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.
"This recession, like all recessions, was inevitable and, to some degree, is healthy," says Michael A. Warner, a partner in Seyfarth, Shaw, Fairweather and Geraldson, a law firm with a long list of large corporate clients and an international reputation for expertise in labor law. The recession "has caused business to become more efficient, to help it become competitive internationally. I'm relatively optimistic. . . . It's a recession that is worldwide that is holding [recovery] up. We are now better positioned to compete in the international economy."
'Fire the coach'
Mr. Warner is one of four partners from Seyfarth taking lunch earlier in the day at a round table at the University Club, with a stunning view of Lake Michigan filling the window behind them. The three other attorneys are Jeffrey K. Ross, Richard D. Ostrow and Stanley "Sandy" Walton. There is considerable, yet amiable disagreement about the depth of the recession, its anticipated duration and what the next president can do about it.
"This recession is going to continue for some time, maybe longer than most people think," Mr. Walton says. "Prosperity is not around the corner. The stocks of some companies are doing well because they're firing people."
"We need to get more efficient, more productive, but the consequence of that is layoffs," Mr. Ostrow says. "There will be more mergers and, as a result, more layoffs."
"And that is going to continue," Mr. Walton says.
As for the role of the president in all this, Mr. Walton reaches -- appropriately so, in this city of Bears, Bulls and Blackhawks -- for a sports metaphor. "The people are unhappy, and they want to fire the coach. Maybe it's that simple."
"Bush is bearing the brunt of what Jimmy Carter faced in 1979," Mr. Ross says. "And yet, everyone knows there is only so much he can do. The economy is like a bucking bronco; it goes where it wants to go."
"A lot of people forget that, shortly after Reagan came into office, there was a recession," Mr. Warner reminds his colleagues. "There was a clearing out of what Carter did to this economy."
"So," jabs Mr. Ostrow, "are you saying Bush is clearing out what Reagan did?"
There is laughter. Lunch arrives -- salads, fish and chips, and beef goulash.
"It's my personal feeling," Mr. Warner says, "that the president has little to do with shaping the economy. . . . Though the one thing a president can do is spend too much, to overspend."
"I think that's bad, if that's all you can say about the president and the economy," Mr. Ostrow counters. "We're the only industrialized nation in the free world that does not have a centralized economic policy. Our clients who do support Clinton do see a need for a centralized plan. I don't personally believe this country or any country can exist without government investment. We have to function in a world economy now. . . . We need the right kind of joint government-business development authority."
"We're more entrepreneurial than we think we are," Mr. Warner says. "We have clients, a lot of smaller, medium-size companies, that compete in the worldwide economy without any government assistance. . . . One place where government has to change is to allow more cooperation within industries without fear of the anti-trust beagles."
More taxes inevitable
Though each attorney notes recent economic indicators -- increased productivity and competitiveness -- that support some cautious optimism for recovery, they all find it difficult to step around the national debt and federal budget deficits. They are huge problems -- no matter which club you belong to.
"I think it's one of the reasons why Perot is appealing," says Mr.
Ostrow, soberly noting the Texas billionaire's persistent focus on deficit reduction. "People think, 'They [elected officials] should have been talking to us about that a long time ago.' "
"Everybody knows that if you keep writing checks, keep buying and buying and spending and spending, you're going to be in trouble," Mr. Ross says.
"A lot of people will vote for [Mr. Perot] because they know he won't be elected, but they want a message sent.
"I think people are accepting that tax increases are inevitable, no matter who gets elected."
"I think Perot is helping Clinton with that message," Mr. Ostrow says. "People are accepting it."