While the final recount is completed, the hanging chads tabulated, the overseas ballots enumerated and the lawsuits filed, resolved and dismissed, we have a fleeting chance to stop and ask what -- if anything -- we can learn from this wonderful, ridiculous, improbably close first election of the new millennium?
First off, we've learned that delicious irony reigns supreme over our political life. Think that God doesn't have a sense of humor and a vaguely twisted one at that? Think again, America. The media spent weeks anguishing over the possibility that Vice President Al Gore '69 would win the electoral vote, while Texas Gov. George W. Bush took the popular tally -- and now the reverse seems to have taken place. In Missouri, Sen. John Ashcroft was leading in the polls before his opponent, Mel Carnahan, died in a plane crash -- at which point the deceased candidate promptly ran away with the election. Bill M. Daley, son of the most famous machine mayor in American history, Chicago's Dick "vote early and often" Daley, finds himself inveighing against "voter irregularities" and talking about "disenfranchisement." And down in sunny, senile Florida, a collection of elderly Jews seem to have mistakenly cast their votes for Patrick J. Buchanan--the rough equivalent of Carnegie Hall accidentally renting out their stage for an Eminem concert or the Porcellian Club mistakenly voting Gloria Steinem in as punchmaster.
At the same time, we've learned that close elections do strange things to ostensibly reputable intellects. How else to explain the ludicrous petition that appeared in The New York Times last Friday, urging a "re-vote" in Palm Beach County, among other inanities, on the grounds that Gore won a "constitutional majority of the popular and the electoral vote"? Granted, the signatories included such predictable figures as Bianca Jagger and Rosie O'Donnell, but the arguably distinguished names of NYU Professor of Law Ronald L. Dworkin and Princeton Professor of Law Sean Wilentz were also attached. Perhaps these eminent figures can explain, to the simple-minded among us, the precise legal definition of "a constitutional majority of the popular vote"--which would seem, at first glance, to be an utterly meaningless offense against United States law, not to mention the English language. But then, the petition was also signed by Toni Morrison, who has been perpetrating Oprah-peddled offenses against the English language for quite some time--so perhaps the relentless nonsense of the text is to be expected.
We've also learned that the media are a collection of blithering idiots who are reliant on blow-driers, carefully prepared scripts and exit polls to preserve the air of infallibility that they have nurtured ever since a couple of fellows named Woodward and Bernstein brought down a president. But then, we knew that already.
Finally, and most importantly, we've learned that the age of statesmen, if it ever existed, is a long way back in the rear view mirror of American politics. Gone are the days when, in a close and corrupt election, Richard Nixon gracefully conceded the White House to John F. Kennedy's '40 mistresses, Jackie O.'s pillbox hats and J. Edgar Hoover's wiretaps. Instead, we have both campaigns girding themselves up for scorched-earth strategies, in which the fate of the presidency will be decided by poorly punched ballots, recount deadlines and judicial fiat.
In this regard, Mr. Gore's campaign is guilty of the most grievous sins thus far, with their feckless insistence, in the absence of any real evidence, that the "will of the people" grants Florida's electors to Gore--and with their reckless promises to forge ahead with lawsuits on behalf of the befuddled voters of Palm Beach County.
But as the Gore campaign inches ever closer to their obvious aim--to keep counting until the Vice President is ahead and then declare victory and call a halt to the whole business--the Bush campaign is giving signs of succumbing to the same hallucinogenic haze of ambition that has clouded the mind of the Prince of Tennessee. The Bush camp's decision to file a lawsuit to halt the hand recount in a few heavily Democratic Florida counties may be necessary, but the hints of a hard-line strategy emanating from Austin--in which close states like Iowa and Wisconsin would be contested ballot by ballot and precinct by precinct--should give even the most partisan conservative pause. Gore and his surrogates have not behaved honorably thus far, but that is no reason for the Kennebunkport Kid to follow suit.
At a certain point, the constitutional order of our republic must take precedence over the ambitions of a single man, however just his cause may be. Neither Gore nor Dubya, despite the plaints of Barbra Streisand and her ilk, poses a substantial threat to the survival of our nation. We have weathered the presidency of Franklin Pierce, Prohibition, bell-bottom jeans and the collected works of Barbara Kingsolver; we can stand four years with either of these lackluster eldest sons at the helm of our nation.
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