After This Mess, Will It Be Amnesia or Vendetta?

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Should we divide the country in two, like Korea or Vietnam? Will Americans assemble their families, pile their belongings onto carts and push them down the interstate — long columns of grim Republicans trudging one way, and Democrats heading the other, toward a new life, relocating in a bifurcated America — a nation broken apart by the election of 2000?

Or will this moment pass? After all the hooting and fist-shaking, after all the hanging chads and pregnant-nubbin punchcards have been adjudicated, will Americans accept the verdict, whichever way it goes, and proceed with their lives? Will the waters close over this mess?

Both things will happen. Yes, the angry moment will recede. The new president will put together a unity Cabinet, with two or three tokens ostentatiously imported from the other party. The non-president will defuse tension with a good-loser, we'll-get-'em-next-time statement. At his swearing-in, the new president will sound the Jerry Ford note — our national nightmare is over, the Constitution lives. The inaugural address, heavy with the rhetoric of reconciliation, will look bravely toward the future — just as the principal did when he re-opened Colombine High School.

And yet, something important in America's internal mechanism will have been broken. The result in the next four years will be deeper bitterness and partisanship than we have seen in many years — true fury. Consider: The most divisive figure in American politics, Hillary Clinton, has just been elected to a six-year term. She's just beginning.

The American mind tends to work on one of two models — the World War II model (we are all in this together, fighting a common enemy who lives beyond the shores) or the Vietnam model (Americans divided against themselves, their own worst enemies, Yin loathing Yang). Why should it be a surprise that the first election pitting the immense and divided Vietnam generation against itself should result in fratricidal fiasco? Who should wonder that, in the fullness of time, "Ozzie and Harriett," the paradigm of the American '50s, should devolve into "Ricky and David Play Cain and Abel"? The '60s endlessly recapitulate themselves. We even have the elders (in this case James Baker and Warren Christopher) assuming the roles of boxing coach/enablers, as the elders did 30 years ago (Dr. Spock on the left, for example, and Dr. Kissinger on the right). The '60s is an interminable O'Neill play — a "Long Day's Journey."

Perhaps President Gore or President Bush will manage to make distinguished history in the next four years. There's something to the logic that your life can only improve after you have climbed out of a train wreck. After all, Bill Clinton managed to steam on down the track and hardly anyone seemed to remember that he'd been impeached.

Which is it to be — amnesia or vendetta? I'd say both, simultaneously, like the paradoxical stagflation of the Ford-Carter years. Although Americans' instincts will keep them in the center, they will at the same time become furiously, viciously partisan — the Democrat and the Republican each regarding the other, with refreshed loathing and contempt, as its own evil twin. A sense of vulnerability always inflames partisan rage, and what we have here, in November of 2000, is democracy working without a net. Suddenly we suspect that, if we draw back the curtain, the august, infallible Constitution may prove to be the Wizard of Oz.

That confuses people, and makes them angry — as a bitter divorce makes children angry... or their discovery that Dad is fallible, maybe pathetic, and a bit of a fraud.