Steele In, Mr. Belvedere Out

In a classic SNL sketch, Chris Farley stands up at a meeting of the "Guy Who Plays Mr. Belvedere Fan Club" and delivers a halting tribute to the made-for-television British butler, concluding with this: "I think about him all the time, and … well, I’m wondering … should we kill him?"

The question is then put to a vote and fails—narrowly. Presiding over the meeting, Tom Hanks’ relieved fan club chairman says, "He lives. But the vote shouldn’t have been that close!"

No fictitious character’s life was at risk, but something similarly absurd just played out in Washington, where the Republican National Committee gathered today to choose a chairman for the next two years.

In the end, the RNC’s 168 voting members opted for the shrewdest decision at their disposal, handing the chairmanship to Michael Steele, the charismatic and media-savvy former Maryland lieutenant governor. But before doing so, they twice came close—way too close—to reaching a baffling and politically suicidal verdict.

In the first round of voting (there ended up being six), first place went to incumbent chairman Robert "Mike" Duncan, a bland Tennessean whose ruinous tenure has been highlighted by the loss of the White House, eight Senate seats, 21 House seats and a governorship. Duncan received 52 votes, to Steele’s 46, with 85 needed for a victory.

A victory for Duncan, one of the least visible G.O.P. chairmen in memory, would have sent a bizarre message to the general public: We know you’re fed up with our party, but we don’t think we need to change. Why nearly one-third of the RNC’s members would assign off on a two-year contract extension for him is beyond puzzling.

Still, 52 proved to be Duncan’s high-water mark. On the next ballot, Steele tied him at 48, and on a third ballot, the Marylander pulled ahead, 52 to 44. At that point, Duncan bowed to the inevitable and withdrew. "Obviously," he told the crowd, "the winds of change are blowing at the RNC."

Steele had finished 10 votes ahead of the third-place candidates, South Carolina’s Katon Dawson, on the second ballot. With Duncan out of the way, the time seemed right for his supporters to think pragmatically and line up with Steele. For a party that desperately needs to win a fresh look from most Americans, the election of an African-American chairman would make for a nice start.

Dawson, meanwhile, reeks of everything about the G.O.P. that the country just rejected, starting with his membership in a whites-only country club and his oddly proud declaration that he’d gotten into politics because of his opposition to busing. Especially when it’s in the opposition, the public face of a party is its chairman; the choice between Steele and Dawson, for any reasonably savvy Republican, should have been obvious.

And yet, on the fourth ballot, it was Dawson who surged into the lead, 62-60 over Steele. They weren’t actually going to reject a black guy for a member of a whites-only club, were they? In the fifth round, Steele bounced back ahead, aided by an endorsement from long-shot candidate Ken Blackwell, who ended his candidacy between ballots. But Steele was still short of victory by six votes. Then came the withdrawal of Michigan’s Saul Anzusis, who’d secured 20 votes on the fifth ballot. He declined to endorse either Steele or Dawson, but rumors had swirled all day of an informal alliance between him and Steele.

Finally, just after 4, the sixth ballot numbers were announced. By a 91-77 vote, Michael Steele had been chosen as the next chairman of the Republican National Committee.

The vote shouldn’t have been that close.