a landslide. I think it's going to be close between Clinton and Bush. And secondly, I want to eliminate this bipartisan syndrome in Washington. I want a Democrat [as president] so that people will see that these

problems exist no matter who is in the White House.

"Perot is the only candidate I would not vote for, but he's the only candidate who states the problems as they exist. I'm just not ready for a benevolent dictator. He states the problems very well, but he doesn't state the solutions very well. He circumnavigates things he knows nothing about and does it very well."

The only issue: economy

Opinion polls show the economy is the No. 1 issue in the presidential campaign, and that is as true for the waiters at the 23-story Union League Club as it is for the well-heeled members who use its fitness center, sleep in its guest rooms, eat in its elegant, art-filled dining room, and select expensive after-dinner cigars from the glass case in its lobby.

If the wood-paneled walls or coffered ceilings could talk, one would hear the voices of genuine movers and shakers, and almost all political discussion conducted in the language of commerce. Over dinner in the Rendezvous, Mr. Shore and Mr. Harrison say the federal deficit and the cost of the federal government are critical problems with which the American people must reckon. There are no other issues -- not Mr. Clinton's draft status during the Vietnam War, not family values, not abortion -- that are more important for the nation's future.

But in Mr. Harrison's view, the federal government, which Mr. Clinton has promised to use to make private investment more attractive and productive, cannot be trusted to spur growth.

"The only thing the government has proved it does well is kill people," he says, referring to the intervention of the U.S. military in the Persian Gulf last year.

Mr. Harrison, who gives speeches to influential groups several times a year, criticizes Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and a host of Bush economic advisers for making policy that has prolonged the recession.

Government spending should be frozen at current levels, Mr. Harrison says. It's what Ronald Reagan should have done when he had the chance, he says. "I concur," Mr. Shore says.

But, even with that, they say, the road to economic recovery in the United States will still be a long and difficult one.

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