Missive the Forty-Second

Edge of a Cliff.

DATELINE: Saturday, December 9, 2000, at 1315 hours CDT.
Conway, Arkansas, USA

By D. Ebenezer Baldwin Bowles
CornDancer & Company

They threw us a lifeline, but we missed it. I can see the twisted strands, dangling a few meters above us. We are crowded together on a narrow cliff, trying to agree on a method for reaching the lifeline they tossed in our direction.

If the Republic in its struggle to elect a President turns away from the Arena of the Wranglers to strike out on the Avenue to Crisis, I wonder how much damage the Republic will sustain before the journey's end.

"Democracy has recommended itself above all other modes of organizing society by its capacity for the peaceable solution of its internal problems," Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote on May 7, 1944.

By peaceable, I suppose Mr. Schlesinger meant the presence of tolerance and compromise, the absence of insurrection and bloodshed; or, to parrot the fashionable cliché of the hour, isn't it grand how we Americans settle these profound political differences without dispatching the tank battalions onto the streets.

How smugly the superior ones mouth it: "Well, at least you don't see tanks on the streets of Tallahassee." It is as if they think the symbol of armored vehicles rumbling over the urban avenues, taking up defensive positions in front of government strongholds, and spinning their loaded cannons on the swivels of intimidation, represents the ultimate expression of a failed democracy.

A Worst Case, Toxic Fumes, the Howling Pack.

Cricket Song was such a mess last night it very much mirrored my state of mind. Plans were unraveling in the swiftness of time. A state of gloom fell upon my imagination, fractured it, left me helpless before the Siren of Deadline. I decided to sleep on it.

Now here it is three hours before noon on Saturday and I haven't filed my Missive the Forty-Second. I'm going to be fired, I just know it. Clutter, smashed boards, and the pressing-in of humanity rattle my peace of mind. Mickey Miles' Dispatches from London are lost in the fog of cruel necessity. I don't know if I'll ever see another one. Sure, I'm prone to embrace the worst case when things don't go well for me, but I'm no Pollyanna, either. Reverend Bingham's seventh A Memphis Epistle needs to be coded, illustrated, and readied for publication. Mr. Marshall's Saturday's Guest Writer feature is well past due for posting, but rests on my desk in need of attention. There are deeper, growling issues, too; threats from agencies and toxic fumes of stain blockers, ossification, the choking-off of escape routes, more packs of those nefarious chupacabras howling en masse on the borderlines of the hermitage, but I'll keep them hidden in the private spaces of my heart.

Most troublesome of all, I can't quit caring about this Presidential Election. From my marginalized ledge on the far fringes of craggy Nod, the act of caring about it, I know, is a foolhardy exercise in vicarious futility. Despite this knowledge, the lingering taste of the apple, I can't find enough insulation to shield me from involvement. I haven't accrued enough cynicism to rally to the gruesome task. Not yet. I voted.

Moving through the Rancorous
Stream of Adjustment.

The historian Schlesinger in an inspired narrative, The Age of Jackson, pointed to "the clash of ideas" as the vehicle for the movement of politics through the rancorous stream of social adjustment to the far horizon of fundamental change. I think that's what he pointed to, but I can't be certain anymore. I'm making this up as I go along. Stringing together too many prepositional phrases can all too quickly become dangerous to the language.

Today's dawning crisis in Florida isn't founded on ideas, but on the lack of them. Their absence could lead to a clash not of ideas, but of mob fists and riot police batons. It isn't the supposed constitutional crisis that has my full attention, but rather the potential social crisis that may be aroused by desperate politicians and their willingness to unleash the passions of their acolytes.

The nation's elected officials, jurists, and bureaucrats are flat out of ideas. They are drained of the will to embrace new ones. The callous inheritors of the Republic's positions of leadership, the ones still standing, are content to shuffle old ideas from one hand to the other and call them the next new deal.

To Rule, Manipulate, Pillage, and Dismember.

Stripped of ideas, the contestants Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore stagger, naked and brazen, in their me-first quest for partisan power. They and their minions compete not to serve, but to rule; not to manage, but to manipulate; not to sustain, but to pillage; not to inspire and enlighten, but to inveigh and dismember.

"In 1876 Tilden was the Democratic nominee for President of the United States, and received the largest popular vote, but lacked one electoral vote necessary for his election," an anonymous historian wrote in a yellowed Volume 26, Sulphur to Tramways Aerial, of the 1937 edition of Encyclopedia Americana. "As the electoral votes from several States were contested on account of alleged fraud, the matter was referred to a special Electoral Commission, which decided in favor of the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes."

