The Losers

Before the Bush drunk-driving disclosure, the Maine lawyer who did the outing had heckled Bush at a campaign rally with catcalls of “Wiener boy.” My favorite line of the campaign is Dubya’s challenge to the heckler: “Who you calling wiener?” While we can’t be sure of the likely president-elect’s tone here – was he bar-fight mad? Just feisty? Truly in his element? – I’ll bet he was in some way moved by the word. (Of note, the song “Shout,” from the movie Animal House, was the background music to the Election Night campaign party in Austin.)

Then there’s the delightfully characteristic line, certainly worth savoring, that Al Gore delivered when George got annoyed about Al’s taking back his initial concession on the small matter of who had won the presidency: “You don’t,” said Al, “have to get snippy.”

There you have it. Wiener and Snippy: the candidates nobody wanted.

True, there was one moment, early on during election evening, just after I got an e-mail flash that the French were projecting Gore as the winner (the French!), and after everyone on TV went with Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan for Gore, when, briefly, I felt a certain transformation take place around him. Al seemed suddenly … commanding … presidential. I could feel him rising above the small-timeness, the Wiener- and Snippy-ness of the campaign. I felt a flush. The phone was ringing. My friends were happy. My mother called. My children were into it. I had a clear recollection of the dawn of the last Democratic administration – a sudden rush by many people I knew to Little Rock by late afternoon on Election Day 1992.

But my reaction here, my imbuing Gore with presidential fondness and stature, was, I realize now, Pavlovian.

Presidential night is supposed to produce a president. If it’s the guy you’ve voted for, at the moment they say they’re projecting him to be president you gladly feel he’s presidential.

No doubt, my counterpart out there in the great Bush landmass (that sprawling Republican-red America in the South and West) also felt, by similar habit, that happy days were here again shortly after the networks reversed their first projections – or, more precisely, the Voter News Service projections that the networks offer as their own (“ABC is projecting …”) – and that Wiener boy was, suddenly, some substantial man.

One of the few things proven in the 2000 race is that if you can focus media precisely enough, you can produce exactly the results you want. The only problem is that both sides are doing it.

Now, while we can possibly all be forgiven – the networks too – for assuming someone would turn into a genuine president on Election Day, it really took only a moment’s thought to realize that this ending – comedy, disarray, exhaustion, paralysis, crankiness – is a much more fitting one.

We are clearly not meant to so easily get free of Wiener and Snippy (or they of each other). Nor are they meant to rise above their Wiener- and Snippy-ness.

The present mess surely inspires different feelings from, for instance, the disillusion that the Republicans certainly felt in 1960 when their victory was stolen, and that the Humphrey people felt in 1968 when it became clear that victory could have been grasped with just a few more days of campaigning. Even the weird situation that it’s South Florida – which over the past few years has seen habitual voter fraud (the Miami mayoral election was reversed) – that holds the key to the election, and that it’s Bush’s brother (as though Bobby Kennedy were the mayor of Cook County in 1960) in substantial control of the lockbox, does not first and foremost suggest that anything here was criminally snatched away (in some ways, it even reflects badly on the Bushes – so bumbling they can’t even efficiently steal their own election).

No, everyone seems to understand that it isn’t old-fashioned corruption that has most of all undermined the political process but rather a different order of contempt – one that has resulted in a profound lack of conviction about either of these shmendricks.

Who won? The worst, or most telling, thing that could possibly happen happened: no one.

Which was exactly what made Election Night thrilling or horrifying – or titillating. Everybody was so exposed. So hapless. So unscripted.

You saw not only the undoing of the political process but its doubly weird reflection through the undoing of the media process. These guys on television – enablers of political blandness – came unhinged, proving, among other things, that they have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about, that anchors and analysts and pundits are, in the end, just newsreaders, saying whatever wrongheaded stuff Voter News Service (the idiots who made their prediction without remembering that part of Florida is in Central Standard Time), in this instance, tells them to say. Yes! The trifecta! … Florida … Pennsylvania … Michigan!!! “Networks do not call unless they have a high degree of certainty,” added Jeff Greenfield in stentorian tones (he really must be stopped).

Then … Oh, no, sorry about that . . .

Later, with renewed confidence, the anchors pronounce Bush the winner. “You can take that to the bank,” Dan Rather says. But then time passes without a concession. You can see the nervousness take hold. Tom Brokaw becomes inarticulate, subverbal. There are strange jokes, weird laughing. They don’t know what’s happening.

