Will the Public Ever Tire of This Mess?

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After delivering four of his fireside chats in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt decided he'd better give them less frequently. "The public psychology," he remarked, cannot be "attuned for long periods of time to a constant repetition of the highest note on the scale."

On the other hand, the public psychology can be attuned to the lowest note on the scale almost indefinitely. Did the public psychology ever get tired of the O. J. Simpson case, for example? Or of postmortem programming about Princess Diana and John Kennedy Jr.? In fact, the decade of the '90s, by a weird dispensation of the gods of media, poured forth a procession of such operas — not the lowest notes always, but, in any case, huge performances, one after another, starting with the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings and rolling on through tragedies like Oklahoma City and Colombine, geopolitical soap operas like Elian Gonzalez, through the surpassingly surreal business that began with Monica Lewinsky's blue dress (talk about the lowest note) and culminated in the impeachment of a president.

I have been wondering for months whether this munificence of 24/7 media in the post–Cold War, all-cable era would continue after the calendar turned over to triple zeroes. The midnight of the millennium itself, after all, came to nothing — a global anticlimax.

Had the heavenly impresarios decided to let the media sensations go dark for a while? The only thing in prospect after Elian was a presidential campaign, with an uninteresting cast of characters — at least after Alan Keyes and John McCain left the show. The suspense ended with Super Tuesday. We had our candidates. Neither possessed the slightest star quality. One of them — or so we thought — would be president. We turned our attention to an intuition that floated up from somewhere in the subconscious, a suspicion that the next big show might be a gaudily dangerous one, a financial collapse or something.

The election came. We expected that, either way, that would be would be that. The result was hard to anticipate — too close to call — but we would have a winner in the morning.

Lo. A brilliant and ingenious new show: the recount, the legal chess game, the presidentless suspense.

This business does not exactly have the Shakespearean intensity of the O. J. Simpson trial. But the historical and constitutional context is fascinating. And the cast of characters is rich.

Here, for example, is Warren Christopher, with his marvelous face, looking like an accountant in Charles Dickens, as if he had just descended from a stool in Marley's office.

And here, in surreal counterpoint, is smooth Jim Baker, who looks and talks like Danny Kaye as the Mississippi riverboat gambler in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

The show has hilarious improvisations, such as Al Gore's touch football game, shown everywhere on television. Did Mike Deaver come out of retirement (and change political parties) to coach Al and Tipper? "Think Hyannisport, 1960 — think Kennedys!" Gore gets credit for the best cynical JFK imitation since 1988, when Gary Hart would descend from his campaign plane with one hand thrust in his jacket pocket, thumb protruding, à la Jack, and walk gingerly across the tarmac, as if he had injured his back while swimming away from the wreckage of a PT boat.

I'm not sure this recount drama ascends to the plane of archetypal drama (as O.J. does, in some awful way). A story qualifies as myth if the outcome ends up in the court of the gods. This recount just winds up in court. Still, there is the ancient theme of the rivalrous brothers. And the contested prize is nothing less than the kingdom.