Presidential uncertainty is so much better than …

  • Ellen Goodman / Boston Globe columnist
  • Wednesday, November 15, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

MIAMI — Could we all get a grip? Out of every media orifice, we are told that all hell is breaking loose and Americans cannot wait another day—another minute! — to get a new president. But in my own trek up and down the East Coast, I don’t even see heck breaking loose.

The swirling, spinning mass of political operatives and media may want to go home or go on vacation, go to sleep or go to the White House. But I tend to agree with the 72 percent of Americans who would rather have a "fair and accurate" count than a quick one.

More to the point, the eternal optimist in me finds some good in the chaos of the post-election era. Listening to the obsessed, fixated, fascinated chatter around me, I have decided that even hysteria is better than apathy. It is, as my ancestors would have put it, "better than."

Better than what?

1. Better than talking about JonBenet Ramsey. Just weeks ago we were ruing the dumbing down of the American public. Some 70 percent of Americans between 18 and 24 couldn’t name both vice presidential candidates. They didn’t know what an Electoral College was and whether you needed SATs to get admitted. Now, at restaurants from Maine to Miami, I hear passionate debates about whether the Electoral College should be overturned in favor of a popular vote. I call that progress.

2. Better than talking about Elian Gonzalez. The last thing that split this state as rabidly was the fate of the Cuban boy who washed up on shore. Now we have Florida’s retirees riled up about hand vs. machine counted votes. The folks who were targeted to care only about early bird specials and prescription drugs are in an uproar over voter lawsuits and a comprehensible ballot. You have to love the elderly woman who went to the polls to cast her vote for the first Jewish vice president and to her dismay ended up punching in Pat Buchanan!

3. Better than O.J. Simpson. Remember when the whole country was riveted on the glove and divided on the verdict? Now the same country is riveted on 19,000 ballots thrown out in Palm Beach because they had two holes, and 6,686 voters in Broward County who allegedly skipped voting for president. Hello? They’re debating about the demographics of absentee ballots and the difficulties of butterfly ballots. Who knew from chads?

4. Better than Monica Lewinsky. Just a while ago, impeachment had feminists defending presidential misbehavior as a private matter while conservatives were suddenly defending sexual harassment laws. Now we’ve got Democrats defending states rights and Republicans going to court to deny them. Remember when everyone learned the law about illegal taping? Thank you Ms. Tripp. Now we’re learning the arcana of election laws. Thank you Florida.

5. Better than "Survivor." This year it seemed people were more emotionally involved in the contest between Richard and Kelly than the one between Al and W. Barely over half the public even voted; many thought there wasn’t any difference. Now the voters are in an uproar about "their guy." Surreality programming has replaced reality programming and the ones who feel ashamed are the nonvoters.

I don’t want to seem sanguine about uncertainty. But in the last half-dozen years, the shared American experiences have been much ado about a lot less than picking a president. We’ve been entertained by stories, bored by process.

We turned politics into infotainment. We talked about Gore’s earth tones and kisses, Bush’s entitlement and frat boyishness. The candidates campaigned on "Oprah" and "Saturday Night Live." Now everyone is down to the sausage-making, nitty-gritty details of the system.

We’re learning about electoral abuses and laws. We’re learning about ballots made of punch cards, machines, paper ballots and electronics in a system that makes a patchwork quilt look seamless. (Anybody for some voting system as simple and universal as getting money from an ATM?)

We’ve even put the sports metaphors aside. This election wasn’t a horse race or a sudden-death overtime or whatever, although we will have a winner soon and everyone will get to boo the umpires. It was, rather, the election of the next president of the United States and everybody has been hit upside the head by the importance of the process.

So we’re in what’s called "a teachable moment." It’s a nonstop seminar in a democracy as messy and fallible as the humans who run it.

Democracy — it’s ours and it’s much better than.

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