Riding a slow boat to the elections

When you take an adventure-filled cruise up the Inside Passage from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska, you might well think you would be getting away from politics. But not so. For nearly two weeks my wife and I mixed with people who hailed from every part of the US and found that mealtime and other conversations inevitably turned to the current American political scene. And we came away with the very clear impression, from opinions that had been voiced loudly and often, that Americans are quite upset - even disgusted - with what's going on in politics today.

I suppose I stirred up this conversation. When our companions discovered I was a political writer, it immediately opened the door for them to express their political views. They seemed willing to make an exception for us - but they very clearly didn't like the press. And they told us how weary they were with "what is going on in Washington."

Indeed, I put together enough sampling of views on this trip to find strong reinforcement for a conclusion that I had already been forming:

That the so-called "Clinton fatigue" that pollsters had been reporting isn't at the heart of what is going on in America. Yes, there's a lot of that, too. But, more deeply there's a pervasive unhappiness with the way our election process takes place and with politics in general. Let's just call it "fatigue with politics."

There's so much unhappiness over all those millions being spent by presidential candidates and other politicians. And no one likes these presidential campaigns that "go on forever."

But what really surprised me was the high level of disinterest in either of the two men for whom they will probably have to cast their votes - if, indeed, they do vote.

And this leads me to this unsettling thought:

We've seen this troubling trend of a declining vote in our presidential elections. Well, I'm now pretty well convinced that unless something happens (maybe it will be the national conventions) to rekindle interest in the election, we'll have a sorry turnout at the polls come next November.

I've been covering presidential campaigns since the 1956 Eisenhower-Stevenson race and I've never seen anything like the apathy in which this Bush-Gore contest is bogged down. Again, this can change. I hope it does. But so many Democrats are saying they don't think much of Gore and couldn't possibly vote for Bush. And so many Republicans are finding Bush not to their liking and Gore not even worth considering. It certainly sounds to me as though a lot of voters just aren't going to bother to vote.

Could a third-party candidate emerge that would enliven this campaign? Ross Perot certainly gave the 1992 Bush-Clinton battle a stimulus. In fact, for a brief period, just before the Democratic convention, Perot was edging out his two opponents in the polls. But Clinton, with his personal problems, was already stirring up a lot of interest in that campaign.

Had Sen. John McCain decided to become an independent candidate, he would have stirred up tremendous interest and brought many voters back into the process. We remember how McCain's involvement in the primaries helped bring out some record turnouts.

But McCain is backing Bush now. I have thought from the day Bush clinched the GOP candidacy that McCain would somehow make peace with the Texas governor - and that he is a very possible, if not likely, vice presidential choice.

So we are going to cruise along with two candidates that no one seems to be really wild about, "Tweedle-dum, and Tweedle-dee," one of my ship companions said of the choice.

Oh, yes, we didn't just talk politics on this wonderful trip to Alaska. We rode a tiny pontoon plane into the Misty Fjords and took a four-passenger helicopter to the top of Patterson Glacier - where we got out and walked on the ice. And there were humpback whales, bald eagles, brown bears, mountain goats, sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, and much more - all viewed close up from our small ship that held just 63 passengers.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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