Chad and Jeremiad

Ideological grotesques? Power-hungry pols? Nattering pundits? What's not to like about the presidential election?


Some time between the evening of November 7, when the major news channels prematurely ejaculated that Al Gore had won Florida (and, effectively, the White House), and the wee small hours of the next morning, when the same Quick Draw McGraws mistakenly fingered George W. Bush as our next commander-in-chief, Campaign 2000 morphed from a political crisis into an epistemological one. In doing so, the Presidential Dyslection continued the signal trend of the 1990s: a deep-seated skepticism that erodes faith in what was once quaintly called "reality."

While the ensuing telethon of hydrocephalic partisans and other ideological grotesques nattering about who actually won in the Sunshine State has been as bloody and enjoyable as a pickup game of Rollerball, it has also skirted the basic truth of the matter: Given the total volume of votes cast and the numbers separating the two leading candidates, either Gush or Bore (er, Gore or Bush) can plausibly contend that he alone incarnates the will of the people in a state previously best known as the site of Burt Reynolds's defunct dinner theater and Anita Bryant's crusade against gays. The same indeterminacy, of course, applies to the national count, which has the Vice President leading the Texas governor by about 230,000 votes out of a total of more than 100 million cast.

Hard-truth time: There is simply no way to measure accurately such a minuscule and statistically insignificant difference, especially when human error and duplicity are factored into the equation. As that wag Joe Stalin put it in a slightly different context, "The people who vote decide nothing; the people who count the vote decide everything." The presidential race, it turns out, was not simply an intellectual dead heat but an electoral one to boot, an event that forces us to admit that reality is brutally ambiguous and that politics is always at play in its definition.

But wait, there's more. As the on-again, off-again manual recounts in Florida — the sloppiest handjobs conducted in those parts since Pee Wee Herman's 1991 toss-off in a Sarasota porno theater — underscore, we are absolutely right to be skeptical of all claims of certitude and accuracy as self-interested and dubious. Lord have mercy, we have entered a spin zone so all-encompassing and cyclonic that even Fox News Channel personality and Lord High Executioner of all that is good, bad, and completely ridiculous in American life, Bill O'Reilly, has been left stammering on occasion. What can you say about a national moment so odd that union-busting leftist Michael Moore's pathetic and grotesque characterization of Palm Beach County's butterfly ballot as the finale ultimo of the Holocaust is simply representative of campaign-related commentary?

The more we puzzle over the details of the most basic data points at play in the election (e.g, those incompletely filled-out paper ballots) and the questions they raise (e.g., will the profligate Swinging Chad ever make an honest vote out of Pregnant Chad?), the less clear anything becomes. The national election has thus become a version of Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film, Blowup, in which David Hemmings plays a photographer in Swinging London who may or may not have captured a murder on film; as Hemmings enlarges his ambiguous photos in hopes of clarifying their details, everything just gets murkier and murkier, until we are left only with vague dots on the page. (Ironically, Antonioni's grasp on reality may have been as weak as that of his protagonist: In at least one telling of the tale, the director mistook the Yardbirds for The Who when he hired them to appear in the movie. After the band finished performing, he asked them when they were going to smash up their instruments.)

If nothing else, the presidential race has certainly become as tedious as Blowup. Just as fab sex romps featuring David Hemmings can't fully carry a nearly 2-hour-long meditation on being and nothingness, bizarre propaganda shots by Gore and Bush can't fully carry an unnaturally elongated electoral waiting period. But as we wait to see whether former wrestling coach Dennis Hastert will end up vying with mummifed Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond for the Oval Office in January (the election of a dead man to the Senate in Missouri having removed the last possible barrier to Thurmond's serving), Antonioni's mod chestnut seems remarkably prescient — though Campaign 2000 is very much a '90s sort of happening.

As a decade, the still unnamed 1990s were characterized by nothing so much as high-profile controversy after controversy in which either the basic facts themselves were called into question or apparent reality was refuted by nonstop "spin." Hence, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's 1991 Senate confirmation hearings ultimately hinged on unproven (and perhaps unproveable) He Said/She Said charges every bit as unseemly as the contemporaneous Kevin Bacon movie that may have inspired the attack in the first place. Was the footage of L.A. cops beating the hell out of Rodney King an example of good police work, as the jury in the first trial, and an appalling number of regular citizens, concluded after defense attorneys broke it down for them frame by frame? Similarly, did the film of various rioters braining Reginald Denny in the mayhem that followed that verdict adequately identify the luckless trucker's assailants (juries split on this question)?

What to make of the "thermal imaging" shots from the government's assault on Waco — does the haunting infrared footage show anything conclusive, or is it simply a high-tech Rorschach test of an individual's attitude toward the government (and religious freaks)? Did L.A. cops monkey with evidence to frame O.J. Simpson for a crime he may have committed anyway? What to make of the impassioned pleas by the Juice's attorneys, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufield, that the seemingly incontrovertible DNA evidence — the stuff they routinely rely on to free innocent defendants in other situations — was useless crap in this case? Was the gun pointed at Elian Gonzalez, or just at Donato Dalrymple (who technically may not have been a fisherman)? Everything solid, it seemed, dissolved into air, during the decade.

Literally presiding over the '90s, of course, was Bill Clinton, who from the outset openly and repeatedly distorted and dissembled regarding affairs both public and private (the Papa Bush years, he campaigned, were the grimmest economic span since the Great Depression, neatly ignoring the Stop-Stop Carter years; he never fooled around with Gennifer Flowers, tapes of him talking with her about eating her pussy to the contrary). Perhaps most famously, Clinton first guaranteed with finger-waving sanctimony that he had not had sexual relations with that woman, and then, after DNA evidence even O.J. would believe surfaced, asked us instead to meditate on the deeper meanings of common household words like "is" and "sex." More important in engendering truly faith-shattering skepticism, though, were presidential actions such as the suspiciously timed and never-justified bombings of a Sudanese aspirin factory (on the eve of Monica Lewinsky's grand jury testimony) and Iraq (on the eve of the House impeachment trial). We were taught two basic lessons in the '90s: that reality can be tricky and that people, especially powerful people, routinely exploit that trickiness in the service of personal gain. The current and seemingly endless presidential race is the graduate course in the same material and it may have the ultimately salutary effect of making skepticism as American as hot dogs and apple pie. Which is to say that Campaign 2000 is in fact teaching Americans a highly useful and relevant civics lesson, if perhaps not the one that Wolf Blitzer and other talking heads have in mind when they dilate on the "wildest election ever."

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.