Who can look less Presidential? George W. Bush’s charm has
drained away. He’s gray and his neck turtles out of his suit collar. He erupted
in boils, and the photograph he staged of his transition team looked like a
dinner-theater version of The West Wing .
But at least Mr. Bush is halfway transparent. When Al Gore
came out of the White House on Monday to talk liltingly about school children
and the democratic process, you had no idea what he was really thinking or
feeling. He grinned too much. His family touch-football game for the cameras
had the same air of bizarre artifice, like marzipan figures of the Kennedys.
And what is he bingeing on to keep all that weight when he works so hard?
It is not as if they are fighting over a principle or an
ideology; the only principle is self-interest-on one side the old guard’s dream
of restoration, on the other the meritocrat’s dream of advancement. Everyone
looks so graspy. When Lawrence Tribe showed up on the streets in Miami, then on
Larry King Live , it wasn’t to speak
of a stirring principle of civil rights. No, he was just a walking, talking
Harvard want ad for the Supreme Court.
So many of the old faces of Impeachment are assembled, with
all of Impeachment’s emotion but with none of the gripping issues of
Impeachment. One side is for holding the ball and running the clock out, the
other is for playing on, but on only one side of the field. In a sense, we are
learning now what Impeachment was about: about pure interest, one side against
another, a complex factional and cultural struggle of the urban versus the
non-urban, the new and the old. And especially now that the lawyers seem to
have dug in, it won’t go away, either. This is only the third quarter. We have
another whole bitter quarter to go, and overtime, 2004 and beyond.
Did your heart sink when you saw the red and blue map of the
United States with county-by-county results? Mine did: that sea of Republican
red across the middle of the country, the lakes and rivulets of Democratic blue
along the coasts and the upper Midwest. It showed how polarized the country is,
along deep lines coming out from the new economy and new sociology. There were
any number of ways to look at this map: the city and the country, the
Information Age and the pre-Information Age, globalization and isolation,
meritocracy and birth, and-especially in the light of Palm Beach-Jews and
blacks against Protestant whites. Jim Baker is back, and who can ever forget
Mr. Baker’s comment about the political clout of the Jews: Fuck ’em.
During Impeachment I heard people brag, “I voted for Nader
in ’96, and I’m already feeling good about my Nader vote now.” Nader voters
defy those red-blue fault lines, they are true independents who have sympathy
for both sides, a hard-core 2 percent who refused to be browbeaten out of their
vote by the Gore people.
The Gore people tried to
caricature us as elitists, presumably because Ralph Nader himself owned so much
stock in Cisco Systems Inc., but the biggest Nader vote was in Alaska, hardly
an elitist roost. Mr. Nader’s vision of America was romantic and nostalgic,
reflecting his small-town origins. He complained about the long commutes people
have just to keep up with the new economy, and seemed to believe that people
would sacrifice their standard of living for simpler lives. They won’t;
Americans like buying things too much. But Mr. Nader’s message resonated
because he had a grand passion, and the opposition had so little. Who will
lecture me about the environment while driving an S.U.V.? Who will lecture
about public schools when their kids are in private schools?
The Naderites tried to straddle the vast moral divide
between the reds and the blues. The seminal event for the reds was
Waco in ’93, and you can pile up lawyers’ reports till doomsday but it will not
remove the unease people out in the red territory feel over the government’s
actions in the deaths of 20-odd children. Blaring rock ‘n’ roll music all night
long at them during an impatient siege. The blues never cared about Waco, and
from ’93 on Democrats were supposed to tamp down all feelings of discomfort
with the administration because the economy was so good, and Bill Clinton was a
The degree of loyalty maintained by the Democratic side was
astonishing, through Impeachment and the campaign-finance scandals, the Sudan
bombing, the destruction of women’s reputations. Early on there was a contrary
example in Treasury aide Josh Steiner sharing his diaries with Congress,
diaries that undercut the official line, but Mr. Steiner was soon packing, and
the loyalty mode was established. Trash the diaries or don’t write them. Don’t
even think them. And so never during Impeachment did anyone say, “I’m
embarrassed that I served as a conduit of rumors to destroy the reputation of a
young woman-therefore I will resign.”
That red-and-blue map had already taken hold in people’s
minds, a feeling of us against them, expressed at once poignantly and
ridiculously by Barbra Streisand, who said lately of Mr. Bush, “Our whole way
of life is at stake.” She wasn’t just talking about abortion, but a whole set
of shared values about how the world works. As if they are really in danger.
The fury that Democrats turned on Mr. Nader, and then his
supporters, during the late campaign is the freshest example of those loyalty
demands. Here again they were largely successful. Mr. Nader had polled close to
5 percent and wound up with 2 percent. Much of Mr. Nader’s losses were
obviously Gore people coming home to the Democratic Party; still, it is
remarkable to compare the Nader third-party movement with Ross Perot’s and John
Anderson’s before. Those men routinely got 7 and 8 percent, even 19. Maybe
Ralph Nader’s movement was truly smaller. But the fact is that blue culture is
not really tolerant of dissent, and it hammered away at the Nader campaign
through the final weeks, effectively.
A letter by prominent progressive intellectuals caricatured
Mr. Nader as an unstable nut (“dangerous,” “wrecking ball,” “unbelievable,”
“incredible”). In The Times , Janet Malcolm compared Nader to
Roger Clemens throwing the shattered bat-head. Kate Michelman went on and on
It had the emotion of a family feud. The Nader chastisers
were always somewhat parental. But, like parents, they just didn’t get it. They
imagined that they knew what was most important to us, so they could say that
Al Gore was better on those issues. But Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore are hard to tell
apart, harder than ever. And what if your issue is corporate influence of the
political process? What if you are concerned that all the big media are owned
by big corporations, and ideas are marketed like Cheerios?
The other day, the Times
Arts & Ideas page had a deadly story (by Alexander Stille) about
progressive American intellectuals being completely ignored in the United
States while their ideas are taken up in Europe. Arguments against
bio-engineering, redistributive schemes to give every 18-year-old $14,000 to
invest in a house or education. These ideas are actively discussed in Europe
and shunned here. Because in the culture of globalization, they are heretical.
They could send the markets down. And that was always Ralph Nader’s strongest
argument: Our democratic discourse is shriveling, it has no room any more for
As a Nader voter, I feel a certain detachment now, watching
the factions, seeing the fixer Bill Daley come out with a gallows expression
vowing trench warfare and Bob Dole with his strange face lift warning about
Republicans boycotting the Inauguration. What hacks they are!
And sadly, Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush seem controlled by their
factions. If one of them were Presidential, he could lift us out of this. The
Frank Capra moment could still happen. George Bush could say, “You know what? I
lost the popular vote, and it sure looks like Florida didn’t want to vote for
me either, so I’m going to step back now and stop this mess.” He would be the
For a while on election night, George W. Bush had even
played the old-time hero who stands above the fray. When a reporter at the
governor’s mansion said that his whole future was on the line, Mr. Bush bridled.
No it isn’t! he said. My life will go on fine without this prize, he was
But that act vanished in a hurry. Now we see who he is, a
nervous Nelly with his father’s lineup card, and determined to win on a
Al Gore may still have his lofty opportunity to win by
losing. But it doesn’t look like it. Outside the White House, his relentless
smiling seemed to mask disappointment and rage. What kind of winner will he
be-how condescending-and how bitter a loser? Two princes, and not a noble drop
of blood between them.
They almost make Nixon look good. When he let go of the
Presidency, his parting words to his staff were poetic, and his wave from the
helicopter door was brave and cleansing.
Of course, that was his last act. We’re going to have both
these guys to kick around for a long time.