History

Presidential Blowup

In an election more obscure than an Antonioni film, Bill Clinton's real legacy comes into focus.

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While the finale ultimo of the presidential race has yet to be staged, there's every indication it will be a Busby Berkeley-type production number, possibly featuring the U.S. Supreme Court, heated accusations of voter fraud ("irregularities" in the new parlance) and civil rights violations, and enough vitriol and acrimony to irradiate the White House at least through the 2004 presidential campaign. Florida's contested ballots (and 25 electoral votes) have yet to be counted definitively, New Mexico has recently flip-flopped from one candidate to another, and possible challenges loom in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Oregon, states where Al Gore's leads number only in the small thousands.

A million absentee ballots in California are yet to be tallied, threatening the vice president's roughly 210,000 lead in the national popular vote. As Sunshine State citizens stage rallies noisy enough to disrupt vote recounts, pundits are spinning out ever more lurid and ludicrous scenarios, including ones in which Joe Leiberman becomes Bush's vice president and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) gets sworn in as president of the U.S. next January.

With each passing hour, the election seems less and less a routine exercise in democracy and more and more like a wild script directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Antonioni's famous 1966 film Blowup follows the adventures of a fashion photographer in Swinging London who, while taking random pictures in a park, may or may not have photographed a murder being committed. During the course of the film, the photographer enlarges his pictures in hopes of clarifying the details but finds instead that everything just gets murkier. Antonioni's film invited audiences to study ambiguous photographic images until they became random collections of dots on a page, effectively devoid of any definitive meaning.

So it is with Campaign 2000, where we are confronted with an uncomfortable but unavoidable truth: Ideological spinmeisters aside, there is no absolutely good vote count available in this election. Given the number of votes cast nationwide and the slim margins separating Gore and Bush, either candidate could plausibly be declared the winner of the popular vote or the electoral vote. What's more, because neither candidate will end up with even 50 percent of the popular vote, whoever is declared the winner will disappoint more than half of all voters (not to mention the whopping 49 percent of eligible voters who didn't bother to cast a ballot this time around). Both the Bush and Gore teams have implored the other to be "statesmanlike" and to concede the election rather than put the nation through the unseemly spectacle of watching two men who desperately want to be president actually duke it out to the bitter end. (The argument that the other should just quit for the good of the country, needless to say, cuts both ways equally.)

Out of circumstance and necessity, hard math has been replaced with what George W. Bush would no doubt call its fuzzy cousin. This is particularly true in Florida, where election officials in select counties have ordered "manual recounts" and are poring over paper ballots for a third count, this one by hand, trying to "divine" the intentions of voters from incorrectly or imperfectly completed ballots. Are those all-important and damnable "chads," the perforated squares on punch-card ballots that voters are supposed to knock out with a metal stylus, "hanging," "pregnant," or merely "dimpled"? What if anything do those different conditions indicate vis a vis voter intent? Apart from fears of conscious post-vote tampering, could the ballots be affected simply by repeated handling? Particularly in overwhelmingly Democratic Palm Beach County, where the number of disputed ballots has ranged as high as 30,000, the manual recounts are plainly an exercise in political projection: The ballots are essentially Rorschach blots and no one doubts that the Gore supporters in charge of the process will "see" enough new votes to help their candidate declare victory.

Yet such obvious and ideologically charged shenanigans only come into serious play in elections that are close to begin with, and Florida is certainly that, with the race separated by a few hundred votes out of more than 6 million cast. That the first count, conducted by those "nonpartisan" but error-prone machines that Bush adviser and former Secretary of State James Baker thinks so highly of, differed dramatically from the first automated recount merely underscores the absolute lack of accuracy in such matters.

This presidential race, then, is not so much a political crisis as an epistemological one. It is a dead heat that forces us to admit that reality is, in the end, ambiguous and that politics are always in play in its very definition.

Which is to say that, whoever ends up in the White House next year, Campaign 2000 is a fitting final tribute to Bill Clinton. Consistently throughout his two terms, the guarantor of the "most ethical administration" in U.S. history has asked, or perhaps insisted, that we puzzle over seemingly self-evident words and deeds such as the definitions of "is" and "sex" until everything solid dissolves into air, until reality, common sense, and anything like plain facts are themselves totally up for grabs and subject to ubiquitous "spin" and an all-out "permanent campaign."

As the man from Hope finally exits 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in January (we can be reasonably sure—though perhaps not as certain as we'd like to be—that this will indeed happen), his true legacy may be that he has supercharged the nation with a thoroughgoing skepticism toward elected officials and politics in general. While it is an old joke that politicians are liars and scoundrels, Clinton set a new standard for open and ultimately acceptable mendacity with his finger-waving disavowals (he didn't have sexual relations with that woman), grotesque distortions (the Branch Davidians killed at Waco were simply "some religious fanatics [who] murdered themselves"), and self-serving historical assessments (the House Republicans should "apologize" to the country for impeaching him, his survival of which, incidentally, he says was one of the great triumphs of his presidency).

It is something of a national parlor game to debate the exact moment when the United States "lost its innocence" as a nation, when we had to finally grant that perhaps we were not immune from the fallen state we ascribe to every other country on Earth. Many people shy away from our obviously darker historical episodes, such as the incorporation of the three-fifths clause in the Constitution or Andrew Jackson's forced resettlements of native Americans, in favor of relatively light moments, such as the game show scandals of the 1950s. The Clinton years have provided a fresh supply of new material to kick around the discussion, including the suspiciously timed and never-justified bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory on the eve on Monica Lewinsky's grand jury testimony, the launching of an air strike on Iraq just before the House's impeachment vote, and the spectacle of feminists such as Gloria Steinem, who upon helping to run lecherous lush Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) from office, quickly articulated a "one-free grope policy" to explain away alleged sexual improprieties on the part of the president.

Through his routinely Jesuitical pronouncements and actions, Clinton has managed to lower the bar on cynicism regarding those wielding power. In a post-Nixon age, that is no small achievement and must rank right up there with Clinton's three truly singular accomplishments: signing a major welfare-reform bill that has helped put poor Americans on the road to self-sufficiency, overseeing an ostensible balancing of the federal budget, and delivering both houses of Congress to the Republicans for the first time since the Eisenhower era. We might add one achievement to that tally: By failing to ever win a majority of the popular vote and by overreaching legislatively so dramatically in his first term that he became a minority president, he has arguably sped along the death of the imperial presidency.

To be sure, the outgoing president is not solely responsible for the generally heightened levels of scrutiny and cynicism directed at politicians. Far from it. Pathological Clinton haters aside, he had more than little a little help from outspoken, sanctimonious, and hypocritical Republican critics such as family man cum phone-sex addict Rep. Bob Livingston, anti-abortion adulterer Rep. Henry Hyde, and Indiana Rep. Dan Burton, who memorably called the president a "scumbag," an epithet that would seem to apply equally to the congressman himself, who fathered and then failed to support an illegitimate child.

Though many worry about the corrosive effects of such cynicism, it's not necessarily a horrible thing. To the extent that such cynicism acts as a hedge on political power, and not merely as an excuse for its abuse, it is all to the good. Put slightly differently: We've yet to know whether the Clinton presidency was an anomaly or a precedent. Regardless of who ends up being seated as president come January, we will find out soon enough.