The network guys, the master tacticians and narrators of the American political drama, have misplaced the script. This predictable, semi-fictional, jejune world they have made their careers talking about suddenly does not exist.

It’s chaos. Their carefully assembled Election Night package has unraveled. Nobody on television has the vaguest idea of what’s going on – in Austin, in Nashville, in Florida. It’s not just that they have no information – it’s also that they have no bromides. Tom Brokaw, author of that paean to American virtue The Greatest Generation, possibly the most soggy, cliché-ridden, soporific book ever written, has to deal with something more complicated than the grand American pageant. And he falls apart. He and Tim Russert, with his go-to-the-head-of-the-class marker board, are staring into the camera without a thing to say.

It’s a breathtaking moment.

Politics is unfolding in real time. Both candidates have been rejected. And no one knows what to make of it.

Possibly, even reasonably, what we have here is the last campaign. On the most functional level, if a campaign can’t produce a winner and a loser, it pretty much ceases to be useful.

This may be an inevitable outcome of target marketing. One of the few things proven in the 2000 race is that if you can focus media precisely enough, you can produce, within a margin of error, exactly the results you want (almost on an hour-by-hour basis – indeed, these results don’t last much longer than an hour). If you can subatomize your market closely enough, and supply maximum money, any gap can be closed – at least for the moment. You are really buying votes. It isn’t different from Mayor Daley stealing Cook County. The only problem is that both sides are targeting – or stealing.

Surely we are at a moment where all reasonable men and women have begun to look at the political process – its cost, its relentlessness, its repetitiveness, its abuse of language, its habitual promotion of the second-rate – as, if not corrupt, asinine and fruitless. Certainly, judging from my mail, the only people who cling to the idea of a political discussion are the disturbed or compulsively self-interested.

And then there is the growing lack of interest in politics on the part of the media – just at the moment when there is no politics except through the media. Politics has become a story that no one, beyond a cadre of specialized reporters, wants to do anymore. At a luncheon a few weeks ago of Time’s campaign staff, Time’s editor Walter Isaacson characterized the magazine’s approach to the campaign as “biographical” (other organizations also took this route; the New York Times, in fact, seems to have run the same extended “Journey From Carthage”- or “Yale to Midland”-type bios repeatedly throughout the campaign). This is an approach the media takes when an event loses its essential narrative appeal. We’ve given up on the real story – indeed, there may not be a real story; it may just be this disengaged, repetitive, P.R. stuff. (The Olympics is another difficult story line made user-friendly by the “biographical” approach.) In part, the emphasis on the personal rather than the political is Clintonian – he made us charm junkies. But this becomes a big problem when your next set of characters is charmless.

There is, too, the Nader factor. He or his equivalent should now be built into any campaign. You have to calculate not only your opponent but your spoiler – your oddball (someone, after all, has to speak for the oddball bloc, which is nearly a formal segment of the electorate). Such spoilers in close races don’t even have to be all that successful as spoilers – Nader, as spoilers go, is not very successful – to undermine someone else.

So really, who would spend a sleepless few years and a couple of hundred million dollars on this? It’s no longer a reasonable endeavor. It ends in tears for all.

Still, let me assume landslide George becomes the president, if not exactly the winner of the election. I have had the experience of waking up to a Republican morning on several keenly dispiriting occasions. In these instances, you feel yourself suddenly relegated from American participant to witness or bystander. The moment, having been seized by other forces and interests, moves in another direction, away from you.

But this time does not feel anything like that.

I have no idea whether Bush’s (or, for that matter, Gore’s) obvious inability to seize the day is, in the end, good news or bad.

It fits, though. It’s in character – the Bush (or Gore) character and the character of modern politics.

Clearly what we are now experiencing is a speeded-up version of a trend that has been in progress for some time – a downgrading of the centrality and importance and meaning of the presidency and politics in general in American life (although there will be, briefly, a kind of O.J. spike of interest in politics and the presidency). Wiener as president, without benefit of real victory, believable pomp, or man-behind-the-curtain illusion, definitely has the virtue of reflecting the truth.

On the other hand, Al may well hire a bunch of tough-guy takeover lawyers. That would have the virtue of realism, too.


The Losers