Election Wrangle? It Was Inevitable in the Clinton Era

The first Presidential election in which I voted was 1960.

The age of eligibility back then was 21, causing me to miss

Eisenhower-Stevenson II by a year. I regret this greatly: The way it looks now,

the 1956 election could prove to be the only opportunity vouchsafed me in my

lifetime to be able to choose between two

good men.

In 1960, I voted for Richard Nixon, it being an article of

faith in the circles in which I was raised that the late Joseph P. Kennedy,

father of the ultimate winner, must be kept away from the White House no matter

what the cost. The only really memorable moment in the campaign, by my lights,

was Eugene McCarthy’s great, passionate convention speech, fruitlessly but

immortally nominating Stevenson for a third try.

As it turned out, the 1960 election was decided, so Nixon

apologists assert, by voters resident on Election Day, 1960, in various Cook

County cemeteries. In other words, a living Senator was voted into the Oval

Office by deceased people. In last Tuesday’s balloting, in the neighboring

border state of Missouri, a deceased governor was voted into the Senate Chamber

by living people. This, I suppose, is progress of a sort.

What is not progress is the way this has all turned

out-although what has not been sufficiently noted, amid all the op-ed

hand-wringing about court challenges and the like, is the unhappy inevitability

of it. The Age of Clinton may have been many things to many people, but what it

has surely been is the era of mega-litigation, a Golden Age of Lawyering. Think

of it: the tobacco litigation and settlements; the legalistic cat’s cradle of

Lewinsky-Clinton-Starr; the swarm of litigation surrounding the financial and

fleshly serendipities that distinguished the previous careers of New York’s new

Senator-elect and her spouse; the Perelman-Duff divorce. In the past eight

years, courts have dictated outcomes of a magnitude and resonance for which

anyone of my vintage (likely to think in terms of Dred Scott or Marbury v.

Madison or Roe v. Wade ) has been

wholly unprepared. What has been astonishing about these rulings is their moral

disinterestedness, a soulless, legalistic purity that reminds, again and again,

how in this country the work of lawyers is mainly to negotiate evasions of

statute and fees for themselves, no matter what the larger public interests

involved or-God help us!-such clearly obsolescent considerations as social

right or wrong. This, dear readers, is the Clinton Legacy. How proud Joe

Conason must be.

And now this.

However it comes out, the term of the next President is

spoiled, will have a stink about it that will make rallying the nation, if

rallying should be called for, difficult if not impossible. Purely as a matter

of personal, ethical and cultural conviction and intellectual taste, there was

no way I could have voted for Al Gore; but no matter what the outcome,

something clearly stunk about the Florida returns in terms of possible

arithmetical fraud as well as probable voter confusion over a ballot, used only

in Palm Beach County, apparently designed by the same illiterate three-card

monte artist responsible for highway signage in our area.

On the other hand,

before we go overboard on the theory that the road to Buchanan hell was paved

with Gore intentions, it all depends on which side of Lake Worth these disputed

ballots were cast. If on the eastern bank, where the rich live, do not forget

that this is the place that, until 1986, required day-workers and other

laboring-class persons to carry identity cards and to be photographed and

fingerprinted, perhaps to be checked by armed guards posted on the causeway,

just the way they did in Vichy France. Still, it is amusing to conjure up a

picture of the Bush clan huddled around a fire on the freezing, rainy beach at

Hobe Sound, feverishly marking freshly printed ballots, asking each other, “How

do you spell ‘Buchanan’?”

I have long been in

favor of a Constitutional amendment to expel Florida from the Union, since it

competes with California for pre-eminence in just about everything that is

wrong, tacky, corrupt or misguided with post-postmodern American life. That it

should have proved to be the fulcrum of the nation’s collective political

judgment at the turn of the millennium has a kind of ominous historical

inevitability and does not bode well for this century. Since whoever turns out

to be our new President will be beholden to the Sunshine State for his

ascendancy to the First Magistracy, I hold out no hope for a Washington-based

initiative for my amendment, but I have an idea for a swell fallback. If New

York State were to increase the “escape clause” of its tax-residency statute

from 181 days to, say, 306, the effect on Southampton and Palm Beach real estate

would be something wondrous to behold!

