Duel in the Sun

Voting, we now know, has a margin of error as great as or greater than the normal margin of error of polling. It turns out we do not count ballots the way we count money. Instead, we casually gain and lose votes in the process of collection and counting and certifying. We (we of the ATM culture) have let the mechanics of voting, attended by those gothic sorts of people who man the polling stations, languish in a premodern, nonaccountable, Rube Goldberg world. This forgotten-in-time dimension of our democracy most likely goes beyond mere government entropy and results from some calculated negligence. After all, what political professional of any stripe does not want to provide himself with maximum maneuverability? The hanging chad gives him such room.

It should probably not be much of a surprise that some part of politics is always about fudging elections, that even the outright theft of an election is no Daley-esque or Landslide Lyndon anachronism – especially if we understand that this might not be so much a flagrant act as just a little pushing here and pulling there in the margin-of-error zone. We’ve become remote, however, from this bit of reality in the age of pollsters and projections and statistical deviations – the media, which we’ve oddly trusted in this area, has made politics an orderly, procedural, logical, and finite process. Certainly our distance, and the media whitewash, increased the rudeness and surprise (and thrill?) of this election mess. Suddenly, with no warning, we were face-to-face not only with voting’s gross approximateness (could the results be off by as much as 7 or 8 or 9 or even 10 percent?) but also with the dumb-cluck ineptitude of election supervisors, and the rather blithely acknowledged propensity in South Florida to fudge (although Florida’s punch-hole system is nearly high-tech compared with much of the rest of the country’s mechanical voting booths).

The truth was obvious: It would never be possible to determine with any mathematical certainty who won. There was, for all practical purposes, no controlling legal authority able to cleanly pick a winner or loser or to set out any rules for going forward.

And for a moment, no one knew what to do.

It was the reappearance of Richard Nixon that perhaps most clearly set the context and defined the stakes of the crisis. First, recalling Nixon was obviously a desperation move, not only on the part of the Republicans but on the part of a jittery and quickly constituted nonpartisan class. The message was, questioning election protocols and outcomes is not done – not even Nixon did it. But this sudden transformation of Nixon into the patron saint of what you can do for your country indicated most clearly that politics is seldom what it seems.

Indeed, the remembrances of the Kennedy-Nixon meeting following Election Day in 1960 – described on the Times op-ed page by former Times reporter and longtime Kennedy chronicler Richard Reeves – with Nixon emerging as a man who would do only what was good for the country, were, after the first blush of sanctimony, perhaps more appropriately interpreted as a potentially very shady and revelatory bit of history. Did anyone know if Nixon had emerged from the meeting with a briefcase? Was Joe Kennedy in the room? What’s more, who could ignore the logic that it was the stolen election of 1960 that led to the Nixon anger and paranoia that led to Watergate, which led to the sudden-death tactics in American politics, which led to special prosecutors and the Clinton impeachment, which, it was looking mighty likely, would lead to unending litigation in South Florida?

You had the uncertain position of the media, which was (a) highly culpable in this whole mess, (b) looking ridiculous in the face of it, (c) benefiting hugely from the ratings rise caused by it.

At the same time, it was telling to compare this struggle for power with those others. In this instance, we (at least those of us who were not on either side’s payroll) were more audience than partisans, gawkers more than witnesses. The power being struggled over may have diminished so much that few, if any, saw the value in a passionate position – except the lawyers.

Still, the sides, more dutiful than fervent, were drawn. On the one hand, you had those who supported the “good of the country”; on the other, those who were in favor of the “will of the people.”

In general, the “good of the country” point of view aligned with the Bush forces and the “will of the people” belief with the Gore forces. But those alignments were obviously fragile and could at any moment reverse themselves according to where the actual count stood. A hundred votes in either direction, and the status quo “good of the country” candidate became the insurgent “will of the people” candidate.

The “good of the country” position was held not just by Bush partisans but by something that approximated the old idea of the Establishment – wise men (there was a mad search for anyone who could fill this role; Dale Bumpers was suddenly back in the news), the punditocracy (Joe Klein saying Gore was playing “long-shot legal games at the expense of national stability”; Cokie Roberts, daughter of one of the rougher political chieftains in Louisiana, taking the view that only crybabies challenged elections), Wall Street, editorialists, party stalwarts – which dithered, wrung its hands, and tried to figure out what was good for whom.

