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Jewish World Review Nov. 22, 2000 / 24 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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What a tangled web: A Dickensian election -- ALL KINDS of worms continue to pour forth out of the can that Al Gore has opened in Florida.

Only a few days ago, it was in the Democratic candidate's interest to shout fraud and deceit before the vote in his opponent's favor was certified by Florida's secretary of state, an admitted Republican.

Lawsuits were filed, demonstrations staged, and an uproar begun amid cries and alarums. The cast might as well have been following the stage directions for Macbeth.

The hand count of votes now has been allowed to proceed in a snowstorm of chad. And it appears that the presidential non-election of 2000 could be decided by the seven members of Florida's Supreme Court, which is uncontaminated by Republicans.

It is now the GOP's turn to shout fraud and deceit, stage demonstrations and file suit. The object is to show just how long and chaotic counting these much counted cards can be, and hope people lose patience.

The American people cannot relish the prospect of this election being decided by the courts, or Congress, or the Florida state legislature, or by any of the other means suggested, including pistols at dawn.

But neither has anybody been able to envision a happy ending, mainly because one is no longer possible. The process is being poisoned, and so is the presidency.

Whoever the next president is will enter trailing lawsuits and resentment. Maybe if we could persuade the Organization of American States to dispatch a team of observers to show us how they do it in enlightened countries like Mexico ... .

A momentary spasm of bitterness over a thwarted desire can be washed away, but when the bitterness begins to permeate the thing desired, that is bad. At least since George Washington, men have elevated the presidency -- or diminished it. Even before this petty but extended quarrel that begins to bore more than outrage, the presidency of the United States had been diminished by a series of petty lies and sworn deceits.

Now what should have been a political process, a presidential election, has become an exercise in pettifoggery. Each side now has argued its brief before Florida's Supreme Court, like ships passing in the night and firing wildly at each other.

This election was going to give the country a clean start. Instead, the office that was going to be cleansed and restored now is covered with the jabber of talk shows, the card-sharkery of ward-heelers, and the learned excrescences of party lawyers and glorified kibitzers.

It now seems ages since the simplicity of a circuit judge's decision only days ago, which left the decision to certify Florida's ballots to the reasonable discretion of the official given that job under the law.

By the time both sets of lawyers addressed that state's Supreme Court yesterday, the arguments had grown elaborate, over-ripe, flowing with juice and pulp, and starting to sour.

The hope of finality grows dimmer with each passing day. Behind the statesmanlike addresses of the principals, the pols and spinners and their lawyers now have taken over, and the stewardship that is the American presidency is being reduced to their spoil.

The same Democrats who once wanted to count every ballot with a hint or hope of an indentation next to Al Gore's name now have successfully challenged military ballot after military ballot cast for George W. Bush. Only in Democratic counties is intention to equal votes.

The Republicans' standards can be expected to shift just as dramatically when their candidate is Gored.

The American people remain patient, but the lawyers, pols and pundits grow ever more excited about issues that excitement will do little to clarify. Bush vs. Gore goes interminably on.

One thinks of Charles Dickens' description of another never-ending lawsuit in "Bleak House'':

"Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least; but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes, without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises.''

Not even the best of systems -- legal, political, moral or any other kind -- can reach a clear result without the dedication of those more devoted to the system than to their own personal or partisan interest in it.

Americans begin to wax nostalgic about, of all presidential candidates, Richard Nixon -- on the basis of his prompt decision to concede the presidential election of 1960 despite those dubious returns from South Texas and South Chicago.

Bush vs. Gore is certainly no Nixon vs. Kennedy, yet one familiar thread provides continuity: the firm of Daley & Son. Its time-honored operating principle remains the same: The more things change, the more votes can be found when needed.

The one clear thing Al Gore has accomplished in Florida is to make Richard Nixon look like a gentleman. That is a formidable achievement, but not one to be proud of.

It's as if the atmosphere of American presidential elections had been pushed back a hundred years -- from the late 20th century to the late 19th century. Instead of Bush and Gore, the candidates could be named Conkling and Blaine, for it is their standards that now come to the fore. The only difference is that the old-time party bosses were more candid:

"Parties are not built by deportment, or by ladies' magazines, or gush.'' -- Roscoe Conkling.

"When I want a thing, I want it dreadfully.'' -- James G. Blaine. Except for their candor, both would be right at home in this presidential election that refuses to end.

One waits for light to shine through all the murk. Will some official, Republican or Democrat, deviate from the party line and speak up not for partisan interest but the public interest? Now and then such sightings are reported, and they give hope.

It is still not clear what the '90s will be called -- Decade X? The '00s are already shaping up as the Era of Bad Feelings. Or worse, of no feelings at all, as more and more Americans are tempted to accept this election's invitation to cynicism.

It is natural enough to look to the bench for the kind of disinterested decision that will resolve this question before it becomes a real constitutional crisis. But politics and law are so mixed in the American system, is faith in a fair decision warranted?

Yes, it is. The questions from Florida's Supreme Court were pointed and incisive -- and directed to both sides. Can it all have been a charade? Lest we forget, the circuit judge in Florida who first ruled that the time had come to let the votes be certified, Terry Lewis, was a Democrat. He cannot be accused of partisanship.

When faith in the law is shaken, how restore it? By deepening it. The longer faith is disappointed, the stronger it must grow.

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©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate