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Election Gave Americans High Drama

November 8, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ It was as if someone had skimmed off the high drama of elections past and staged it all in one night, way past people’s bedtimes.

Now an unsettled nation is hemming and hawing through the uncertainty of a presidential election that has yet to yield a president. ``Am I dreaming?″ asked Mary Houle at a Springfield, Mass., bagel shop. ``I can’t take anymore,″ said Jane Reznicek in Chicago.

Oh, my.

``You couldn’t write a script like this,″ marveled film director Rob Reiner, on his way to see if his friend Al Gore needed a morale boost before dawn Wednesday. ``If you wrote this, they’d throw you out of the Writers Guild.″

America stared wide-eyed and bleary-eyed at a Kennedy-Nixon-type photo finish, only closer, so close it could be determined by as many people as attend one big high school. There were Dewey- Defeats-Truman moments and headlines in print, on TV and the Internet.

``I’m just numb,″ said George Martin, a software consultant smoking outside the Aetna headquarters in Hartford, Conn. But for all the sleeplessness, furrowed brows and queasiness, Martin was one of those who thought it was also kind of neat.

``Who else has lived through this?″ he asked.

No one, exactly. Americans alive today have been kept waiting until morning but they’ve always known by lunch.

An old-fashioned logistical paper-shuffling deadlock in this time of instant communication confounded a nation that expects to be told what’s happening when it happens, preferably sooner.

Instead, people are waiting as if for the Pony Express.

Click on the Web all you want, it won’t make a bit or a byte of difference.

``I don’t know how it can happen in the age of electronics,″ said Evelyn Haynes, a restaurant manager in Nashville, Tenn. ``In Dewey’s age, they were counting by hand.″

Haynes, 40, spoke for sheepish nonvoters everywhere. She was kicking herself for failing to vote for Gore, her fellow Tennessean who lost the state. She couldn’t get away from her job. She promised she won’t let it happen next time.

``I will definitely make the polls and drag my husband, my daddy, my sister and everyone else with me.″

Floridians were the king-makers in this election and cause of all the confusion, their popular vote now being recounted and their decisive 25 electoral votes still up in the air.

Wanda Berkeley, a Miami systems analyst who voted for George W. Bush, went to bed when TV networks declared him the winner in the state _ and therefore nationally _ and like so many others, woke up to a different story. ``I thought, ’They pulled a switcheroo,‴ she said.

In Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Scott Taylor, a Florida firefighter trying to get away from it all in a Smoky Mountains vacation, called home. He’d voted by absentee ballot Monday.

``I just told my parents how important it was to vote,″ he said. ``I can name 100 voters in Florida and these 100 could sway it either way.″

At last count, that was only a mild exaggeration.

In Baltimore, it was as if the Grinch had stolen the election as far as addictions counselor Janet Neale was concerned.

``I remember waking up as a little girl, learning we had a new president,″ she said. ``It was like getting a Christmas present. Well, I didn’t get a present this year.″

Sunrise hasn’t always settled the race, though.

In 1976, President Ford conceded to Jimmy Carter at 11 a.m. the next day.

In 1968, Richard Nixon said in his memoirs, the TV networks called the election for him at 8:30 a.m. the next day. Hubert Humphrey conceded at noon.

Eight years earlier, Nixon conditionally conceded to John Kennedy shortly after midnight, telling supporters he’d lost, ``if the present trend continues.″ By 6 a.m., the race had tightened even more. But Nixon said a recount could have taken six months and branded him a ``sore loser″ forever. He congratulated Kennedy by telegram.

In 1948, the Chicago Tribune prematurely headlined the outcome ``Dewey Defeats Truman″ in an edition happily brandished by Harry Truman, the real winner. Thomas Dewey conceded to Truman at 11:15 a.m. the next day.

On Wednesday, that paper’s headline of record was a determinedly cautious, ``As Close As It Gets.″

In the White House, President Clinton said he hoped Americans learned the lesson that their vote does count.

America spoke, he said, but no one’s sure exactly what it said.

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