Gang of Four

What’s our level of concern that a presidential election has been stolen? At the moment, I don’t think it’s very high.

This could be because we consider the presidency something of relatively circumscribed value – so we’re looking at a petty larceny.

Or because we tend to think of the politicians and the presidency as occupying a parallel world – Mafia dons and capos dispatching one another in a turf war. Nobody gets hurt who doesn’t deserve to get hurt. (Maureen Dowd continues to refer to the Bushes as the Wasp Corleones.)

Or because, given that these are strange, aggrieved, unattractive people who, on a nightly basis, are so full of passionate intensity, we, in order not to be associated with such characters, must withdraw.

The people on television and in court – and who is unfamiliar with this level of rancor? Who hasn’t been around a divorce? – have come to reflect an emotional irreality that any sort of disinterested and rational person has to shun.

So it becomes nearly impossible to hold on to the core facts: The one guy who has lost the general election by 350,000 votes, a margin larger than JFK’s (and climbing daily), has claimed (the claiming part is important) victory on the basis of being 500 votes up in a state where tens of thousands of votes, at the very least, have been discarded, and which his brother controls.

But then that guy says in fact it’s the other guy who’s trying to steal it! That is, the second guy, who is trying to take it from the first guy even if the first guy stole it from the get-go, is a thief, too (or would be a thief if he could figure out how to steal). Well, this is probably halfway true. Still – there are subtleties that shouldn’t be overlooked. Like the brother.

There’s even a Republican sense that the tougher you are, the more respect you get – it’s sports stuff. This is being played by and for the professionals.

This confusion is part of the narration problem. To a large degree, we’ve eliminated the narrator. For 500 votes, you get to tell the tale. Or we’re dependent on television dodos who, because they have too much time to fill or because they just can’t cope with unscripted stuff, are highly unreliable narrators. As in the Clinton impeachment, every single blowhard who has gotten on the air has been wrong about basically everything (the law of reversals that governed the main campaign still holds for the interregnum phase; while we are told that Gore is toast, we all know to stay tuned). Whose voice are you comfortable with here? Who do you turn to? Zip. Nada. Fuhgeddaboutit.

Nobody can be trusted. Nobody is able to offer credible interpretations of motives (partly because their own are so suspect); no reasonably objective person has the will or the authority to dispute the claims of one side or another; and surely, none of the principals is able or willing to say anything that any sensible person thinks is even moderately genuine. (You get a taste of how Communism lasted for 60 years.)

Our unwillingness to accept – even listen to – any side of the story is a form of resistance that is also called, in New York Times editorial-page terms, the legitimacy issue: Will this new Bush administration have the professional respect and general support to move its agenda forward? Well, gosh. Let me think.

Indeed, what invariably emerges out of the information swamp is a fractured, or alternative, or even conspiratorial view of American public life.

Is it possible, for instance, that George W. has fallen off the wagon? That’s why he spends all that time out at that remote ranch, and why he looks so addled and walleyed: He’s plastered? Who says that was a boil on his face? Who has a boil? That’s the mark of a falling-down drunk. Granted, my hypothesis is based only on the fact that the notion fits so perfectly with the story as so far told. Why didn’t anyone ever pursue the drinking thing? Okay, he says, he stopped drinking. Has he ever had a drink since? How often has he driven while drunk? Does he consider himself an alcoholic? Aren’t we mildly curious?

Politicians get the rumors they deserve.

The odd couple of Lucianne Goldberg and Ron Rosenbaum recently sniffed at (and helped smuggle into print) the rumor about Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris.

I first heard the rumor from someone at Talk magazine – now, it is possible, since after the Talk Election Night party at Elaine’s, a group adjourned to Bill and Hillary’s suite at the Grand Hyatt, that Bill or Hill started the rumor. Then I heard it confirmed by the former wife of a big-time political consultant who heard it from her junior-high daughter when she came back from a visit with her father. (So take that to the libel lawyers!)

Lucianne believes it must not be true because it has had no bump. No additional details. It doesn’t pass her bona fides test – doesn’t earn the Lucianne seal. Rosenbaum, a good egg, is upset because it is misogynistic – he defends not only Katherine Harris’s honor but her makeup. What both ignore is that the truth is, in every which way but legally, irrelevant. If it is not true, it anyway lies in the direction of truth. A good rumor is a way to explain what is not being explained, a way to help figure out what’s wrong with this picture. And certainly one would have to be mighty foolish to believe it could not be true.

In the information swamp, you have to trust your own instincts. And if you’re still unsure, the follow-up rumor has Newsweek’s babe-beat reporter, Michael Isikoff, investigating the tale.

