Thursday, December 21, 2000

DAMN. I lost my innocence.

Just a few months ago, when Tom DiNapoli (my pal, my state assemblyman, and the man who heads the Nassau County Democratic Party) called to ask if I would be an elector for Al Gore, I was still buoyant enough to emit an Oooh of exhilaration before saying “Sure!” to tooling up to Albany on Dec. 18.

At that time, like most of my fellow Americans, I was not yet an Article II maven. Still, even back at P.S. 197 in Flatbush, I understood the Electoral College was not a place with Corinthian columns. Electoral College? While my vision of higher education was blighted by the idiot movies of which I was so fond (coeds in saddle shoes), it went without saying that I realized there would be no stadium resounding with “Give me an E! Give me an L…!”

This is not to say I was the Arthur Schlesinger of Brooklyn. Even as I grew older, in 1960, ’70, ’80, ’90 and halfway through 2000, all I knew was that the Electoral College was some sort of apparatus put in place by the founding fathers not only to keep the rabble (i.e., people like me) from running amok while exercising their franchise but also to prevent the larger states from hijacking the presidency from their smaller, less populous neighbors.

Nevertheless, I knew enough to be awed and honored. To stand in a line that stretched back more than 200 years to the beginning of the republic. To stand shoulder to metaphoric shoulder with my fellow electors who had cast their voted for the winners ? Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, JFK ? and for the losers too ? Stephen A. Douglas, Wendell Willkie, Adlai Stevenson. Before I became a novelist, I’d worked as a speechwriter for assorted New York Democrats. But, even for an old political hand like me, the notion of being part of such a venerable process ought to have elicited that patriotic frisson I never fail to get when the national anthem is sung at Shea or even the tears that fill my eyes as I watch Old Glory leading the Memorial Day parade up Main Street.

Except there I was Monday, on the 8:15 chugging up to Albany, gazing out the windows. The tinted glass of the Amtrak train turned the mighty Hudson a steely blue. And, although I was looking forward to the day’s ceremonies, I was blue as well. Not because my candidate Al Gore lost. I’ve been losing for years, from Herman Badillo in the 1968 Democratic mayoral primary to Peter Vallone in the 1998 New York gubernatorial race. Except this time I had no brave and bittersweet shrug that signified, Well, we tried.

Frankly, compared with some other campaigns, this one was a pretty crummy fight. Candidate George W. Bush, like many weak people, was alternately frightened and belligerent. Candidate Al Gore’s “Man of a Thousand Faces” production made voters edgy. Who the hell was he? Well, at least we knew this: Whether as belligerent as an alpha male ferret or as serene as Elsie the Cow, Gore knew his stuff. He was knowledgeable, focused and experienced.

So on that train filled with lawyers and lobbyists on cell phones, with Vassar students heading to Poughkeepsie listening to Dido on earphones and with me confronted by the smiley faces of Condoleezza Rice and Karen Hughes in the paper, I silently blustered: This isn’t fair. This isn’t just. This isn’t American. Well, in some ways I suppose it probably was. As they would have said in Tammany Hall, it got stolen fair and square.

Ergo, as a part-time resident of palmy, dynamic and oft-times corrupt Miami-Dade, I was not astounded by the sudden decision to go from tallying uncounted ballots to not tallying them. When that news came over CNN, I straightaway turned to my husband and proclaimed, “The Big Payoff.” Thus, when it came out a few days later that the allegedly Honorable Alex Penelas, mayor of the county, had been chatting about the possibility of switching parties and running as a Republican for a redistricted seat in Congress, my only question was when would some enterprising journalist take on the elections bureaucracy and discover that hard currency had also changed hands.

But what did shock me to my core was the United States Supreme Court’s intellectually dishonest, morally debased per curiam decision that handed the presidency to Bush. Had the Democrat been the one leading by 500-plus votes in Florida, can anyone doubt that the recount would have been allowed to continue?

There was a moment up in Albany, after a flush of pride in getting to second the nomination of Joe Lieberman and then putting my ballots for president and vice president into an old-fashioned wooden ballot box, that one of my fellow electors brought me back to reality.

She said, “I fell like I lost my virginity. I mean, after all this time in politics, I honestly believed that the court would be…you know.”

“Honorable?” I suggested.

“Yeah. Honorable. I mean, even if we lost, it would be for the right reason. But this was political.” She, a New York City pol, sounded as if she were still flabbergasted. So was I. That the court would act on the Bush motion for a stay, wait while the clock ticked away and then decide there was no time for a recount was not just an astounding political act but an act of aggression.

That William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor would be willing to cede their places in history for the chance to keep their historic places on the socioeconomic-political ladder should have surprised neither me nor the elector from New York City. Their majority decision, which none of them had the guts to sign, was simply the most recent battle in the war that is not about Republican vs. Democrat. Rather, it is a conflict that pits the men in power against those who would threaten their control and their vision of their worth.

Sure, to some it might appear the war is over Clintonism. Yet, even before Naughty Bill pit a foot in the White House, the power guys were armed and dangerous. He was Slick Willie and she was Hillary, a familiarity they would not have dared to take with Nancy Reagan or Barbara Bush. He was a draft-dodger and she was an emasculator. Both were liars and opportunists before he even took the oath of office.

Now, whether some of this is true is beside the point. I freely concede that candor is not one of our 42nd president’s strengths. But this conflict is much larger than William Jefferson Clinton and Albert Gore Jr. It is not a war over issues such as vouchers or tax cuts or Social Security. It is only in part a war over morality, over fund-raising in Buddhist temples or the Lewinsky follies. It is fundamentally a war over who gets to run America.

Ever since the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s, the white guys at the top, the ones C. Wright Mills called the Power Elite, have understood that their survival as rulers was in question. They have seen their political control being diminished by people of color. They have seen women rising into positions of power; Hillary Clinton symbolized the practical as well as the psycho-sexual threat they sensed. They have seen their absolute monarchy in industry, finance and the professions attacked by affirmative action and sexual-discrimination lawsuits. They have seen an amazing influx of immigrants ? beige to black immigrants ? and they comprehend that a little after the middle of this century whites will no longer be in the majority of America.

They are willing to wage war to keep their Old Boy network and its prerogatives. They are willing to fight dirty. The decision in Bush vs. Gore was a blow below the belt, but the five Supremes did what they had to do. (That one of the five was a woman and another an African-American should surprise no one. They have always been shrewd enough to let the occasional well-behaved Other into their chambers, if not their clubs.)

Still, until the court handed down its Tuesday Surprise, most of us felt secure knowing that in the U.S. of A. the scales of justice are, in the end, evenly balanced. Ultimately we defeated Jim Crow, we saw the truth come out about Watergate. We Americans not only like happy endings; we believe in their historical inevitability.

This time we lost. We were contesting an election. They were fighting a war. Well, they haven’t won it yet. But it was a pretty nasty battle. The results will be pretty nasty also. I’m not talking about Bush. I’m talking about our loss of faith in the court and in the ultimate fairness of the electoral process.

As I slipped my ballot into the big wooden box in that Senate chamber in Albany, with all its imposing stained glass and polished wood and brass chandeliers, I felt less secure about our country. A lot of us lost our innocence with that Supreme Court decision. Now we have no choice but to fight the good fight. We have become wise against our will. And it’s about time.