- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 21, 2000

Does constitutional crisis signal identity crisis? If so, America may be working on a case of election anxiety syndrome after two weeks of Florida exposure.

No straitjackets yet but public disquiet is picking up speed as folks buy into reports of a fractured nation and a death watch, which were among the dire press descriptions yesterday.

"The public is worried, all right. Ambiguous situations produce tension, and this election problem has been prolonged ambiguity," said Robert Lefton, a clinical psychologist in St. Louis.

The nation was in "goal-seeking" mode, he explained. But the goal a new president and a new era was thwarted on Election Night.

"If goals get blocked, people get frustrated, angry," Mr. Lefton said. "They're wondering where their leaders are. This is a mess."

And in the public venue, this angst has taken multiple forms.

"I'm in the pocket of it here, I see the extremes," said CNN's Greta Van Susteren from Palm Beach yesterday. "They're amused, mad, sad, crude. One guy was running around in his underwear. But I don't think you'd see this stuff out in the shopping malls in the Midwest."

Meanwhile, old-fashioned patriots get melancholy over the loss of absentee military votes. Other folks fret about our balloting system or fear political deceit as the candidates themselves struggle to maintain their bearing before millions of people.

Charting the presidential psyche, indeed, has become a cottage industry. Yesterday afternoon, for example, two experts commented on how many times Al Gore and George W. Bush blinked on camera, and the implications therein.

Reactions may hinge on personal politics, though.

"The really partisan people are depressed, absolutely," said Mike Harrison of Talkers Magazine, which covers talk-radio hosts and their craft.

"But a lot of middle-of-the-road people are having middle-of-the-road reactions," Mr. Harrison continued. "They're not having big emotions because they don't have big emotional attachments to either candidate."

Still, they can be entertained, interested and even fascinated. "Politics remains a spectator sport," Mr. Harrison said.

As spectators, though, they have their limits. Polls this week blame the press for creating crisis when there is none yet.

A Newsweek survey released yesterday found that 67 percent of those polled felt broadcast networks had overpackaged the situation; 54 percent said the same of cable news channels and 49 percent of daily newspapers.

Yet many of us remain resolutely optimistic.

The same poll found that 52 percent felt the voting impasse was "a sign of strength" that democracy was at work, solving the problem. An NBC poll found that 56 percent were confident the situation would be resolved before it reached a constitutional crisis.

The public may have too many distractions, at least this week, to get too distraught.

"If this was a sudden, singular, event, like Princess Diana's death, we'd get a strong public reaction. But this has been going on for two weeks. It's almost like background," said Monroe Friedman, a psychologist with Eastern Michigan University who studies public behavior patterns.

"Plus there are a lot of competing events the holidays, shopping, family," he added. "That will preoccupy plenty of people."

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