Election, Electrocution--It's All the Same/Power Vacuum/The National Rush to Judgment | Media | Chicago Reader

Election, Electrocution--It's All the Same/Power Vacuum/The National Rush to Judgment 

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By Michael Miner

Election, Electrocution-- It's All the Same

"The people have spoken," cried A.E. Eyre.

And they said...?

"Gore Bush in. Gore Bush out," Eyre proclaimed. He glanced around the bar in hopes that his witticism had been overheard and admired.

There was no sign of that.

"But damn that John Hagelin," said Eyre. "It's fashionable for liberals to excoriate only Ralph Nader, who unlike Ross Perot commanded just enough third-party support to be dangerous but not enough to be serious. Needless to say, I've looked more deeply into the totals.

"Damn that Hagelin," he said again. "Do you realize that the 2,270 votes his Natural Law Party garnered in Florida have plunged the nation into a constitutional crisis?"

Whether it's Bush or it's Gore, whoever eventually wins this thing is going to have to sit down and deal with the Natural Law folk, I chipped in.

"Then there's Howard Phillips, whose Constitution Party garnered 4,280 votes, and Harry Browne, who cornered 18,854 for the Libertarians. Add any of those figures to Al Gore's totals and nobody would be wondering who the next president is."

Browne got more votes in Florida than Buchanan did, I noted, even with all the votes Buchanan got by accident.

"Freud said there are no accidents," Eyre snorted. "Perhaps the real question is why in the privacy of the voting booth so many elderly Palm Beach County Jews demonstrated such self- loathing and why they all want to deny it now."

So that's what happened?

"If I were George W. Bush I would say it appears that's what happened. And I would say so with genuine sympathy."

Eyre looked about to see if he was holding court yet. No one paid him any attention. "No, this election was no accident," he said, soldiering on. "Faced with a choice of doofuses to lead the republic into the new millennium, America ingeniously found a way not to elect either one of them. The breakdown of the electoral process we have just witnessed is roughly as calamitous as the breakdown of the family car during a trip to the proctologist."

He paused to give this sally time to ricochet through the premises.

"Nevertheless," he said, "anarchy must concern us all. Our nation travels on the broad back of time-tested procedures, and so I applaud Governor Bush for thinking first and foremost of maintaining public order. We've counted the votes once. We've counted them twice. Is getting it right important enough to risk counting them a third time? I think not, and neither does the governor."

What's the risk? I said.

"The erosion of national dignity. On that front, Governor Bush enjoyed a splendid moment last week. I speak of the gallant execution in Texas of cold-blooded killer Miguel Flores despite global protest. Apparently because he was born in Mexico and denied contact with the Mexican consulate, there was some sort of technical violation of an international treaty. With everything else that's going on in his life, Governor Bush found the 15 minutes it took to review Flores's case and remind the world that Texas can execute anyone it wants to."

"Grace under pressure is no everyday quality," I said.

"And this week he makes the call on Johnny Paul Henry, who has an IQ of 56. Far be it from Bush to mock the judicial process by sparing the life of a savage killer just because he still believes in Santa Claus."

If you did it you did it, I said.

"What I see and the governor sees and you're too thick to see is that guilt has nothing to do with it." Eyre's voice rose. "Consider a hypothetical murder trial. The defendant is capably defended, the prosecution is aboveboard, the judge wise and impartial, and the evidence compelling. Will justice be done if a jury returns a verdict of guilty even though the defendant didn't do it?"

Of course not, I said.

"That's where you're wrong," said Eyre. "Justice is a matter of crossing the ts and dotting the is. A trial is like an election. As long as it's proper it doesn't have to be accurate."

I said I'd seen plenty of death sentences overturned in Illinois, and I wouldn't call what was improper about those cases a few uncrossed ts and undotted is.

"If you're finicky you can always find something to quibble with," said Eyre. "Such as the defense counsel sleeping through the trial. Or a Palm Beach landslide for the guy who's spoken well of Hitler. The point is, the majesty of the law has little to do with right and wrong. That's why the governor is adamantly opposed to a long, debilitating appeals process. The people need closure."

Closure? I said. What are we talking about--capital punishment or the election?

"Whatever," said Eyre. "Imagine yourself one of those poor, befuddled Gore voters in Palm Beach. You're certain your man carried the nation. You're nearly as certain he carried Florida. And you're dead sure you voted for Buchanan by mistake. And what are the nation's deepest thinkers saying? 'Correct the mistake'? I think not. They're saying don't drag this through the courts, no election is perfect, it's time for the nation to move on."

Was he actually comparing an election to a death sentence?

"One obvious difference," Eyre allowed, "is that no one on death row by mistake appreciates the hue and cry to hang him and be done with it. Whereas in Florida, by the Thursday night after the election even the most ardent Gore supporters I know could see their predicament was wonderfully absurd."

Power Vacuum

The president was richly amused. The republic's troubles were none of his own. "If Bush wins this thing," he said, "his own mother won't be able to tell him he deserved it. But Al's a plodder. He might pull it out."

