Unity, Vote Counts and Other Illusions

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Christmas season, 2000: Rodney King rhetoric ("Can't we all just get along?") competes with language that sounds like the runup to the Civil War.

Time to heal? Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, gives it an "or else!" reading: "Bipartisanship is not an option anymore, it is a requirement."

Jesse Jackson says the Supreme Court's action was equivalent to the Dred Scott decision — and we all know where the Dred Scott decision led. (Nonetheless, Jackson, with his demagogue's mastery of footwork, phoned the President-elect to talk unity.)

Unity-shmunity, says Rush Limbaugh. All afternoon as I drive south toward New York in the rain, Limbaugh hoots and brays on the radio: Men cry Peace! Peace! But there is no peace! Let sentimentalist headline writers proclaim A TIME TO HEAL. Let Chris Matthews of "Hardball" go all soft and teary at the noble Gore concession; let the New York Times' columnist Tom Friedman claim that Gore, in his concession, "took a bullet for his country."

The Maharushi will have none of it, and when two callers ask him to let up on the partisanship, at least for one day, and to think nice thoughts about what unites Americans, even after such a bitter ordeal, El Rushbo rips them a new one. The liberals, he says, are more dangerous and partisan now than ever; their way forward as a party now is to make W. fail, and the only way to deal with them is, as always, with a whip and a chair and a revolver.

I think of a privileged little scene earlier in the day in the mahogany-paneled men's locker room of a private club in Boston. Two investment bankers, plump and pink from their game of squash, stand stark naked before the large television set on the wall, tuned to CNBC. They watch the crawl of stock quotations on the screen; their brows darken, and the pink drains from their cheeks.

An attendant, a young white guy, perhaps slightly simple, walks through the locker room collecting wet, castoff towels (including the bankers') and talking to himself in a loud voice. He repeats over and over: "THEY STOLE IT FROM US! THIS COUNTRY IS GOING STRAIGHT DOWN THE TUBES!"

The naked men exchange a smile and shrug. But their look has its complexities — Bush in, market down, a towel man talking Bolshie in the sanctum.

More complicated still: Another member of the club, lounging in a jockstrap and speaking in the accents of aristocratic lockjaw, tells the towel attendant: " You're absolutely right. What's happened is a disgrace!"

Not really. The majority of the Supreme Court yanked a bad tooth that was dangerously abscessing. They rescued America from the Great Dismal Swamp. They saved the nation from an electoral Vietnam — a quagmire of open-ended, ever-deepening conflict that would have torn the country farther apart, radicalized the middle, and spilled into the streets.

Justice Breyer gave voice in his dissent to an illusion that is retailed all over America: that the votes might have been satisfactorily counted. (Yes, and the Commies will be crushed just after the Lunar New Year.) More likely, the Florida recount would have turned into a decades-long proliferation of suits and countersuits, like Dickens' Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

As newspapers and other organizations sue to obtain the ballots and do the count themselves, you will see exactly what I mean — a hundred claims and counterclaims as to what the result was, or might have been.

Seven out of the nine Justices understood what disasters of subjectivity and partisan spin — ultimately, what injustice, what unequal protection under the law — lay ahead. The Court saved the nation from going down that road.