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Reaction to pre-dawn raid varies by politics

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 23, 2000


Her glasses slipped down her nose but her voice never wavered.

Attorney General Janet Reno looked the world in the eye and calmly explained how Elian Gonzalez had been taken from the home of his Miami relatives before most Americans were awake.

"Elian Gonzalez is a child who needs to be cherished, who needs to have quiet time and private time, and to be with his father," she told a news conference several hours after she ordered the raid. "And that is what this case is still all about -- the bond between a father and son."

It also is about politics and the enduring photograph of an armed, helmeted federal agent reaching for a terrified 6-year-old that we'll continue to see this election year.

In substance and tone, the reaction to Reno's decision to send in federal agents and reunite Elian with his father varied by party affiliation and campaign considerations. Reno was the stoic target, just as she has been in situations ranging from the disastrous 1993 siege at Waco to the 1996 campaign finance scandal.

President Clinton, in typical fashion, played the angles. He made it clear it was Reno's call to send in agents in a pre-dawn raid. Then he praised her for ending the five-month standoff.

"I think she did the right thing," said Clinton, who would be called a coward and worse by protesters in Little Havana, "and I'm very pleased with the way she handled it."

That doesn't qualify as a profile in courage -- until it is compared with Vice President Al Gore's reaction. He did not mention Reno in a two-sentence statement released by his campaign:

"As I have said, I believe this issue should have been handled through a family court and with the family coming together. I commend the people of Miami, who in the first difficult hours acted in a calm and lawful way and I ask all Americans, no matter what their position on this issue, to obey the rule of law."

The vice president broke with the administration several weeks ago by calling for Elian and some of his relatives to be granted permanent residency status. Since then, his shifting statements have created even more confusion and added to the image of a politician who says what he thinks voters want to hear.

Gore's tactics have failed to insulate him from the fallout in Miami or from Republican shots. Elian had hardly settled at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington before Republicans unleashed a flood of criticism at Reno and the vice president who hopes to succeed Clinton.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, referred to the "Clinton-Gore administration" before declaring that the "chilling picture of a little boy being removed from his home at gunpoint defies the values of America and is not an image a freedom-loving nation wants to show the world."

Polls indicate most Americans and Floridians wanted Elian to be reunited with his father. But the video of federal agents storming the home of Elian's relatives will make it more difficult for Gore to defeat Bush in Florida.

Hispanic voters make up roughly 10 percent of the state's electorate, and most of those voters are Cuban Americans in the Miami area.

Clinton won a record 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in Florida four years ago as he became the first Democrat to win the state's electoral votes in 20 years. Gore, who was not expected to match that success among Hispanics, will fare even worse now.

"Politics is played at the margins," said William Claggett, an associate professor of political science at Florida State University. "Decreasing your vote by 10 percent in a group where you might get 30 percent of the vote might make a difference between winning and losing the state."

Florida's U.S. senators were in no mood for such calculations.

Connie Mack joined Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and other Republican colleagues in comparing the Clinton administration's tactics to those of Fidel Castro. On CNN, he could barely control his anger at Reno.

Democrat Bob Graham, one of Reno's oldest allies, was just as upset. He bitterly pointed out that the raid happened the day before Easter. "This could not have occurred at a more insensitive time or under cruder circumstances," said Graham, who is often mentioned as a possible running mate for Gore. "Honest negotiations by honorable citizens were frustrated by the Department of Justice."

In contrast, Gov. Jeb Bush was remarkably restrained in his news conference in Tallahassee. He had talked to Clinton on Friday evening and went to bed believing a negotiated agreement could be reached. He was awakened about 5 a.m. by a telephone call from Eric Holder, the deputy U.S. attorney general, and told preparations for the raid were under way.

While Jeb Bush said he was disappointed by Reno's decision, his rhetoric was tempered. "They were close to an agreement," he said. "I'm uncertain why this couldn't have waited."

Reno, not given to snap decisions, was tired of waiting.

The attorney general had several factors in her favor: weeks of negotiations, tougher talk from Clinton, a compelling plea from Elian's father and growing impatience nationally with the stonewalling by Elian's Miami relatives.

Unlike Waco, Reno appeared prepared for the aftermath.

She had an answer when asked about the picture of the armed federal agent reaching for Elian. Reno noted the gun was pointed to the side and that the agent's finger was not on the trigger. And by early afternoon the father's lawyer had released pictures of Elian smiling with his dad at Andrews Air Force Base.

The attorney general made certain that reporters knew that Elian was first grabbed by a female agent who spoke Spanish, and that he was given Play-Doh and other toys for the plane ride north.

If Reno made a mistake, it wasn't by moving too quickly Saturday morning. It was by moving too slowly since Thanksgiving.

-- Times Staff Writer William Yardley contributed to this report.

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