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

Dave Shiflett

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Democracy may be under siege, but now comes the fun -- THANKSGIVING once again finds America revering our national genius for combining tradition and innovation. This year, the Florida Supreme Court has supplied us with a stunning marriage of traditional election tampering and the modern trend toward miniaturization, the latter in the form of sometimes barely perceptible marks on ballots. For the Democrats, who smell victory in the wind, the words Saint Nick have taken on a whole new meaning.

For those in the other camp, the election will be decided by what might be called the Prick Vote. Whether you call these marks nicks, pricks or as the euphemists have it dimples, they will be probably elect our next president. Who says America doesn't fly by the seat of its pants?

One assumes (today at least) that Saint Nick will give Gore his ultimate Victory. Therefore, it is none too early to sum up the larger meaning of this disputed election, after which a retreat to the muscatel trough will be in order.

First, let us consider the ones who will probably come in last.

The vanquished insisted that counting a mere nick as a fully legitimate vote is somehow a diminution of democracy. They may be on to something. A nick might indeed represent nothing more than a momentary dalliance, after which the would-be voter withdrew before consummation, perhaps to affirm another candidate or perhaps to stiff the entire lot. Only by the strictest code could such a lightly molested chad be said to have lost its virginity. Then again, Florida is a highly moral state, so perhaps that is the case.

There was also the argument that a hand recount can be hugely subjective, especially when the stakes are so high. According to this theory, the Florida legislature endorsed hand recounts only in cases of significant fraud or natural disaster for the very purpose of avoiding the sort of nation-tearing exercise we unexpectedly found ourselves in. By the same reasoning, this elected body established discretion in enforcing the certification deadline for the sole purpose of accommodating such emergency contingencies.

These are reasonable views. It is, after all, entirely possible for members of a legislative body to exercise sound judgment and foresight. In a better world that would not be held against them, but this is not such a world. In that better world, the view that a nick may indeed be something less than a nod could be given serious consideration. As could the idea that a nick indicates a voter did not know his own mind, and so the attempt to read that blank slate truly is an affront to democracy.

But that is mere speculation. In the real world there is another point of view to consider: the prevailing one.

The anti-prick forces made their mistake by relying solely on the letter of the law. This was their undoing. As the vice president pointed out prior to election day, that type of strict constructionism brought us moral monstrosities such as the three-fifths rule, in which a whole person was only counted as three-fifths of a being. The vice president, by victorious contrast, adopted the view that three-fifths of a hole and, indeed, much less constitutes an entire vote. The mathematics is hard to beat, especially when you're behind.

Since there is a whiff of self-interest in the air, it should also be admitted that this dispute has been good news for those of us who cluck and type for a living. Paul Begala, for example, rose far above his typical abilities when denouncing Katherine Harris's use of makeup to turn back the assault of time. Among other things, his passionate prose reminded us that a small mind can soar to great heights if the provocation is sufficiently petty. Mrs. Harris, perhaps too classy to respond herself, could have mentioned that Mr. Begala appears to have spent some time at the taxidermist himself, and that his overall character was perfectly captured by Sam Clemens in a piece written in a far-ago November, that of 1884: "He was a slave. Not a turbulent and troublesome, but a meek and docile, cringing and fawning, dirt-eating and dirt-preferring slave. And party was his Lord and master. He had no mind of his own, no will of his own, no opinion of his own. Body and soul he was the property and chattel of that master, to be bought and sold, bartered, traded, given away at his nod and beck branded, mutilated, boiled in oil if need were."

Not all of us would put it so harshly, of course, though one hates to argue with Mr. Clemens.

Elsewhere, those who worried that the retirement of William Jefferson Clinton would reduce our opportunities for cheap and easy ridicule now know differently. If the president made an easy target with his linguistic and legalistic hair-splitting, his understudy offers opportunities at the other extreme. Al's embrace of each and any nick of the ballot as a vote of confidence makes it clear that beyond his constipated public persona resides a large herd of howlers waiting to be uncorked.

As for myself, the vote-stretching phenomenon puts me in mind of my earliest days in the newspaper profession. We were a small rag, and because advertising revenues are established by the size of readership, we faced the very real possibility of marketplace annihilation.

Yet our publisher, who was also a true genius, came up with a way of tabulating reader support that amazes and edifies at every recollection. "What we do," he explained, "is first count our total readers. Then we figure that each of those readers has two eyes, so we double the original number. And then we figure that those readers have ten fingers they use to turn the pages of our paper, so we throw that in too."

A strict constructionist would insist there was some corruption involved in these calculations. But I'll say this: We never starved.

It seems safe to say that there will come a day, fairly soon in the Gore administration, when the League of Clinton Haters (a group to which this writer does not belong) will be pining away for the fellow some of us came to affectionately call the Nookie Monster.

It is not only that Clinton was moderate in his politics. It is because his lies tended to be primarily self-serving, the most extreme of them deployed when he got crossways with the missus over a chick problem. Besides that, Bill wanted all of us to like him. Al, on the other hand, is fairly hysterical in his politics, and doesn't mind if half the country thinks he's a bit of a ....well, it rhymes with nick.

JWR contributor Dave Shiflett is a sometime voter from Midlothian, Va. Comment by clicking here.


11/21/00: The dolt vote
11/15/00: Now what will we do for fun?

© 2000, Dave Shiflett