Hyperbole and justice for all

The protagonists square off in the Florida drama -- but it's their language, not the process itself, that's dangerous.

Published November 30, 2000 10:43PM (EST)

OK, everyone, calm down. Stop screaming. Take deep breaths. Smoke a joint. And will someone please give Chris Matthews an extra dose of lithium?

Because I'd like an answer to my question: Am I the only one who finds this entire Florida spectacle not just riveting but a glorious display of much that is right with our system, not just what's wrong? Yes, it's nasty. Yes, some rather peculiar electoral activities have come to light. Sure, it would have been better if this whole mess had not occurred, if presidential ballots were uniform throughout the country, if ... if ... if a lot of things.

But it did happen. And maybe I'm naive in the extreme, but I feel a peculiar thrill to be a witness to this extraordinary process -- even if both candidates (but especially Bush) are clearly limited.

The basic point is this: Despite the hostilities of the past few weeks, we're not talking Bosnia here. This is not the French Revolution. No one is storming the Bastille. If we were in Soviet-era Moscow -- or maybe even the Moscow of today -- the radio would be playing "Swan Lake" around the clock and we'd have engrossing five-hour documentaries about mushroom picking on TV while the Kremlin bulldogs huddled in secret to determine the country's fate.

But unless I've missed something -- and it's possible, because even a news junkie like me has to take a bathroom break occasionally -- I haven't seen the storm troopers marching into Tallahassee, Fla., or tanks rolling through the Everglades. Instead, we have a war of words and legal briefs; we have Larry King grilling Alan Dershowitz and Peggy Noonan. (And yes, they're highly irritating, but you can mute them if you want.) So this is not the end of democracy in our time.

Let me play Claude Rains for a second here and say that I'm shocked -- shocked! -- to discover that political partisans are behaving, well, politically partisan. I'm shocked -- shocked! -- that they're angling for votes at every turn, calling in the lawyers to explore every possible legal advantage, appealing the decisions they don't like up the wazoo.

But as they say on MSNBC, this is hardball. All the characters in this theater of the incredible are playing their roles to perfection, even if they're not playing nice. Al Gore has every right to pursue any legal strategy available to him. George W. Bush has every right to fight it. Their surrogates have every right to defend them. And guess what? The Republicans are backing Bush and the Democrats -- mostly -- are backing Gore. Quelle surprise.

Look, I don't mean to downplay the stakes involved here. If fraud was committed, of course it should be investigated and punished. If this all leads to needed electoral reform, terrific. And I appreciate the potential dangers of a Bush presidency -- and of his Supreme Court appointments -- for women, minorities, poor people and many, many others.

But what is truly unhealthy and destructive here is not the legal process taking place, but the apocalyptic bleating and the high-decibel ranting and the rhetorical nonsense buzzing around like flies hovering over garbage. Gore reps have warned darkly that the Bushie-organized protests in southern Florida constituted mob rule, even fascism. But if the weenies posing as election officials in Miami-Dade County voted not to proceed with a manual recount because of a bit of screaming, then they're the losers to blame, not the alleged mob. And Gore has gone to court to reverse that rather odd decision -- as well he should.

The other side trumps the Demos: Gore, they yelp, is Slobodan Milosevic. We've got a stolen election here. A coup d'état. Noonan -- and how lovely she looks when she knows she's right -- says that the right's passive and flaccid response to Gore's maneuvers is like Britain's appeasement of Hitler. (Passive Republican response? Is she watching CNN in the same universe as the rest of us?) And yes, Peggy, I do think Gore would look cute with a little black mustache.

Has Noonan ever visited Auschwitz? Has she witnessed a coup d'état? Has anyone decrying mob rule ever been present during an actual riot? Americans love hyperbole. It's part of the political process. But that's all it is; no one should mistake it for reality. And in this situation, it's definitely not helpful.

Because let's acknowledge what everyone knows but no one is saying: We will never know who got the most votes in Florida; who would have gotten the most votes had everyone voted for the person he intended to; who would have gotten the most votes had there been no butterfly ballots, had the networks not called the election before polls closed in the Panhandle, had the entire state held a manual recount, had Miami counted its uncounted ballots, had military ballots not been excluded.

Even if Einstein himself tallied and retallied Florida's 6 million ballots at this point, he could easily be off by, say, 567 votes. So for the Demos to argue that more people in Florida actually punched in the Gore chad (or that more people in Florida actually intended to do, an even slyer and more slippery boast) is almost as ridiculous as the Bushies' claim that they're only interested in the rule of law.

Which brings us to the second thing that everyone knows but few, at least among the Republicans, are saying: The law is ambiguous. The butterfly ballot was illegal -- unless it wasn't. The secretary of state has the discretion to be flexible -- or maybe not. Florida statutes allow for manual recounts -- but don't provide enough time to complete them. The state Legislature has the right to weigh in on the matter -- but no one is quite sure how far that right extends. Absentee ballots must have postmarks -- but a dated signature is sometimes enough.

James Baker growls that the rule of law must prevail -- as if challenging the results is somehow violating, rather than complying with, the law he professes to adore. What Gore is doing, he magisterially informs all us little people, is "extraordinary." Other Bushies say it is "unprecedented."

Oh, I get it. The country -- which has survived one or two things worse than a disputed presidential election -- should never embark on an extraordinary journey. Note to Jimmy: If I remember correctly from Mr. Barrows, my sixth-grade social studies teacher, pursuing remedies through the courts is a noble part of the American tradition.

Human beings are messy, complex and imperfect creatures; American politics has always been a messy, complex and imperfect affair, with messy, complex and imperfect elections. It's just that we've rarely had to confront that imperfect mess so starkly. And yet the country still stands. I mean, the only perfect thing I've ever encountered in life is the cream of green chili soup at Duarte's, the little down-home restaurant along the coast 50 miles south of San Francisco. (Some people I know maintain that the cream of artichoke soup is better, but they're deluded.) And even Duarte's doesn't always get it right.

The courts -- need it be said? -- are also far from perfect. These men and women, whether in Florida or on the U.S. Supreme Court, do not live in hermetically sealed chambers. They are not insulated from the political winds whipping all around them. But they are, for better or worse, the forum we have chosen for resolving just this sort of dispute. I mean, it sounds Pollyanna-ish, but that's their job -- to interpret the law as best they can.

And as messy and imperfect as their answers may be, theirs are the answers we must all accept. The Republicans perform no patriotic service in demonizing courts and sitting justices when decisions don't go Bush's way. They may not like the results, or the Demos may not, or you and I may not, but -- warning: cliché coming! -- that's life. And guess what? Four years from now -- unless the Pentagon has already ordered anthrax attacks on the National Mall -- we'll have the chance, if we want it, to vote out whichever of these diminished men wins this battle.

By David Tuller

David Tuller is a contributing writer at Salon. He is the author of "Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay and Lesbian Russia."

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