The Price of
Playing it Cool
Was the calm that followed the election a sign of an enlightened and patient public, or something worse?
by Gil Troy
|Newspaper and Journal Articles-Written||The "crisis" is over.
The anchors have gone away. With thousands of refugees
from the Northern winter swarming, Florida is gearing up
to do what it does best - and we know that does not mean
run smooth elections.
The Supreme Court decision throwing the presidency to George W. Bush is looking like a one-day story, despite initially being billed as the most controversial decision in decades. Republicans and reporters are trying to cram more than two and a half months worth of transition headlines into five and a half weeks.
In thinking over the Election That Would Not End, the Monday-morning quarterbacking has already begun. During the next weeks, months and years, we will hear much more about the key players strategies. We will continue to debate George Bushs what-me-worry? lassitude; Al Gores Im-only-doing-it-for-the-principle micromanagement; James Bakers only-courts-that-agree-with-me-are-legitimate brass knuckles aggressiveness; Jesse Jacksons lets-see-what-racial-animosities-we-can-stir demagoguery; David Boiess look-at-me-I-dont-need-any-notes lawyering; and Barry Richards I-dont-need-notes-either adjudicating.
With such a colorful cast of characters, with such intense partisan rancor, with libraries full of vindictive quotes and instant analyses, historians seem destined to retell the tale as the constitutional crisis Al Gore, Dan Rather and the overworked and over-caffeinated cable news reporters thought it was.
As with the election of 1876, historians will pore over the open clashes, the clever maneuvers, the behind-the-scenes whispering. They will try to sift out the winners and the losers and echo historian C.Vann Woodwards question about the 1877 Compromise: "Who Honeyfugled whom?"
Alas, all this focus on the action and the actors will continue to overlook one of the most striking phenomena that emerged during the so-called crisis. While political leaders, cultural leaders and even religious leaders were simultaneously whipping up hysteria and calling for calm, the American people were remarkably cool. Thanksgiving came and went with no clear victor, but with Americans far more focused on the turkeys gracing their tables than the turkeys nipping at each other in Florida.
Numerous polls showed that even though most Americans were watching the story and were obtaining advanced degrees in "chadology," the public was not that exercised about the whole thing. Most Americans were willing to wait. Most Americans had faith in the courts. And most Americans, despite misgivings about the quality of the ultimate Supreme Court decision, accepted George Bush as president. In fact, the sobriety, maturity and patience offered a most happy contrast to the herky-jerky behavior of societys supposedly mature opinion makers.
This disconnect between the people and the players is particularly jarring because of the critical role the American people played in the controversy. The round-the-clock coverage distorted the entire process. Rather than simply playing to win, candidates had to play with a finger on the pulse of the body politic. Rather than simply focusing on what was most important in the long run - victory - each campaign had to work on generating positive press coverage so that "the people," such as they are, would not "lose patience."
Watching the all-news-all-the-time coverage unfold, historians had to be struck by the contrast with 1876 - despite five weeks of promiscuous analogizing. In Reunion and Reaction, C. Vann Woodwards classic account of "the Compromise of 1877," the voice of the people is conspicuously silent.
When Woodward devotes a chapter to "the Rift in the Democratic Ranks," he focuses on party operatives and business interests. Woodward himself acknowledges the silence when he asks, "What did the South want?" Then, this masterful and honest ironist adds: "Or rather, what did the men who presumed to speak for the South want?"
A century and a quarter later, one could argue that even while many men - and women - presumed to speak for the people, Americans were hardly ignored. The coverage and the concern about the people showed that American democracy did not just work; it triumphed.
Twice in two weeks, the Supreme Court allowed the media to broadcast an audio tape of its proceedings. For the first time in American history, the usually circumspect court invited the people to hear what happens in those august chambers, although requests to televise the oral arguments were denied. The weekend after the first Supreme Court argument, many television networks broadcast the marathon mini-trial in Floridas circuit court, with a dozen lawyers arguing deep into the night about Al Gores challenge to the Florida election results.
Even after three weeks worth of arguments about hanging chads and pregnant chads, both legal arguments proved to be dense and sophisticated. Before the Supreme Court, some of Americas smartest - and most expensive - legal minds endured 90 minutes of grilling over nuanced interpretations of the U. S. Constitution, the Florida Constitution and the Florida election code.
Meanwhile, in the circuit court, the discussion was more prosaic, but no less picayune, with a parade of experts testifying to the resilience of the rubber, and the sharpness of the stylus, in the now discredited Votomatic balloting machines.
Such wonderfully tedious arguments offered eloquent testimony to the power and magic of American democracy, to the enduring commitment of American citizens to the rule of law and to the legitimacy of the Constitutional system. Alas, the constant coverage also led to great moments of buffoonery, and some critical mistakes.
The foolishness of election night, when networks called and then "uncalled" particular states, was matched the night the U.S. Supreme Court announced its final decision. Reporters already groggy from five weeks of crisis and a two-day stakeout rushed on the air the minute the court released its opinion. The opinion was complicated, but that did not stop reporters from trying to rip out instant headlines - and it did not stop anchors from demanding instant analysis from their all-too-willing pundits. More serious were the strategic miscalculations and demagogic outbursts that the constant camera scrutiny invited. Gores fear of looking like a loser in the short term led him to prolong the protest period - and thus cut into the more important contest period.
The need to win the daily spin also fired up the already inflamed players. Watching the daily march of Republicans and Democrats to the podiums, hearing their eerily parallel charges about how the other side was "stealing the election," it was easy to conclude that we are becoming a "Crossfire Nation," a fractious, polarized and quarrelsome bunch willing to scale the rhetorical ramparts at the slightest provocation. But the fact that public opinion surveys did not find the fury widespread suggests a different, and perhaps more disturbing phenomenon.
There is a fine line between maturity, sobriety and patience, and indifference, alienation and disgust. We may more likely be on the way to becoming a Couch Potato Nation, happy to watch the crossfire, rarely willing to plunge in or engage. As with President Clintons impeachment, the gap between the intensity of the partisans and the detachment of the people may be a testament to an enlightened and patient body politic.
More likely it suggests the truth of sociologist Robert Putnams warnings that we are "Bowling Alone," that Americans watch but do not engage, that we are increasingly spectators and not participants in our democracy. If true, the problems uncovered by the Florida fiasco run a lot deeper than a hanging chad here, and a dimpled chad there.
Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University in Montreal. He is the author of Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons and See How They Ran: The Changing Role of the Presidential Candidate.
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