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As smoke is clearing, Tallahassee unwinds

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 2000


The tents were folded Thursday. CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox News are all leaving the state capital. The Japanese, Korean and Dutch television stations are leaving, too.

Tallahassee no longer is the center of the universe. The political focus of the world once again is returning to Washington, D.C., where President-elect George W. Bush soon will be holding court.

The giant motor homes, satellite trucks and tents pitched outside the Capitol and the Florida Supreme Court began leaving Thursday after a five-week stay.

The invasion of Tallahassee is over. But it will be long remembered.

Barry Richard, the Tallahassee lawyer who defended President-elect Bush, thinks the media invasion-election story may well define Tallahassee in much the way that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil defined Savannah, Ga.

Our legislators, lawyers, judges and even a few reporters all have had their 15 minutes of fame. Some are glad to see fame move on to the next story.

House Majority Leader Mike Fasano, lately the star of television newscasts, says they are going to miss all the national guys.

"I think we've been abandoned," Fasano joked. "We've asked them to leave a camera and some cable behind so we can wean ourselves gradually."

Network news correspondents were hustling to get home Thursday, but ran head-on into weather problems at most northeastern airports.

During the weeks since the election, journalists found themselves spending most of their time in tents throughout the Capitol.

"Our home became this three-block perimeter," said CBS Nightly News producer Betty Chinn.

CBS used a huge motor home, a mini-motor home, tents and two rooms at the Doubletree Hotel to edit film. Every night at 6:15, Chinn and an editor jogged from the hotel to the satellite trucks in front of the Capitol with the latest news.

ABC and NBC set up temporary broadcast studios at the Doubletree, in addition to the tents they set up on the Capitol steps and satellite trucks parked in streets that were blocked off to accommodate them.

CNN's "Chad Lad," Bill Hemmer, still was broadcasting from the Capitol on Thursday, but everyone around him was packing up and heading home for Christmas.

Most of the news correspondents came to town the day after the Nov. 7 election expecting to stay a few days, but were forced to remain as the drama played out in the courts and ballot-counting rooms.

Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox says the invasion was good for business, bringing at least an extra $5-million to the local economy as reporters and lawyers on expense accounts bought clothes, food and other necessities.

The Senate meeting room that was converted into a continuous news conference was well on its way to being dismantled and readied for dull meetings.

Former Secretaries of State Jim Baker and Warren Christopher have moved on and no longer will be staging daily press conferences in the room.

And everywhere around the Capitol, guys were rolling up the miles of cable that stretched from power plugs and generators to satellite dishes and tents erected on the Capitol steps.

Only Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan was disappointed.

"I stood out there and offered my opinion every day, but no one wanted to talk to me," Brogan joked Thursday.

Gov. Jeb Bush, now better known as the president-elect's younger brother, said he thinks a lot of the election rhetoric that has filled the air in Tallahassee will disappear with the satellite trucks.

"People's emotions are very high in these conditions," Bush said. "They say things they regret later on."

Bush said he believes there is a direct correlation between the satellite dishes and the hostile comments.

He is hopeful that things will settle down when the spotlight passes on to the next big news event -- wherever that might be.

It's time to celebrate the holidays, Bush told reporters Thursday.

And as if to prove the point, the governor went home to a Christmas party where members of the state Cabinet and their families and staff were sipping wine and punch and eating finger food.

Members of the Florida Supreme Court were invited after the court case was settled and Vice President Gore conceded, but they didn't show.

"Must have been the late invitation," Bush said as he greeted other guests.

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