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Jewish World Review Nov. 23, 2000 / 25 Mar-Cheshvan 5761

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Three little words-- and two strange weeks in Florida -- TAMPA | Matters of great and historic importance are being decided down here.

The identity of the next president is being decided. The nature of the election process is being decided. The power of the courts as opposed to the legislative branch is being decided.

So I hope it's all right to discuss a non-great, non-historic matter that is also a part of the story in Florida -- a matter with no grand meaning, but a matter that is annoying all the same.

It's the use -- by broadcasters, by the presidential campaigns, by attorneys -- of the phrase "on the ground."

It has been difficult to avoid this phrase in the last two weeks. A network anchor sitting in a studio up in the Northeast will, with somber gravity, inform his audience: "Our correspondents are on the ground in Palm Beach County and Broward County. . . ."

Or a spokesman for one of the presidential candidates will intone at a press briefing: "Our people on the ground in Florida are telling us. . . ."

Or an attorney for one of the candidates will announce: "We have observers on the ground in every county. . . ."

It sounds so powerful; it sounds so stirring. "We have our people on the ground. . . ." You almost expect to hear a military band playing in the background.

Which is exactly why these people keep using that phrase so much. "On the ground" is a military phrase -- it is a phrase used in warfare. It conjures the vision of brave people risking their very lives on battlefields far away and out of sight.

The people involved in this political dispute in Florida would like the rest of us to believe that this is warfare, full of valor and trumpets.

But it's not. You can have your people "on the ground" in Kosovo, but you shouldn't diminish that phrase by using it to describe a lawyer who's sitting in a hotel suite in Miami Beach. The soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge could properly have been described in dispatches sent back to the U.S. as being "on the ground" there, but it's sort of silly to use the phrase to talk about a Democratic party functionary with a room at the Marriott and a Hertz rental car earning him airline bonus miles.

As I said -- this "on the ground" matter is no big deal. But it is symptomatic of what seems to have gone so wrong down here during the two weeks since Election Day.

The career political professionals -- campaign executives, government officials, party attorneys, pundits who make their livings analyzing what the political class does -- have taken over, and have just about totally removed the people of the United States -- the ones who vote for president -- from this whole thing. The political professionals sensed immediately -- they could smell it -- that this could become their Eternal Super Bowl. Their dream has always been of a campaign that never ends -- a campaign they can stay on forever. Such perpetual campaigns don't happen.

Until now.

The cable channels have been filled with "panels" of people whom, if you found yourself sitting on a bench next to them in a bus station, you would quickly move away from. Some of these men and women are so odd and repellent -- shouting, calling names, making shrill accusations -- that people have undoubtedly been moving away from them at every stage of their lives: on elementary school playgrounds, in high school study halls, in college cafeterias, on commuter trains in the adult world.

But, thanks to the marvels of modern communications, people you would not choose to spend a minute with if they started gesticulating at you on a street corner -- hideous people from whom you would reflexively flee -- are delivered into your own home every day and every night, even if your doors are locked and double-bolted.

So has anyone conducted themselves well in these dramatic days? If the campaigns haven't, and the political operatives haven't, and the lawyers haven't, and the cable careerists haven't, has anyone behaved admirably?


The public has.

The public waits patiently for a definitive answer about who will lead us for the next four years. The public understands that all of the players in this story, in the end, work for them. The public quietly knows that it is in charge -- and that it will make certain all of this turns out all right.

The public seems steady and perceptive and quite well grounded.

On the ground.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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