A Millennial Tremor

The closest presidential election in American history creates some real shock waves.


NASHVILLE - “Mahzel!” Meaning it’s in the hands of the fates. “Or, as we say, God,” added Rabbi Israel Deren of Stamford, Connecticut, slumping on a couch in the lobby of the downtown Sheraton Hotel in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, as uncertain as any of the rest of us about what had happened in the 2000 presidential race-- which, not so coincidentally, was undeniably on the cusp of a new, and to judge by the evidence at hand , extraordinary millennium.

Rabbi Deren was in town as a friend and spiritual counselor to the family of Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, whom he expected to be spending time with later that morning. What would he say? Among other things, he would almost certainly include that once and future staple “Mahzel tov!” The Hebrew word “tov” means “good,” more or less, and the two words together are often interpreted as expressing a sentiment rather common and ordinary: “Good luck.” In reality, they signify more than that-- something like: May the Almighty lead you safely through this wilderness of doubt and uncertainty. In the case at hand, anyhow.

For wilderness it was, although the uncertainty hadn’t been apparent right away. Another Lieberman friend, Memphis’ Pace Cooper, the Connecticut senator’s cousin-in-law, was at the Vanderbilt Loew’s Plaza Hotel early Tuesday evening, attending a party for his illustrious near-relation when all the networks, hardly minutes after the East Coast precincts had closed down, declared on the basis of their projections that Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore and Lieberman were the winners of Florida’s 25 electoral votes. And, as Florida went (all the pundits had been telling us for weeks) so would go the election. (Right. Cometh the storyteller’s clichŽ: ÔLittle did they know. . . .’)

The war whoops had gone up right away. And Lieberman, his now-famous toothy grin (a warmer version of Jimmy Carter‘s) extended all the way out, shouted, “Give us Florida and we’ll take care of the rest of it!” In short order the networks gave Gore and Lieberman Michigan, Illinois . . .then Pennsylvania.

It looked like a Democratic rout. That was then. Now is now, with time and space warps, deconstructions, and various other post-modernist phenomena having come in between.

Not only do we not know who the next president of the United States is, we have no idea for certain of when we will know the identity of that worthy. For all we know, since the same rain is still coming down that began falling on Nashville and much of the rest of the country at about 2 a.m.-- when the outcome had become decidedly, er, cloudy-- we are in for 40 days and 40 nights of uncertainty.

Even after 99.9 percent of the nation’s voters had spoken for the record, the gremlins in the nation’s political machinery, which had begun doing their damage even before the Western states had finished voting, had made the 2000 presidential election moot.

What happened in Florida merely symbolized what was going on in the nation at large. First, the state’s electoral votes were taken out of the Gore column (“Computer error,” we were told); then we heard about a horrendously misleading ballot that had led an indeterminate number of senior Floridians to vote for Pat Buchanan (of all people!) when they thought they were voting for Gore. Then the absentee still needed to be counted; the military vote was yet to be heard from. Etc., etc. And the final margin for Bush, which had caused him at one point to be declared the winner, was small enough Ð even if genuine Ð to fall within a recount provision mandated by the state of Florida.

So here we are, waiting for those Florida votes to be counted. A three-member panel--including Bush’s brother, Florida governor Jeb Bush and Gore state campaign chairman Bob Butterworth - will oversee a recounting that goes even as you read these words and will continue, it seems possible, for days afterward. (Bulletin: Gov. Bush has removed himself from the supervisory body.)

Not only is the presidential election in doubt. So is the venerable institution of the electoral college, sure to be called into question (early expectations that Gore might lead in the electoral college and trail in the popular vote were stood on their head; substitute the word “Bush”); and so is the nature of third-party politics in a picture irrevocably clouded by the presence on key states’ ballots of the Green Party’s Ralph Nader. One more argument against the venerable electoral college, which ensures that only the two major parties, which depend on broadly based coalitions, can predominate in a nationalelection, while the Naders of the world (or the Perots of yore) are doomed to the role of spoiler.

(Brother Ralph, whose left-of-center appeal presumably drew off potential Gore voters in several crucial states, including Florida, might be well advised to stay away from organized bodies of Democrats. A Nader sign-bearer on the rim of Nashville’s War Memorial Plaza was harassed in mid-morning, while more vehement picketers, calling for the reign of the Ten Commandments or the ruin of plutocrats, were left pretty much alone.)

Oh, there are some things that we can count on as definite-- nationally, that the victory of Hillary Clinton in New York’s Senate race ensures the continuance of the Age of Clinton (if Gore goes out of the picture, the president’s wife is sure to be a presidential candidate in 2004; that the Senate and the House are virtually balanced between the Republicans and the somewhat renascent Democrats; that a dead man (Missouri Governor and Senate candidate Mel Carnahan) can win an election in Missouri; that, regardless of the final vote tally, there ain’t gonna be no $1.3 trillion tax cut nor any extensive revamping of Social Security or Medicare.

Locally and statewide, some sure things occurred as predicted,: the easy victory of U.S Senator Bill Frist over Democratic challenger Jeff Clark; the return to office of all the state’s incumbent Members of Congress; the easy win of state Senator Jim Kyle (District 28, Frayser-Raleigh) over perennial candidate Rod DeBerry; the equally expected triumph of the GOP’s Paul Stanley over Democrat Shea Flinn in the heavily Republican state House District 96 (East Memphis, Germantown, Cordova).

