PRIMAL SCREED/James McCarty Yeager

Florid Faces, Public Places

Washington, D.C.

The limits of the law as a method of dealing with reality, even something as insubstantial and flimsy as political reality, have been convincingly demonstrated twice in the last two years. The first occasion was the impeachment imbroglio, the second is the election unpleasantness.

In impeachment's dirty coup attempt the trick was to claim that that which is not quite illegal is nonetheless disqualificatory. In the election ballot restraint game the trick has been to claim that that which is first ignored must continue to be suppressed. Both events partake of the nature of coups in that they exemplify the inability of certain parts of the ruling oligarchy to accept the legitimacy of political figures they do not dominate.

As the otherwise invidious Rik Hertzberg wrote in the New Yorker, the central fact about this election is that Gore has already won it. It is merely a matter of whether the system will allow the votes that seal his victory to be counted in Florida. Evidently Gore carried Florida by several thousand votes, not even counting the Palm Beach County Buchanan mistakes, and even after counting all the military absentee ballots. But the only way to prove that is by actually examining the machine rejected presidential "undervotes" in the populous counties.

Of course, if Bush family consigliere "Darth" Baker hadn't started squealing the day after the election that any recounts were the tip end of anarchy and public disarray, the Republicans could have called for manual recounts under Florida law in all the counties they won. Unfortunately, they forgot to, or rather, their legal strategy called for preventing recounts so as to hold onto their dubious majority.

It is time, my fellow electoral victims, to be reading the literate Florida crime novels of John D. MacDonald and Carl Hiaasen. Both of them understand the peculiar grafting of new-money pretension on top of old redneck superstition that goes to make up the true Floridian ethos. Neither would regard an election stolen by the power structure with all pretenses of legality and constitutionality as anything out of the ordinary. And yet both retain a sense of humor undiminished by their sense of outrage.

It is just such a balance I am trying to maintain myself. Fifty Million Americans Can't Be Wrong is the bumper sticker I wish I could find and display. If we don't get some kind of Electoral College reform out of this during the 107th Congress then God help the party that stands in its way. While we are at it, we could do campaign financing. And it is probably painfully obvious by now that some actual voting procedural reform might be in order, and sooner, rather than later. At least a federal requirement for statewide uniformity of machinery, procedures, and validation might not seem unreasonable.

Lesson (with help from George Orwell/Eric Blair): Even if all votes are created equal, some are more equal than others. The Republicans are not going to like having this dirty little secret of representative democracy not only revealed but proclaimed. The sense that "we've been conned" is not a restful one for a populace to display as we enter into a recessionary period in which the economic consequences of political disfranchisement are going to be painfully obvious.

Still, there are some remedies. Must be at least two dozen books written at times and in places resembling the acrid illegitimacy of our own. In addition to Hiassen and MacDonald, I am reading the great postwar German writer Heinrich Boll. With his contemporary Gunter Grass, the two artists portrayed the difficulty of keeping a clean conscience in a dirty world, whether the dirt proceeded from outright Nazism or merely from the postwar economic miracle. And individual right action is, of course, the only method, one with which we are all going to have a hard time for the foreseeable future. Because neither the political culture, the economy nor the media is going to be offering any help to the conscience stricken. After all, if they admitted something was wrong, they might have to admit their part in it.

There is some useful further reading to prepare for the bleak world symbolized by an illegitimate presidency, an ignorant Senate leadership, and a House leadership in whom ignorance would be an improvement. Just as his second Senate term wound down in late 1969, I had a conversation with Gene McCarthy in his office in which he recommended Bertolt Brecht's essay "On the Five Difficulties of Truth," published as a preface to Brecht's play Galileo in the Grove Press translation by Eric Bentley. The essay, written under Nazism at the time of Threepenny Opera, lists the problems of telling the truth under repressive societies, and McCarthy thought we were all going to have to get used to smuggling the truth into Nixonian American discourse. It strikes me those times have come again.

In the same context of talking about Nixon, McCarthy also described for me a scene from Galileo in which the scientist Cardinal Borromeo becomes Pope. He is robing for his investiture and at first stands clad only in a white gown. Cardinal Inquisitor is with him, telling him all the reasons he ought to go after Galileo -- menace to public tranquility, insult to authority, etc. At first, Borromeo reminds the Inquisitor why he, Borromeo, has been protecting Galileo all these years: namely, that progress is good for mankind. But as Borromeo puts more and more of the Papal regalia, alb, surplice, chasuble, and finally the tiara, his protests become weaker and weaker while Cardinal Inquisitor's insistence grows stronger. As the new Pope leaves to enter St. Peter's, at last fully dressed, he gives in to Cardinal Inquisitor and allows Galileo to be questioned. As McCarthy said, the more trappings of power he took on, the less authority he had.

Authority is power that has been tempered by legitimacy. Already rendered precarious by the slim Electoral College defeat for the expressed wishes of the majority of the American people, any Bush restoration would have only naked power to console it. The rest of us would be inconsolable. Of course, if the courts let Gore's votes be counted so he wins, nobody will be more surprised than I will. Well, maybe Snippy will. Nobody is preparing that boy for defeat, not even his mother, who ought to know better.

Yeager of Bethesda, Md., occasionally plugs The Progressive Populist on Caroline Casey's Visionary Activist show on Pacifica Radio's KPFA-FM in Berkeley, Calif. Those not in the Bay Area may listen on the Internet Thursdays at 5 p.m. Eastern time at

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