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Jewish World Review Dec. 1, 2000 / 4 Kislev, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Just call him Al -- "IS AL HERE?'' I asked the liveried servant in the great hall.

"You mean the Count Alexis Henri Charles Maurice Clirel de Tocqueville?'' he inquired.

I had to admire his perfect mixture of mock inquiry and sheer insouciance, as French a product as a good Mouton Rothschild.

"Yeah,'' I said. "Al. I want to see him.''

"You and every other commentator on American democracy and, so to speak, culture,'' said the old retainer. "The count is in particular demand immediately after every one of your elections, and this apris- election has lasted longer than ... well, I can't think of any other that's lasted longer since the minuet of M. Tilden and M. Hayes. The count sends his sincerest regrets, as you'll note by this card. He's had to have them printed by the thousands.''

"No problem,'' I said. "His views haven't changed since he wrote 'Democracy in America,' and neither has democracy in America. At least not in essential ways. His book keeps getting issued in new translations and so does American democracy. A lot gets lost in each translation of both, but basically Al had us figured. I'd just as soon interview the book as the author. A book is, after all, the author on his best behavior.''

"Feel free,'' said the servant. "Which edition would you like me to get you?''

"I still rely on the Henry Reeve text, which is probably much too English, but I'm looking forward to reading the new Mansfield & Winthrop out of the University of Chicago. I'm hoping it'll sound more American, or at least let more of the French come through. Nothing, I'm sure can compare to de Tocqueville's original French.''

"In that case,'' said the major domo, "the count will see you now.''

The great man, his quill pen momentarily sheathed in its inkwell, greeted me with an expression unchanged since the spring of 1831, when he had stepped off the boat at Newport, R.I., for his whirlwind tour of the States.

Or maybe it was a whirlwind escape from France. He had not been on the best of terms with the new, bourgeois monarchy of Louis Philippe, the Citizen King. (Only the French would consider a citizen king a rational denouement. Call it Gallic logic.)

The young aristocrat had come by both his admiration for democracy and his suspicion of it honestly. His father had been imprisoned during the Revolution, that is, the Terror. But de Tocqueville senior wasn't executed. In Europe this passes for moderation.

Smiling slightly or perhaps not at all, M. de Tocqueville looked as he wrote -- sympathetic but detached. He was not a critic of democracy but rather aware of both its promise and dangers. He urged his countrymen to welcome democracy, for they had no choice, but to be aware of its subtler tyranny, which was not at all the kind they were used to in Europe.

"What's the latest vote count in Florida?'' the count asked, as interested in America as ever.

"Your guess is as good as mine,'' I replied authoritatively. "Do you want the first count, the recount, the manual count, the next count, the Democratic or Republican count, the certified count, the contested count, or the alternate counts? You want chads with that? It's all pretty no-count to me. But shouldn't I be the one asking you the questions? Your answers are so much better than mine. I'd like to know why you think this election has been turned over to the lawyers.''

The great sage sighed a great sigh, as if he'd gone into all this before. "Scarcely any political question arises in the United States,'' he said patiently, "that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question.'' (''Democracy in America,'' Volume I, Chapter XVI.)

"How serious do you think this continuing cat fight over the presidency will turn out to be?'' I asked. "Could it amount to a constitutional crisis? And what do you think of our presidential elections in general?''

The count paused and took another sip of the port he'd offered me. The wine seemed older and far more passionate than my host. For he was a remarkably youthful man for such a sage. But then he wasn't even 26 when he visited America -- on the pretext of studying our prisons but with the real intention of studying our freedoms. At last he spoke:

"The political circumstances under which the elections have been carried on have not as yet caused any real danger,'' he said. "Still, the period of the election of the President of the United States may be considered as a crisis in the affairs of the nation. ... For a long while before the appointed time has come, the election becomes the important and, so to speak, the all-engrossing topic of discussion. Factional ardor is redoubled, and all the artificial passions which the imagination can create in a happy and peaceful land are agitated and brought to light. ...

"As the election draws near, the activity of intrigue and the agitation of the populace increase, the citizens are divided into hostile camps. Each of which assumes the name of its favorite candidate; the whole nation glows with feverish excitement; the election is the daily theme of the press, the subject of private conversation, the end of every thought and every action, the sole interest of the present.

"It is true that as soon as the choice is determined, this ardor is dispelled, calm returns, and the river, which had nearly broken its banks, sinks to its usual level; but who can refrain from astonishment that such a storm should have arisen?'' (''Democracy in America,'' Volume I, Chapter VIII.) "But why hasn't the flood yet subsided this election year?'' "In the United States,'' my host patiently explained, "the majority governs in the name of the people ... . This majority is principally composed of peaceable citizens, who, either by inclination or by interest, sincerely wish the best for of their country. But they are surrounded by the incessant agitation of parties, who attempt to gain their cooperation and support.'' (''Democracy in America,'' Volume I, Chapter IX.) With that, I excused myself, not wishing to trouble Al any longer. His perspective was just what I needed. The guy really should write a book.

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