Somewhat surprising results: the utter wipeout of the state Republican Party’s heavily financed assault on eight incumbent Democratic Senate seats ( besides Kyle’s victory, there was Lt. Gov. John Wilder‘s romp over Savannah Mayor Bob Shutt); the defeat of two-term Memphis School Board incumbent Bill Todd by hard-working Wanda Halbert , one of a five-member field of challengers in the At-Large race; the rejection of incumbent Edward Vaughan in a district board race (the simultaneous turning-out of Frayser/Raleigh’s controversial Jim Brown was expected); the strong (33 percent) showing by doughty Democrat Flinn in a district that is Republican to the core.

One local race actually paralleled the national results: the defeat of Democratic nominee John Freeman by Republican Tom Leatherwood in the race for county register. Just as their national counterparts were-- but to a more substantial degree-- local Democrats were divided; a sizeable faction went to independent Otis Jackson, enough so that Leatherwood was able to squeeze through to victory. The background of that factionalism was two-fold; anti-Ford Democrats resented the nominee’s ties to the long dominant party clan, while partisans of former University of Memphis basketball coach Larry Finch remained unplacated after their man’s defeat by Freeman in a local party conclave (Jackson was, perhaps not coincidentally, a former U of M cage star.)

Another certainty confirmed by this election: As a political bloc, Tennessee now seems irrevocably anchored to the Republican cause. The state-- which already possesses a Republican governor, two GOP senators, and a majority of the Tennessee congressional delegation - went for Bush in this election by almost 80,000 votes. Surely a feather in the cap of 7th District congressonal wannabe David Kustoff, the Memphis lawyer who ran the Texas governor’s statewide campaign. And a potential obstacle to the ambitions of state Democratic chairman Doug Horne, who wants to run for governor in 2002 but confided to a friend during the evening that the loss of Tennessee to the Bush column might “reflect” on him.

A West Tennessee mayor who was rubbernecking in Nashville had commented bitterly during the period between Bush’s apparent victory and the invoking of Florida’s recount provision that Gore had brought the statewide debacle on himself by failing to maintain contact with state party cadres. Maybe so, maybe no. (If anything is clear about the vice president and Democratic standard-bearer, it is that he has, and no doubt will forever have, a deficit in what is often called “people skills.”) But Gore probably should not be blamed for a result which is so clearly part of a long-term statewide tendency. Even the legislature of Tennessee, still under the nominal control of the Democrats but stiff-neckedly resistent to the current Republican governor’s call for tax reform , is conservative enough to pass for Republican by the standards of almost any other state.

Another sign of the gap between the parochial concerns of Tennessee Democrats and those of their partymates elsewhere: Troy Colbert, director of the Democrats’ state Senate campaign committee, was asked for his reaction in the interval when Bush appeared a sure winner nationally. “We didn’t lose a single Senate seat. I feel great!”he answered.

In Shelby County, where Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and former U.S. Representative Harold Ford Sr. made a point of suspending their legendary rivalry to work in apparently unfeigned harmony on behalf of the national ticket, Gore-Lieberman prevailed by some 50,000 votes over the Republican ticket of Bush and Dick Cheney. That was the same margin that carried Shelby for Bill Clinton and Gore in 1996 and a a majority identical to that which won Tennessee that year for the Democratic ticket. (Clearly, the Middle Tennessee bailiwick of the state Democratic Party-- last bastion of the old post-Civil War “Solid South”-- is not what it once was.)

The Shelby County Democrats’ concerted activity was successful and sustained enough to have accounted at last partly for the School Board victory of Halbert, technically an independent but one who campaigned side-by-side with the party’s nominees. And it would have doomed Leatherwood countywide had not the aforementioned schism between Democratic voters undermined Freeman’schances.

As Democrats look ahead to their next major contests with Republicans, in 2002, they are likely to do so with some measure of true optimism.

On Wednesday afternoon, Gore-- understandably fatigued-looking but clearly composed and even hopeful - appeared before the media hordes lingering in Nashville to make a brief statement. After thanking the 50 million Americans who had voted for himself and running mate Lieberman and congratulating Americans for turning out in such significant numbers to vote, the vice president said, “We now need to resolve this election in a way . . . .consistent with our Constitution and our laws.”. The recount and other issues “must be resolved expeditiously” but, he noted pointedly, with all due deliberation and “without any rush to judgment,”

With obvious satisfaction, the vice president noted that he had prevailed in the popular vote but called for Americans to respect the electoral-college results as the key to who would be the next president.

As it happened, any number of schemes were being floated calling for the abolition of the electoral college or the tampering with it or the renunciation of its verdict by Bush, who remained the putative ultimate winner.

It would take a while for Americans, deprived of sleep and an immediate resolution, to decide how they felt about the arcane system by which they had chosen a president-- or, more properly speaking, had so far failed to choose one But for all the problems with the nation’s political system which were highlighted by this freak millennial election, all one had to do was look around at the teeming tribes of foreign journalists gathered in Nashville to see traces of admiration in their faces for so fair and uncompromising a process-- still the envy of the world.

Meanwhile, the recount.

Meanwhile, mahzel tov.

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