Which Shmegegi?

There has been much tsk-tsk-ing concerning the interval between Election Day and Concession Day, with pundits and talking heads asserting that the drawn-out re-count in Florida is bad for the country. Precisely why this deadlock would fit the definition of crisis remains uncertain. It’s not as though we don’t have a President; we do, though not for long–thankfully. Ours is not a parliamentary system in which the national legislature and government are dissolved in anticipation of a new election. An incumbent President and an incumbent Congress are at their posts, the country’s armed forces are not without a Commander in Chief and the mail is getting delivered. So–what’s the emergency?

In fact, the post-election campaign might actually be useful, because it is offering further insights into the character of the two would-be, could-be Presidents. And those insights are not encouraging. Regardless of the eventual outcome of the re-count and any subsequent litigation–this election might go to the Supreme Court, and perhaps it should–it seems clear that we’ve elected a shmegegi , whomever he may be.

As the long drama in Florida played out on television screens around the world, voters–many of whom seemed riveted by the spectacle of history in the making–saw not statesmanship befitting the occasion but cheap evasions, political posturing and slick public relations. The candidates themselves allowed the public to view for the most part only pre-arranged, and perhaps even poll-tested, images. There’s George W. Bush drinking coffee at the kitchen table and chatting affably with friends, with his black, female foreign-affairs adviser, Condoleeza Rice, prominently featured. There’s Al Gore playing touch football with his family, acting as though he hadn’t a care in the world. What pathetic performances. Presumably Governor Bush and the Vice President want us to think that they really aren’t on pins and needles, that they aren’t intimately involved in the back-room jockeying in Florida. Absurd.

A recent study presented to the American Psychological Association found that great Presidents tended to be stubborn and assertive–which would seem to bode well for either Mr. Gore or Mr. Bush. But the study also found that great Presidents tended to be interested in art and beauty; the spectacle in Florida is artless and unattractive.

Meanwhile, the two camps have dispatched a couple of retreads in James Baker III and Warren Christopher to make their leaders’ arguments to the viewing public. The sound of Mr. Baker pleading for court intervention to prevent a re-count by hand in the disputed Florida counties brought back chilling memories of his stewardship over the State Department during Bush I. This was the man, remember, who made the case for the Persian Gulf War by saying it was all about jobs. What an uplifting moment in the annals of American diplomatic and military history! Mr. Baker is to political argument what Jack Benny was to the violin. If there’s a wrong note to sound, he’ll find it.

For his part, Mr. Christopher mumbles his way through the proceedings, looking at times like a senior citizen trying to come to terms with a butterfly ballot. Worse still is Mr. Gore’s campaign manager William Daley, who manages to keep a straight face as he talks about voter fraud on a scale unknown to American history. Mr. Daley, of course, is the son of the late Chicago mayor, Richard Daley, whose skills as a political operator were of Biblical proportions. Actually, Daley put those New Testament miracles to shame: Lazarus, after all, rose from the dead but once. Had he lived and died in Chicago, he would have been resurrected several times in accordance with the Daley machine’s needs.

Here in New York, the Presidential deadlock has offered a glimpse into the character of our Senator-elect. Again, the view is not encouraging. Hillary Rodham Clinton, not a week into her new role as an elected official, announced to an uncaring world that she believed the Electoral College ought to be disbanded. “I’ve always thought we had outlived the need for an Electoral College,” she said. And now that she is about to become a U.S. Senator, well, she can put her thoughts into action! “I am going to try to do what I can to make clear that the popular vote, the will of the people, should be followed,” she vowed. But what if the people believe the Electoral College serves a useful purpose? Not to worry–Senator-elect Clinton knows what’s best for you. She’ll come up with a wonderful reform package and cure the nation’s political system, just as she cured our health-care crisis.

So, thanks to our prolonged electoral nightmare, we know a little bit more about Al Gore, George W. Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Come January, when two of these three people will be sworn into office, we’ll be able to look forward not to a new beginning, but to a continuation of the last eight years–a time when spin, image and mendacity are everything, and when statesmanship, patriotism and the national interest are just words from a bygone era.