This greater-good position seemed to hold that the true imperative was to get things back under control as fast as possible and nearly at all costs, because otherwise some very bad, albeit unspecified, things would happen (the market!). The greater-goodites professed to have little interest in who conceded and who claimed victory, just as long as someone did, and in that order, and soon – the collapse of society was always possible, after all. What was at stake, the greater-goodites said, was the ability to govern (as though governing were usually a smooth-running operation). What was at issue was legitimacy – even honor. The Establishment, awakening from a several-generation nap, sputtered.

The message was, appropriately, and in a sense nostalgically, paternalistic: We are looking out for you. The New York Times, at its prissiest, became one of the leading greater-good voices. Its political grandee, R. W. Apple Jr., allowed “another week” for jockeying, but then, he warned, “no more.” We could not take it any longer than that, he adjured. (Clearly, the Times had a problem with the tone of the event – in fact, its own poll soon showed a sanguine and patient public.)

At the same time, the Establishment’s countervailing force, the “will of the people” people, were not without their own naked self-interest. Jesse Jackson almost immediately arrived in West Palm, ready to lead the disenfranchised Jews. And then you had the quickly assembled “Emergency Committee of Concerned Citizens 2000” (emergency? What emergency?), a sixties-ish ad hoc committee (among its members were Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, Arthur Miller, Gloria Steinem) that was calling for a new vote in Palm Beach County and that had as one of its most prominent co-signers and supporters – and, one would assume, cash contributors – that paragon of integrity the movie producer Harvey Weinstein.

And, of course, you had the uncertain position of the media, which was (a) highly culpable in this whole mess, (b) looking ridiculous in the face of it, and (c) benefiting hugely from the ratings rise caused by it.

It was a nervous time. It would be bad, after all, if it turned out that the media had caused the downfall of the republic. And might it be the media’s bollixing of the election that helped cause the market to swoon, taking its largest toll on media shares themselves? (In an interesting sidelight, reporters were suddenly killing two birds with one stone, seeking not only political comment but stock-market analysis from Jon Corzine, the senator-elect from Goldman Sachs.)

The media seemed generally unsure whether to treat this overtime period as just an extension of the election – that is, in relatively civic-minded, generally bland Campaign 2000 terms – or to see it as a different sort of opportunity. Could the dispute rise to O.J. and Monica levels? At what point did this become a really delicious spectacle? And how would you stage it? To the degree that you could log every vote as it came in, you were obviously on your way to creating quite a programming juggernaut – the white Bronco of elections.

Momentarily chastened anchors soon seemed to be licking their lips: Possibly this might be a bigger story than impeachment, said Tim Russert.

Such a spectacle – or whether this could be turned into a properly flamboyant, appropriately freak-show-ish media spectacle – depended on how it played to the audience. We citizens, it seemed, had two clearly overlapping and sometimes conflicting roles, as voters and as audience – disenfranchised on the one hand, re-enfranchised, or at least entertained, on the other.

Indeed, was this anxiety we were feeling as we stared into the collapse of a host of civics-class and anchor-man verities? Or were we into it? Might we even want it to go on weeks longer (after all, what’s the rush)? One of the least interesting, least spontaneous, most cynical political campaigns of modern times had suddenly become an ad-libbed free-for-all, a genuine real thing, holding virtually everyone at the edge of his seat. Teenagers were suddenly interested in politics.

How long could this last before it became politics as usual – just another remote fight among impersonal disconnected fellows?

Some of us, though – granted, we may be throwbacks – started to see this as a different sort of politics, a pre-media kind of politics, rougher, darker, truer.

This was, possibly, real political drama. Of course, since there hadn’t been any such real drama (as distinguished from Monica) in numerous generations, it was hard to know. But it did seem, in some fiftieslike take-the-measure-of-the-man way, some Advise and Consent, Best Man-ish tradition, that what we had here was a test of mettle with the prospect of seeing some able political strategy and skulduggery in action, and even some real emotional comeuppance (W. was definitely looking the worse for wear). This was theater. Admit it: This was cool.

Obviously, there was no denying that the setting was great. South Florida not only is the most demographically churning area of the country (and now the Cubans, blacks, Jews, Haitians were joined by a thousand political operatives) but may well be the least tethered to the American sense of voting ritual and propriety (there was, at numerous magazines and newspapers last week, a debate about the appropriateness of calling South Florida a banana republic – was this a racist description, even though it might be an accurate one? The notion of death squads in South Florida was, mostly, an impermissible joke).

And there was comedy. You can’t do better than Jews for Buchanan.

