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Jewish World Review Nov. 14, 2000 / 16 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Hail to the Chief, whoever he is -- HARRY TRUMAN knew how to do it. On election night in 1948, he took a steam bath, had a sandwich and a glass of milk, and went to bed at 8. Around midnight, he got up to hear H.V. Kaltenborn, the trilling Bernard Shaw of his time, say that, "while Mr. Trrruman is still leading, that should change when the countrrry vote comes in ... .'' Harry rolled over and went back to sleep. Victory could wait. A man needs his rest.

Commentators were calling it the closest presidential race since Humphrey-Nixon in 1968, but the lead changed hands so often and so unexpectedly that a better comparison might be Wilson-Hughes in 1916.

That year, a reporter using the latest in technology, the telephone, called Charles Evans Hughes for comment on the latest and final twist of a roller-coaster election. But the inky wretch was informed by a butler that "the president-elect has retired for the night.'' Newsmen haven't changed much. This one replied: "Well, when the president-elect wakes up, tell him he ain't president-elect any more.''

The story may be apocryphal, but the closeness of presidential races isn't. The two parties could scarcely be more evenly matched. While the presidency was being decided by a few thousand votes, Congress was being cut almost down the middle, too.

The punditry talks of a deeply divided nation, but it was hard to escape the general impression Wednesday morning of a country calmly going about its business and suffused with good sportsmanship -- even as victory statements came with escape clauses attached and concessions were taken back. The talk-show hosts seemed excited, but they always do. The People don't seem riled at all, just ready to get it over.

This complicated republic has such a depth of mediating institutions between power and people, like the Electoral College, that the one thing that seemed certain was that it would all work out, though maybe not right away.

Through the perilous night before dawn's early light, each side had known the ecstasy of triumph and agony of defeat. Several times. Both could claim a moral victory whatever the final tally and legal challenges.

The only moral defeat of the evening was registered by a couple of the networks and their exit pollsters. CNN handed what would prove decisive Florida to the Gore camp so early in the evening, the polls in the panhandle hadn't even closed.

Then the networks had to take the state back when the voters, being American, proved unpredictable. Worse than the mistake, bad as it was, was the absence of any visible sense of chagrin on the egg-covered faces of the talking heads at CNN. Forget about an apology, there wasn't even a pause in the smooth teletalk.

You'd have thought it was the people who had got it wrong. The Brits have it right: These high-priced "newsmen'' are really just news readers, parroting whatever projection they're handed.

Out in the newsroom and betting parlor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette here in the capital of Decisive Arkansas, the myth of a liberal press was reinforced by the cheer that rang out when Michigan went for Gore, and by the blank looks when Florida was snatched back. How good it is to be young. Better to cheer and despair wildly than hope only mildly.

Some of us were already playing with headlines in the tradition of New York's Daily News during those heady moments when a President Gore seemed on the verge. The obvious "Bush Gored'' lacked originality. My favorite was "Lucky Stiff.''

When the pendulum swung, as pendulums will, and tension wound down into fatalism, I suggested "Both Sides Bushed.''

All I knew for sure was that the young people now swooning and swaying with every shift in the returns -- may God give them many and healthy years -- would one day be old-timers saying, "You think this election is close? Let me tell you about 2000 ... .''

A great republic is a self-replenishing narrative. Tuesday night, the grand myth of 1948 was being succeeded by the grander myth of 2000.

Lost in all the tumult was what this election had been about. Oh, yes, that. This year's election may most resemble not Humphrey-Nixon in 1968 or Truman-Dewey in 1948, or even Hughes-Wilson in 1916, but one of those best two-out-of-three falls between Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison back in the 1880s and '90s.

Surely the issues then were just as important and all-consuming as they are now. (What were the issues then -- tariffs and the gold standard?) And the contrast between Good and Evil was just as stark to the partisans of that bewhiskered age as they are today.

But the real history of that time was beyond partisan dispute. It could be seen on the strange faces of a vast new wave of "unassimilable'' immigrants who would soon be Americans all.

It was written in a free country's amazing economic energy, which would need to be directed without being restrained.

More than a century later, the country's two-party system remains almost perfectly balanced. America's quaint Electoral College still ticks away today. Imagine if it were abandoned, and not just Florida's but every vote in the nation had to be recounted!

Less important than who has won this election is that once again power be transferred in a way that keeps faith with the Constitution.

Hail to the Chief, whoever he proves to be.

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©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate