A Vote for a Conciliator

ELLEN GOODMAN

October 29, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- So this is how it ends. The campaign season doesn't wind down. It comes to a climax in one last great showy blaze, rather like the maple tree in the yard.

Ross Perot, that can-do mechanic under the nation's hood, that amiable host of an educational television program on the national debt, roars out the final week as a victim of assorted and dubious dirty tricks. The same prickly billionaire who prides himself on sticking to the issues pops this quiz onto his supporters at a rare public rally:

''If you are going into combat and you could take any of the three of us, who would you want on your side?''

''If you were taken hostage in a foreign country which one of the candidates do you think would come in and get you?''

''Which one of the three candidates . . . would you want your daughter to marry?''

This is how the independent candidate sees his presidency: a composite of combat buddy, one-man rescue team and most suitable suitor. I am not one of the people who lets herself believe this campaign is over. Color me nervous, but volatile is a muted description of the autumn voter mood.

Mr. Perot has been this campaign's Rosie Ruiz, the woman who thought she could ''win'' the Boston Marathon by taking a shortcut on a streetcar while her competitors were pounding the pavement. He went under in July and reappeared in October. He has booked 120 minutes of network television for the last three days, right at the finish line. That's a lot of impact for a send-them-a-message candidacy.

It's still possible that a majority could vote for change and end up with the status quo. If enough people send a message, they'll get back an answer named George Bush. What would the morning after a Bush victory feel like? Ever swallowed a sweat sock? The president would limp back into the Oval Office on his attack-ad crutch, and settle in for a long slide.

The only conviction that truly stirs George Bush is the desire to win. As a politician, he has sacrificed one belief after another for that passion. An abortion-rights supporter, he turned pro-life. A man raised on tolerance, he approved Willie Horton. Voodoo economics became his economics. He sold out piece after piece until now he is as empty as a bankrupt coffer.

As for Bill Clinton, I have not always cottoned to the man. When he bites his lower lip in sincerity, I wince. Some of his answers are too carefully constructed by half again.

But I've come to respect his tenacity and intelligence. This is a guy who wants to grab you by the collar and talk until you see his point of view. This is a politician who will hang onto a plan by the ankles until he makes it happen. Who genuinely wants to make government work.

The rap against Mr. Clinton is that he tries to be all things to all people. It's said the governor isn't a leader but a consensus committee. More interested in common ground than in breaking ground.

Well, I know a lot of people like that, most of them women. Wives and mothers are often given the role of family peacemaker. We're the listeners, the interpreters, the compromisers. We're the mediators who are always trying to keep things together. Sometimes those roles do indeed keep people from becoming independent take-charge decision makers. It is possible to be too conscious of others, too wary of conflict.

But searching out a common ground in the middle of conflict is not a character flaw. It's a strength. You can make compromises without being compromised. As Mr. Clinton said in the third debate, ''I think the American people are sick and tired of either-or solutions, people being pushed in the corner, polarized to extremes.'' Keeping people together enables them to act.

George Bush doesn't know what to do. Ross Perot would tell us what to do, take it or leave it. But Bill Clinton wants to convince us of what we can do, together.

What about the morning after a Clinton victory? We get a fresh start with our coffee. People, no longer sure that America believes in change, would be energized, shaken loose by action. We'd be offered a chance for something better than a long, slow, blood-letting.

So do not ask me which candidate I would pick to rescue a hostage or marry my daughter. She can choose for herself, thank you. Want to send a message? Try the phone, not the ballot box.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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