The Vice President to Richard Nixon and bribe-taker to many, Spiro Agnew, was once inspired to say, "The United States, for all its faults, is still the greatest nation in the country." Today, even in the wake of the Supreme Court's purloining of the election for the forty-third President, Spiro must be standing tall among his fellow shades. Have we not come through, yet again? As we did in 1888 when Grover Cleveland's plurality of the popular vote was canceled by the intricacies of the Electoral College, and as we even more famously did in 1876 when the Democrat Samuel Tilden got 264,000 more votes than the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, whose party then challenged the votes in Oregon, South Carolina, Louisiana and–yes, that slattern Florida. An electoral commission chosen by Congress gave the election to the loser, Hayes, by a single vote, the result of chicanery involving a bent Supreme Court Justice appointed by the sainted Lincoln. Revolution was mooted but Tilden retired to private life and to the pleasures of what old-time New Yorkers used to recall, wistfully, as one of the greatest collections of pornography in the Gramercy Park area of Manhattan.
Until December 12, we enjoyed a number of quietly corrupt elections, decently kept from public view. But the current Supreme Court, in devil-may-care mood, let all sorts of cats out of its bag–such as a total commitment to what the far right euphemistically calls family values. Justice Antonin Scalia–both name and visage reminiscent of a Puccini villain–affirmed family values by not recusing himself from the Bush-Gore case even though his son works for the same law firm that represented Bush before the Court. Meanwhile, Justice Clarence Thomas's wife works for a far-right think tank, the Heritage Foundation, and even as her husband attended gravely to arguments, she was vetting candidates for office in the Bush Administration.
Elsewhere, George W. Bush, son of a failed Republican President, was entrusting his endangered Florida vote to the state's governor, his brother Jeb.
On the other side of family values, the Gore clan has, at times, controlled as many as a half-dozen Southern legislatures. They are also known for their forensic skill, wit, learning–family characteristics the Vice President modestly kept under wraps for fear of frightening the folks at large.
American politics is essentially a family affair, as are most oligarchies. When the father of the Constitution, James Madison, was asked how on earth any business could get done in Congress when the country contained a hundred million people whose representatives would number half a thousand, Madison took the line that oligarchy's iron law always obtains. A few people invariably run the show; and keep it, if they can, in the family.
Finally, those founders, to whom we like to advert, had such a fear and loathing of democracy that they invented the Electoral College so that the popular voice of the people could be throttled, much as the Supreme Court throttled the Floridians on December 12. We were to be neither a democracy, subject to majoritarian tyranny, nor a dictatorship, subject to Caesarean folly. John Adams said we were to be a nation of laws, not men, which has since boiled down to a nation of lawyers, not people–or, at least, of people who count or get counted in elections.
Another cat let out of the bag is the Supreme Court's dedication to the 1 percent that own the country. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor couldn't for the life of her see why anyone would find the butterfly ballot puzzling. The subtext here was, as it is so often with us, race. More votes were invalidated by aged Votomatic machines in black districts than in white. This made crucial the uncounted 10,000 Miami-Dade ballots that recorded no presidential vote. Hence the speed with which the Bush campaign, loyally aided and abetted by a 5-to-4 majority of the Supreme Court, invented a series of delays to keep those votes from ever being counted because, if they were, Gore would have won the election. Indeed he did win the election until the Court, through ever more brazen stays and remands, with an eye on that clock ever ticking, delayed matters until, practically speaking, in the eyes of the five, if not all of the four, there was no longer time to count, the object of an exercise that had sent trucks filled with a million ballots from one dusty Florida city to the next, to be kept uncounted.
During this slow-paced comedy, there was one riveting moment of truth that will remain with us long after G.W. Bush has joined the lengthening line of twilight Presidents in limbo. On the Wednesday before the Thursday when we gave thanks for being the nation once hailed as the greatest by Agnew, the canvassing board in Dade County was, on the orders of the Florida Supreme Court, again counting ballots when an organized crowd stormed into the county building, intimidating the counters and refusing to give their names to officials. The Miami Herald, a respectable paper, after examining various voting trends, etc. concluded that Gore had actually carried Florida by 23,000 votes. The Herald plans to examine those much-traveled ballots under Florida's "sunshine" law. I suspect that the ballots and their chads will be found missing.
Thanksgiving came and went. The ballots toured up and down the Florida freeways. Gore was accused of trying to steal an election that he had won. The black population was now aware that, yet again, it had not been taken into account. There had been hints. Under Florida law, anyone with a criminal record–having been convicted of a felony–loses all civil rights. Thousands of blacks were so accused and denied the vote; yet most so listed were not felons or were guilty only of misdemeanors. In any case, the calculated delays persuaded two of the four dissenting judges that there was no time left to count.
Justice John Paul Stevens, a conservative whose principal interest seems to be conserving our constitutional liberties rather than the privileges of corporate America, noted in his dissent: "One thing, however, is certain. Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law."
What will the next four years bring? With luck, total gridlock. The two houses of Congress are evenly split. Presidential adventurism will be at a minimum. With bad luck (and adventures), Chancellor Cheney will rule. A former Secretary of Defense, he has said that too little money now goes to the Pentagon even though last year it received 51 percent of the discretionary budget. Expect a small war or two in order to keep military appropriations flowing. There will also be tax relief for the very rich. But bad scenario or good scenario, we shall see very little of the charmingly simian George W. Bush. The military–Cheney, Powell et al.–will be calling the tune, and the whole nation will be on constant alert, for, James Baker has already warned us, Terrorism is everywhere on the march. We cannot be too vigilant. Welcome to Asunción.