Then, of course, there are the Cubans. You can’t have a modern political conspiracy theory without the Cubans. Here the line goes from Jeb to Elián to the Cuban community to the Democratic mayor, Alex Pinelas, who may be the linchpin to the stolen election. The presence of the Cubans in this story suggests that the mythology of Election 2000 could fester and rise to grassy-knoll proportions.

It’s possible we don’t have elections anymore; we have perceptions. What is certified in the end is a set of impressions, insights, and intuitions. A free-floating sense of optimism or dread.

The party-boy son, shoehorned into a Jesus-loves-me marriage (I’m surely not satisfied I know as much as I’ll bet there is to know about George’s first fiancée); set up in business (a baseball team! Maureen Dowd thinks George W. is like Sonny, but in many ways he’s like Fredo Corleone, sent off to Vegas); nepo-ed into the statehouse, which is turned into a money-raising apparatus (politics is the only legitimate Ponzi scheme); and now strong-armed into the least desirable presidential victory in the history of presidential victories. In Dubya’s defense, such a disreputable and picaresque bio could be provided for Bill Clinton – which, of course, contributed to his impeachment.

We may not need campaign reporters so much as some new form of literary criticism. We need reality critics.

What are the underlying motivations? What are the unstated messages? What are the nuances of public character from which we can infer the actual living, breathing person (assuming that the person we see has little relevance to this actual person)?

Indeed, the most surprising thing to me, as a critic, if not a citizen, is that the story has gone this way. It would have been so simple to have created a plausible, sunny ending, to have George W. revealed as a decent, deserving-the-benefit-of-the-doubt kind of guy.

That is, he could have made an offer. Given that he lost in the general election (there’s been a hurried agreement that the election itself is beside the point, that it’s the Electoral College that is the basis of the democracy – it frightens people to admit to a systems breakdown), given the nonexistent margin and various disputes between the two in Florida, and, not least of all, given that his brother is the governor of the disputed state, he should have said, Let’s hand-recount everything. Or even Let’s do a best-of-three machine recount. Something that says I’m willing to lose (what happened to all that talk about George W. not needing to be president?). I acknowledge that this is an anomalous situation. I’m not afraid, and hell, I really am a mensch.

But just at the time this offer should have been made, W. was, as I figure it, stewed. (The other reason you might not make such an offer is that you thought there was a pretty good chance you’d lose. And after all, the guys who’d brought Bush this far weren’t being paid to be thought well of, or have him thought well of – you take your revenge any way you get it, hot or cold.)

At the risk of blaming the victim, it is interesting to wonder if there was something that Gore might have done, some line in the sand he might have drawn. Something like: I have been elected president by an indisputable margin. George Bush is a pretender claiming victory on the basis of 500 votes in a state controlled by his brother. This is not an issue just for courts or legislatures. Everyone must draw his or her own reasonable conclusion about who is the real president. (The actual ballots, as it happens, will be available for inspection and a historical recount within two years.) This, however, would have required him to do exactly what he failed to do throughout the campaign. That is, to talk about (to be able to see) the large, emotional, moral view instead of turning everything he says into something that people couldn’t care less about.

There has, of course, been something fishy about George W. since the beginning. Which may be one reason the Bush guys don’t find it imperative to disguise it now. If you could plausibly make a case for Bush before this, you could as plausibly make the case that he had won the election now.

A significant part of the Republican political approach has come to be that Americans have a short media memory. The first Bush administration, Newt, and impeachment are all unfortunate episodes in the media past. The market has accounted for them and moved on. And the Republicans may be right – when you have this stuff drummed into your head every night, you build up an immunity. We get used to violence; we get used to political deceit and flat-footedness.

There’s even a Republican sense that the tougher you are the more respect you get – it’s sports stuff. This is being played by and for the professionals (they believe the election was stolen from them eight years ago, and, fuck it, they’re grabbing it back now).

But I wonder if you ever shake the joke – you get to be president, but we have no illusions about you at all.

Truculent Cheney, the go-to man, on his fourth heart attack (what office pools are forming here?) … Baker, the dark prince, grown gray and dusty, sputtering like the Potter figure from It’s a Wonderful Life … George W. himself, the ultimate put-up job (who is really in charge here? When do we find out? Do we ever?) … plus every other mothballed guy from the Poppy years … black-bag boys one and all.

Or maybe the real joke is that having successfully carried out their nefarious plot, having gotten back where they ignominiously had to leave off, they are going to find out that eight years makes a big difference (or not, and we just replay Saddam Hussein and recession). You can’t go home again and all that.

But do we care much?



Gang of Four