On other electoral fronts, it is clear that the

African-American population turned out and voted for Mr. Gore as if their lives

depended on it, for which they can hardly be blamed, given the ardor that Mr.

Bush has brought to his stewardship of the Huntsville execution chamber. Few

observers seemed to take note that what was said of Mr. Bush by his derogators

closely resembled in tone and emphasis what was said of Harry Truman when

F.D.R.’s death catapulted him into the White House, which I personally took as

grounds for hope. In similar vein, Mr. Gore’s followers heaped him with the

same résumé-centered encomia I have seen attributed to those who, in 1928,

cheered Herbert Hoover’s accession, which must be grounds for suspicion.

Dire premonitions concerning Mr. Gore were hardly to be

relieved by the fact that practically every boldface Hollywood or glitz-ocratic

name mentioned in the leading New York gossip columns in the 48 hours following

the election was identified as an activist for the V.P. This last, in

retrospect, seems motive sufficient in and of itself to have voted for someone

else-even Mr. Buchanan. And if anyone doubts Madame Senator-elect Clinton is a

killer, the skill with which she managed to appear onstage at the precise

moment that Rick Lazio was starting his concession speech was an example of

evil-minded timing the equal of which I am hard put to recall.

I suspect that the rest of the country is as fed up as your

correspondent is. I had hoped never again to gaze upon the wrinkled,

garden-gnome visage of Warren Christopher, or to hear, ever again, the slick,

phonily back-country circumlocutions of Jim Baker, but here those two are

again. Aaaaaagh!

So I intend to try to forget all this and to cultivate my

garden, notably the one between my ears. I will not spend one second reading

any of the “exclusive exit interviews” Mr. Clinton appears to have given to

every magazine this side of Maxim

(which I expect is the magazine he

reads whenever he retreats with his cigar to the Presidential onanery). So far,

by my count, exclusive interviews

have appeared in Talk , Vanity Fair and Esquire , not to mention Joe Klein’s summation a few weeks ago in The New Yorker . Does Mr. Clinton get

paid under the table for these? I think we should be told. I think we know the

answer.

No, to regain sanity, I will begin by listening to the

“Italian Lesson,” greatest of all monologues by the greatest of all

monologists, the immortal Ruth Draper. Thanks to a note in Time Out New York , I learned that these have been completely and

impeccably restored to compact disc by Susan Mulcahy, and my credit card

practically incinerated thanks to the speed with which I rushed to

http://www.drapermonologues.com and ordered several sets. You should do so, too, if

you don’t wish to be classified as a churl or-worse-a Bright Young Thing. These

are for educated, sophisticated people to whom intelligence, and not

possessions, is the standard by which we judge ourselves. Warning: People whose

minds thrill to David Hasselhoff in

Jekyll & Hyde are not likely to get Ruth Draper.

I will also spend time studying One Man’s Eye: Photographs from the Alan Siegel Collection (Abrams,

$49.50), a book which a publicist sent me and which I intended to glance at

briefly before moving on. But I found myself turning one page, then another,

and then going carefully through the whole, and then reading and rereading Mr.

Siegel’s preface-because what I was looking at was a true collection, at a

level of choice and comprehension rarely encountered, formed by a really good

eye roaming across a potentially vast, inchoate area of interest and making,

again and again, individual choices that both stand alone and yet make sense of

their neighbors.

I happen to think “collections”-as opposed to mere

“accumulations”-are really interesting. Any idiot with a checkbook can go out

and buy stuff. For examples of non-collections posing as same, just riffle

through the home décor magazines, especially the singularly cheesy version The New York Times put out a couple of

Sundays back. But a real collection … ah, that’s something! The half a C-note

Abrams is asking for Mr. Siegel’s book seems to me like good value in the

tuition department. His preface alone is worth the money for anyone who might

wish to go forth and do likewise.

And one of these days, I suppose we’ll have a President. Who

it will be, knows God. Whoever it is, God help us!