Is This All Just a Pre-Wedding Spat?

  • Share
  • Read Later
A man may be odious or ordinary. But becoming president makes him suddenly splendid — or at least impressive. The magic office gives him the radiance of power. In early 1969, the Washington Post's liberal cartoonist Herblock granted to his old nemesis Richard Nixon a famous "free shave" — a fresh start, the refulgence that comes with the Oval.

On the other hand, not becoming president makes a man — in this case, two men — seem ever more ridiculous. History has gone outside the box. We don't get one prince, but two toads. Not one winner, but two losers. We react with derision and contempt.

An MSNBC reporter, Kelly Smith, reported as follows on Thursday from Crawford, Texas: "Governor George W. Bush made an appearance before reporters at his ranch today, trying to look presidential." The comics (Leno, Letterman, Comedy Central) have swarmed all over Gore and Bush, pointing and woofing at the forest of American flags arrayed behind non-presidents and non-vice presidents as they've appeared on television to wheedle and spin. The flag (reverenced as a sacred object during annual flag-burning-bill debates) turns into a cheesy stage prop for the drooling suitors.

Becoming president should be a transformation upward — the start of the honeymoon. What we see now are two transformations downward — not only no honeymoon, but the vicious opposite of romance of any kind. E-mail flies around the Web to the effect that 1) George W. Bush is infinitely stupider than we had ever thought, or 2) Al Gore is a cheating weasel, weirder than anyone suspected during the campaign. On the radio, Don Imus foams at the mouth impartially, ranting about both men.

Don't let daylight in upon magic, as Bagehot said of the monarchy. The post-election has scrambled the dynamic. A ritual transfer of power should go this way: We fight through a messy, noisy campaign, we line up in an orderly fashion to choose one candidate or the other, and then we reconcile ourselves to the choice and feel relief that we can forget about it. Now there is no relief. The mess that should have ended has followed us in to Thanksgiving dinner, and may be threatening Christmas.

But consider the brighter side of derision. Look at this fiasco optimistically. Could it be that we are getting all the nastiness out of our systems BEFORE the inauguration (whoever the inauguree may be) and that once one of these clowns is anointed prince, we will (precisely because of the ordeal of denigration he has endured) embrace him, and, all hatred spent, sail serenely and bipartisanly through the next four years? (In any case, that's what I'm going to ask for when I go to see Santa in a couple of weeks.)

The election of 2000 has come with pseudo-endings, like one of the "Terminator" movies — just when you think the thing is finally dead, crushed, finished, no kidding... it rises impossibly from its own wreckage and comes after you again. When the audience finally leaves the theater, it should be all the more thoroughly purged. After we install one of these men in the White House, we may not want to think about politics again for years.