History repeats itself: Yes, in general patterns, vaguely, according to rough sketches and loose outlines. How accurate is Hayes-Tilden as a template for today? I can assure you of one verity: the chattering pundits and television reporters who mention the 1876 contest in their knowing asides and off-the-cuff snippets are consistent only in how miserably they mangle the allusion.

"The present is a fulcrum from which we use the past as a lever to move the future where we want," Stow Persons wrote in 1959. "This is an eminently practical view of history, measuring the value of that discipline in terms of its relevance to present problems. It attaches history to the social sciences, and makes it a policy science."

Let's Compare 2000 to 1876, 2001 to 1877.

I've heard it said and repeated that the Presidential Election of 2000, like the contest of 1876, won't achieve finality until the legislative branch of the federal government is forced to settle it; that the House chooses the President, the Senate the Vice-President; that Mr. Gore has a decisive tie-breaker in his pocket; that the Speaker of the House could assume the office if William Jefferson Clinton's successor isn't agreed upon by January 20, 2001.

"The result of the election was a question of long and bitter contest," the anonymous historian wrote in another volume. "The electoral votes in Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina were in dispute and both sides charged their opponents with fraud. The canvassing boards of the States in dispute were visited by statesmen of both parties, all blinded in a measure by political prejudice."

The U.S. Congress settled the 1876 Presidential Election only if one accepts the technical means to the settlement as the defining point of its participation. Another body, one of a kind, one cobbled together especially for the occasion, brought the election to its end. That's a convoluted way of saying that all Congress did was appoint the Electoral Commission of 1877 to rule on the contests.

The Electoral Commission consisted of five U.S. Senators, five U.S. Representatives, and five U.S. Supreme Court Justices. In every contest they settled, the vote was split 8 to 7 in favor of the Ohioan Hayes, the twice-wounded veteran of the Civil War, over New York Governor Samuel Jones Tilden.

'An Alternative to a Most Dangerous Anarchy.'

"The Senate was Republican, the House Democratic; there was therefore a deadlock on the administration of returns," Irving E. Rines wrote in 1927. "Finally, as an alternative to a most dangerous anarchy, both sides agreed on a joint commission to pass on all the contests…. The broad decision was, that Congress cannot, as it had done repeatedly before, go behind the returns and take evidence as to the manner in which State majorities for electors have been obtained."

Today, while the mad politicians and their hungry lawyers battle the arrogant judges and their corrupted edicts, while the entire gaggle of strivers wrestle for possession of the stamp of finality, a sitting President of the United States of America, the lame duck, dances on the sidelines. He is jubilant in the fallout of another's tribulation.

Despite his disgrace and corpulence, he struts as one of the self-redeemed, proclaiming to a music magazine editor that he should have been chosen to rule for another term. He is the foremost of the Me-Firsters.

"In times of crisis people prefer to take their history straight, and on the run; and the documentary journalist who writes it on the run will give them history in terms which they are prepared to understand," Alfred Kazin wrote in 1942.

Elect Me Instead!
Let's Have Fun and Change the Constitution.

I've also heard it said that in the immediate aftermath of the Presidential Election of 1960, when Richard Nixon became convinced that he had won the majority, and that Messrs. Kennedy and Johnson had stolen enough votes in Chicago and Texas to tip the balance in their favor, he thought about contesting the outcome. Instead, he draped himself in the mantle of statesmanship and conceded. Now the Republican spinmeisters of the hour seek to claim Mr. Nixon's "gracious concession" as precedence for Mr. Gore to follow the same path and concede the victory to his Republican opponent "for the good of the nation."

I think otherwise. I think Mr. Nixon would have followed the same desperate path as Mr. Gore follows this morning had it not been for the intervention of the lame duck, Dwight David Eisenhower. In no uncertain voice and behind a closed door, President Eisenhower commanded his Vice-President to give it up and get-on with the life of the Republic.

Where the Commanding General of the competent, confident, and successful World War Two generation once stood at the end of his second term, Mr. Clinton stands now. Instead of taking the reigns of leadership, Mr. Clinton tours Hanoi and grants self-serving interviews about his electability and enduring popularity to The Rolling Stone. While the nation struggles to avoid an abyss brought about by its inability to elect his successor, Mr. Clinton pauses between rounds of golf and fund raisers, and tells the nation: Elect me instead! I would have won a third term, no problem.

on Tuesday, December 12, 2000.
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