No Matter Who Wins, The President Will Be a Bastard

The campaign was a minuet performed by robots; the post-election period is a bacchanal. What a relief. It's just too bad one of these mediocre men has to win. But the good news is that the victor will be perceived by much of the population as illegitimate. And that is not only as it should be, but how it would have been, even without the post-election crisis.

Bush and Gore's campaigns were full of sound and lack of fury, signifying nothing but focus group pandering and the power of cash; the process by which they were chosen had little to do with the "will of the people"; and the platforms on which they ran were as calculated and artificial as plastic topiary.

The system has long been in thrall to the big money that sponsors and choreographs the electoral show. This time however, the process spun out of control at a crucial moment. Suddenly millions at home, and abroad where America has flogged its system as a flawless model, see that the way "the world's greatest democracy" chooses leaders is slightly more democratic than a dog fight.

With all the rubbernecking magnetism of a 10-car pile up, "The Battle for the White House," as MSNBC packages its coverage, is not only good dirty fun, it is, actually, good for the country, especially compared with the inevitable denouement: installing either of these corrupted ciphers in the oval office.

In fact, the longer the crisis continues, the better it is. That the US electoral system is flawed and unfair should hardly be news, but suddenly it is. Sounding sillier than a Dan Rather simile, the candidates and their defense dogs have couched each self-serving maneuver as a commitment to serve the "will of the public" and as a pledge to do what is "best for the country." Is there anyone within retching distance of a TV who has failed to notice that the good of the country meshes precisely with the strategic needs of each candidate?

To call them hypocrites does disservice to true hypocrites everywhere. At least hypocrites have principles to betray. Bush and Gore are simply self-serving opportunists. Bush instantly abandoned his keystone "trust in the people" and switched his faith to machines and K-Street lawyers. His argument about the accuracy of hand counting has more holes than a West Palm Beach ballot. It also directly contradicts policies he implemented as governor. Grabbing presidential trappings, even before the votes were counted, he began compiling a transition team, meeting with advisers, calling his wife "First Lady Bush."

Gore, authentic as the Valium-calm he projects, veils his raw ambition with the desire -- discovered midway through the campaign -- to "fight for the people." Donning a Kennedyesque mantle, he frolicked gawkily at touch football while his surrogates intoned against a "rush to judgement" -- a phrase laden with the seductive scent of JFK-done-wrong, spiced with the provocative undertone of conspiracy.

Meanwhile, dueling gurus of gravitas, including two second-rate ex-secretaries of state, fertilize bouquets of network microphones with talking points.

The only thing missing from this farce is the vision of Dukakis, helmet plopped on head, in the lead tank of what the Wall Street Journal toyed with calling a coup.

The spectacle is a political junkie's OJ trial, with the verdict hinging on a mountain of law suits, a molehill of ballots, and a PR war based on who can invoke, more piously and more often, "the good of the country."

But buried in the post-vote wreckage lies a body of home truths: The Electoral College is a fundamentally elitist institution, designed from the get-go to deprive the rabble of direct control. Despite the tight races, we learned in graphic (projected round-the- clock on our TV screens) detail that every vote does not count, since every vote is not counted. Election results are inaccurate, subject to bias, and amenable to fraud. The number of people disenfranchised by spoiled, unclear, or unreadable ballots is new only in its uncharacteristic newsworthiness. Courts and public oversight bodies are often as partisan as the politicians to who they are beholden. And the very importance placed this year on absentee ballots, including those in the Armed Forces, illustrates how little importance was placed on them in the past. Far more disturbing are reports that significant numbers of people were disenfranchised because of race, arrest records and official harassment.

Throughout, the media chorus has been singing one-part harmony, from wrong calls on election night, to the interchangeable parade of experts describing the country as deeply divided, "deeply" being somehow equated with "evenly." In fact, the majority of Americans were united throughout the dreary election cycle by a lack of enthusiasm for either candidate. On election day, the half of the population that chose not to vote expressed its wishes at least as clearly as the half that did.

When the results are finalized, the lesson the pundits and politicians will inevitably and absurdly tout is that, despite the need for a few technical fixes, the system worked. A more sane conclusion would be that it didn't and that we need to scrap the Electoral College, publicly finance campaigns, give free air time to all candidates and disenfranchise corporations.

This election is one of those watershed events such as Watergate and the Vietnam War that erode public faith in the fantasy that politicians are public servants and government serves the people. Despite the vigorous spindoctoring by media and politicians, most people will come away from the 2000 election convinced that the president is illegitimate. Some will understand that what is anomalous about this year is the obviousness rather than the fact of that illegitimacy. It remains to be seen whether that recognition will engender cynicism or skepticism, apathy or activism, scapegoating or radical reform.

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