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Jewish World Review Nov. 27, 2000 / 29 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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The hollow crisis -- HAVE YOU noticed it, too -- the almost complete absence of political issues in the news for the past two weeks? That is, any issue except the desire for office, in this case the highest office in the land.

What ever happened to all those questions that were supposed to be paramount, crucial, decisive, and all-important only 15 days ago?

You remember: the fate of Social Security and Medicare, how to provide prescription drugs for the elderly, the equity (or inequity) of the death/estate tax, the readiness of the armed forces, the state of American education and its discontents ... and all those other issues that were so earnestly if not precisely debated during the campaign just unconcluded.

Important as we were told all those great issues were, they seem to have vanished from the news, and from public interest. Were the presidential debates just a dream, a show, a front?

The only kind of politics that remains visible is the bare skeleton of politics: the struggle for power and patronage and the presidency itself. The great question of the day becomes: Is the fix in?

What a pity. Because if there were issues of overriding importance facing the country, perhaps they could be compromised, and the country could get on with the business of governing itself.

That's the way it was done in 1877, when one party got the White House and the other got its platform enacted. Well, it wasn't quite that simple, as C. Vann Woodward pointed out in his classic analysis of that great compromise, "Reunion and Reaction.'' His book, first published in 1951, is still highly readable -- as much detective story as a classic of American history.

The Arkansas-born, Yale-based historian had to put all the pieces of the puzzle together to explain how Rutherford B. Hayes was finally named president as the result of a complex deal, and Samuel J. Tilden wasn't.

It wasn't just a matter of ending Reconstruction in exchange for letting the Republicans have the next president. (The federal occupation of the South was already evaporating even under General and President Grant.)

That year, the Democrats also insisted on having one of their own in the new president's Cabinet as a consolation prize, and in a position that commanded bountiful patronage itself: postmaster general.

But the principal concession obtained was federal support for a Southern rail route across the continent, the Texas and Pacific. Beyond all the specifics of the deal, it tied the fortunes of the emerging and recovering South to the industrial interests of the North for years to come -- at the expense of the political rights of the Southern Negro. The Union held, but at a great price.

The unheralded and largely secret Compromise of 1877 proved far more durable than celebrated solutions like the Compromise of 1850, which lasted only a few years. It could be argued that the Compromise of 1877 lasted until 1957, when federal troops were dispatched to Little Rock and a second and more lasting Reconstruction began.

But before all the details were hammered out in '77, the impasse of that year bore some uncanny resemblances to this year's stalled election. To quote C. Vann Woodward on who actually won the election of 1876: "Speculation on the possible results of a perfectly fair election and a fair canvass of returns are inconclusive and highly hypothetical.'' Sound familiar?

Already some are preparing to address the next president of the United States by the title conferred on Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877: His Fraudulency. With one candidate's votes frozen by order of a state Supreme Court uncontaminated by Republicans, the card counters on Florida's Gold Coast now know just how many votes they need to find. And those all too punchable cards may already be sitting in neat little piles ready to go.

It doesn't take a Ouija board to tell whose names will be on those ballots by the time they're resurrected. Hizzoner Richard J. Daley's body lies a-moulderin' in the grave, but his spirit goes marching on. A presidentialized election is being served up Chicago style.

The country has not yet duplicated the impasse that faced Americans at the end of 1876, when the House and Senate couldn't agree on how to count the disputed electoral votes. But already fanciful scenarios are in the air, and public confidence in the process erodes day by day.

There is even talk of competing slates of electors being chosen from Florida, just as they were in 1876. To quote Professor Woodward on the dreary scene in the nation's capital back in 1876, the hundredth year of American independence:

"The year drew toward its close with no prospect of a break in the deadlock between the two Houses and the two parties. On December 13 both ... announced equally firm claims to the presidency for their candidates. Debates became angrier on Capitol Hill and members began to arm themselves. Scenes on the floors of the two Houses reminded old-timers of the days of 1860-61. It had been less than twelve years since the country was at war and memories of those days were always present in this crisis.''

Happily, a second Civil War was averted, in large part because the first had left Americans with no taste for another. And so the presidency could be filled by balancing the great political demands and economic interests of the day.

But there are no sweeping issues separating the two presidential contenders this year -- only a thousand or so votes being shuffled like playing cards. The presidential election of 2000 has become a legal wrangle instead of a political debate subject to compromise.

Back in 1876, one statesman who still remembered the old republic said he feared American politics had been permanently "Mexicanized'' -- but Mexicanization would be a step up this year. This year's presidential election would befit a banana republic writ large.

At this point, only an act of patriotism and supreme self-abnegation on the part of one of the candidates might elevate us all. It is too late for Al Gore to lose graciously. Unlikely as it seems, the stage is set for George W. Bush's finest hour. A place in the grateful hearts of his countrymen could soon be upon him. Strange, the kind of opportunities for greatness life offers.

Paul Greenberg Archives


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