"If he does," said the president's wife, "he's not going to nominate you for secretary of state."

"I bet you'd vote against me if he did," said the president with the easy humor that had marked their long relationship. "Nope, that's my old plan."

"There's always a new one, isn't there?" said the president's wife.

"And I bet I can sell it to Al," he said. "First thing that happens is Lieberman resigns."

"And the governor of Connecticut picks a Republican to replace him."

"You don't see it, do you?" said the president. "Not the Senate! Why would he want to give that up? No, he resigns from the vice presidency before he's sworn in."

The idea astonished her. "But that's betrayal! Fifty million Americans voted for him."

Betrayal was a concept he'd always had trouble getting his mind around. He tussled with it for a moment, then said, "Don't be silly. No one cares who's vice president."

"OK. And then?"

"Al nominates you."

"Why do I want to be vice president?"

"When did you ever want to be a senator?"

"Why would he want me to be vice president?"

"The usual reasons. Subjugation. Revenge. An unexamined fear of suddenly being on his own. Psychologically it tracks."

"Would Congress confirm me?"

"Of course it would. The public is demanding gestures of civility and cooperation. What would be a more impressive gesture of civility and cooperation than the Republican Congress ratifying the wife of the man they despise and impeached."

"And they'd have impeached me too if they could have," she said.

"That they would," he agreed.

She was thinking. "What would I do as vice president?" she said.

"Al could give you health care."

"Or I suppose I could take over his job of reinventing government."

"I think we've all just done that," said the president.

The National Rush to Judgment

The first thing the TV told me when I got home from work was "Gore took Florida!" The last thing it told me before I went to bed was "Bush took Florida!" If Florida had simply hung over the nation all night as a vast, decisive, but uncommitted weight, that would have been plenty dramatic enough. With its melodramatic kisses and kiss-offs, TV's Florida was like a strumpet out of Melrose Place or Titans. TV gave us election coverage only an Aaron Spelling could love.

We all share the blame. My daughter controlled the remote on election night, channel surfing relentlessly for the newest news, the newer-than-new news. Nothing could hold us long to any station but Tim Russert and his spellbinding magic slate. At one point I abandoned the television and went on-line to search for even fresher information. But the Internet is lonely, so I went back to the TV.

The 2000 election rescued the Chicago Tribune from its history. The equivalent of "Dewey Defeats Truman" appeared on so many front pages (but not the Tribune's) and rang out from so many TV sets that it turned the '48 election into a kind of amusing prehistory--what happened before communications acquired the tools to turn a local blunder into a national disaster. Neither Dewey nor Truman benefited from the Tribune's mistake. Calling Florida for Gore--when western Florida and most of the United States was still voting--contaminated the election.

The lesson the TV networks and the Voter News Service are taking away from last week's elections is that they've got to refine their exit-polling techniques to avoid another Florida debacle. But doing the wrong thing perfectly isn't the same as doing what's right. At the very least, the networks could wait until all the polls have closed everywhere before they begin to project their winners. But waiting is one of those discredited inconveniences every technological advance of the last century claims to have reduced the need for. No one remembers how to do it.

News Bites

Kathy Frankovic, director of surveys for CBS and a board member of Voter News Service, the network's exit-poll consortium, in explaining to the Washington Post why VNS and CBS gave Florida too soon first to Al Gore and then to George W. Bush: "We were embarrassed, obviously. And distressed. But at the end we did the right thing. We took it back and admitted it."

When it would have been so easy just to hush it up.

From the Tribune obituary last Sunday for retired educator Angeline Caruso: "'If she were to sit, it would be with a double cross stick,' an advanced crossword puzzle, [her sister] said. 'And she was a great letter writer.'"

The double cross must be what she took up after putting down the hickory.

Last week I wrote that columnist Dennis Byrne had left the Sun-Times for the Tribune. He might have made the trip in the company of Garry Wills. Lobbied by Wills's pal Studs Terkel to pick up Wills, Bruce Dold, editor of the Tribune editorial page and a Wills admirer, called him in late summer. Dold wanted to find out where Wills stood with the Sun-Times, which had all but stopped running his column. To Dold's disappointment, Wills said his next column was his last. He wanted more time for writing books.

The Sun-Times welcomed the delegates to the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities to Chicago last Sunday with a long essay by Barbara Amiel on the history of Israel's troubles with the Palestinians. Amiel's the wife of the big boss, Hollinger chairman Conrad Black, and the essay had already run in Hollinger's Daily Telegraph. She found Israel pretty much blameless in its behavior over the last 50-some years and the Arabs their own worst enemies.

Amiel can interpret history any way she wants to, but truth in advertising, please. The page-one headline touting Amiel's piece promised "The Roots of Palestinian Anger."

"Will the new US President have any credibility?" asked the on-line Daily Telegraph. Yes, said 39.42 percent. No, said 60.57 percent.

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