Bill Daley could really make his bones. If he pulled this off, he’d be the most potent force in the Democratic Party, the true kingmaker his father always hoped to be.

The confrontation benefited, too, from the removal of the leaden principals from center stage. It was better as a war of lieutenants (elevated by the rented gravitas of James Baker and Warren Christopher – are they working on their hourly rates? Do you have that kind of discussion with David Boies – or do we understand this is all contingent?), with the real standoff between official seconds, Baker looking vastly older than when we last saw him eight years ago, and Bill Daley, threatening, impervious, bullheaded (just like his father – but much more in control of himself).

One wondered whether Baker (or Bush through Baker) was at a disadvantage here. After all, what did he have to prove – or win? He had been all things he could be in two Republican administrations. What could Bush Redux offer him? Bill Daley, on the other hand, could really make his bones. If he pulled this off, he’d be the most potent force in the Democratic Party, the true kingmaker his father always hoped to be.

Each would certainly be calling in and marshaling every bit of influence that could be had in the municipal offices of Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and Broward counties. (bush camp fears dem plot to swing election, said the New York Post. Duh.) Politics had not been this local, this protean, this naked, in three generations. Such hand-to-hand combat could reinvigorate the profession.

But, perhaps most interesting of all, what you had was the rarest thing in American public life: a psychological drama.

The last man standing would win this. He would be defeated not by votes but by how well he could tolerate not just world-class, presidential-caliber anxiety but the constantly changing vectors of his own self-image – was he thief, hero, spoiler, contender, schnook? We would see who had the stronger stomach.

Could this even be a worthy test of something?

The outcome of the vote wasn’t what held our attention. Rather, it was the chance to see these guys handle themselves. (In that regard, the big Band-Aid that suddenly appeared on W.’s face was an odd note; and, inquiring minds want to know, who was the brains behind the Gore touch-football tableau?)

Two points to Gore for his early-evening face-the-cameras, lets-meet-and-resolve-this-thing offer. One point to Bush for jumping into action, and making the 90-minute drive from his ranch to Austin, to counter the offer – and managing to do it in prime time.

We were all up to speed on the playbook of options.

Foremost among the considerations was each side’s confidence in the outcome. If you pushed this to the farthest point and won, that was one thing; if you pushed it to the farthest point and lost, then you were history’s joke – or worse, its failed usurper. You had to know: Could you steal it? Could you depend on your people to steal it? Could you depend on the recount churn to put you over? Could you rely on career Army officers to send in their ballots and the rank and file to be less diligent? Should you risk your future and self-esteem on what might or might not happen in a courtroom?

And then for how long could you bear up under it? Not just the uncertainty but all the people calling you up.

Almost everyone, beyond those on your payroll or those who wanted to be on your payroll, was undoubtedly advising you to fold or to be prepared to fold your hand – such advice would be as big a burden on Bush as on Gore. Even though the Establishment is a relic, there are many men, prigs by nature, in either party who fancy themselves a suitable part of it. Their counsel would invariably be: Don’t go there.

My own sense is that Warren Christopher would be a danger to Gore in this regard – that at any moment he could turn back from his role as advocate into his preferred role as cautious wise man. Baker, who on the Sunday shows has approached hysteria, does not have such pretenses (indeed, he must be thinking he better not lose a second election for the Bushes).

Now, in theory, the reward here for the candidate who does the right thing is the possibility of a future career. In an ordinary election, a second shot would never be possible. Political careers in the short-memory media age are situational. You get nominated to run if sun and moon align and the limelight gets to be yours at the exact moment when you need such light – you don’t earn or merit a nomination.

The idea of an opposition leader, even an opposition-leader-in-waiting, a Nixon or Stevenson or Kennedy brother, lost meaning long ago. (Bush Jr. was not in this lineage; he was just, situationally, the guy who could raise money when he needed to.) And it is not at all clear that such a thing, such a role, could exist now. But that’s the offer. If you concede before you’re turned into a fool or a menace, you will be the leader of the opposition. You will gain a legitimacy that will make you the presumptive and even in some ways the real president. Whereas whoever becomes president will be a symbol of all kinds of dirty stuff. But then again, it may not even matter who does the right thing. Likely, you can do the wrong thing, or the long, drawn-out, overlitigated, stamping-foot thing, and still be in business. No matter what, the swords are already drawn.

And the punch line written: We’ll be doing this all over again – right from the beginning.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

Duel in the Sun