"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 7 November 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

I Am Third

In no reach of America's vast consumer sensorium do we see more choice as a bad thing, except when it comes to the small matter of selecting the most powerful political leader in the world. Any sentient news consumer hearing the expert media's distempered remarks concerning a certain rumpled Washington lawyer's underfunded third-party candidacy would be tempted to think the American republic had morphed overnight into a uni-party polity (called, perhaps, "Fundraisia") possessed with a distinctly Singaporean flair for concealing its own iron prerogatives beneath the trappings of plebiscitory democracy. The manic home-stretch messages of the enemies of Nader have reduced, at any rate, to dictums worthy of greater Oceania: Democracy means having fewer options; to protect our freedoms, we need less deliberation; the marketplace of ideas must rely on supply-side coercion.

To compound the disorientation, the sage voices insisting most ardently that voting one's conscience is a hideous, unnatural vice are self-styled liberals, who have generally been taken to be beneficent advocates of extending the franchise, free expression, and dissent. Yet as we learned in the liberal clamor to shore up the presidency of a grand-jury perjuring, testimony-suborning, evidence-concealing, Sudan-bombing Great Leader, the American political persuasion with the greatest tradition of skepticism over the prerogatives of state has degenerated into a cult of getting and holding power purely for its own sake. No moral contradiction is too great, and no slogan is too daffy or incoherent in advancing this sacred cause.

So on one level, it's been drearily unsurprising to witness the next turn of the screw. After all, the plebiscite opening onto the new millennium brings with it the dread prospect that Nader may win enough votes in key swing states to tilt the election in favor of the privileged, Ivy-league educated, second-generation scion of a major party eminence-grise. That guy, you know, with all the dubious big-donor fundraising, the skittish, focus-grouped platform of vague pseudo-moderate nostrums, and the irksome mien of to-the-manor-born entitlement. The one who supports the death penalty and the drug war, and who promotes doleful plans to cashier public lands into the hands of private oil interests. No, not that one; the other one — the one from Texas.

Thus furnished with the suitable totems of alarmist intimidation, our prostrated liberal pundits set about officiously reminding their readers and listeners of the "clear" and "obvious" differences between our major party candidates — a rhetorical exercise that would hardly seem necessary if, say, the major-party candidates themselves had already convincingly adumbrated these mighty obelisks of obviousness in the year-and-counting tour of duty they've enjoyed as a cancer on the national attention span. You would think that nine-figure campaign coffers could, if nothing else, purchase the illusion of difference, but to judge by both candidates' anemic feints to come across as the most stirring tribune of high-volume prescription-drug users, there's no gnat-straining similarity they deem too small to dramatize. But then again, since the Big Standard Bearers also seem determined to smudge out the salience of such once-unambiguous terms of history-making as "class warfare," perhaps we should be grateful that they don't make a regular practice of setting their world-historic sights higher.

To see this strategy of threat and cajolery — a national version of Good Cop Bad Cop in which the voters are the perps — at its most hilarious, we must head to the heart of meaningless liberaloid consensus, the editorial page of the New York Times. Like most of its smaller middle-of-the-road cousins, the Times is smitten with the fond reverie that, come the Gore years, its leaders will enjoy that great Powertown will-'o'-the wisp, policy clout. They long to think of the Leader of the Free World as One of Us, to have him respond in quasi-mystical obedience to their own immeasurable (but decorously deployed) influence. As a result, the paper's Nader rage has been much longer-running, and much more unappeasable, than that of any other establishment comer. Back in June, editorial page editor Howell Raines inveighed against "Mr. Nader's Misguided Crusade," a thing of "clouded choices" that would "distract voters" from (all together, now) "the clear-cut choices represented by the major-party candidates." We need, for God's sake, to vouchsafe spectators in the Great Plebiscite "an uncluttered playing field."

This shadowy, woozy, gridiron language says something about the Times's habitual image of the electorate. Like dipsomaniacs or small children, Americans exercising their franchise may well swoon under the cloudedness, clutter and confusion of it all — and awake blearily the next morning bound and gagged in the offices of the Republican Party, or worse, Public Citizen. How, an attentive Times reader can't help but wonder, can we count on them to keep anything straight? It must have been sheer, dumb luck that, say, propelled Lincoln and FDR into office, and kept us from endorsing ballot initiatives declaring war on Freedonia.

As it turns out, of course, Raines and company were just getting warmed up. On October 26, as it seemed the inviting tableau of Gore access might be about to recede into the same wavy mirage that claimed the promise of a Pulitzer for the Times's "Wen Ho Lee: Master Atom Spy" series, the Wise Men of 43rd Street let loose with "Mr. Nader's Electoral Mischief," the bone-chilling tour-de-force sequel to "Mr. Nader's Misguided Crusade." Here we learn that "Mr. Nader's willful prankishness" is a "very real danger to the Gore campaign." One would suppose that this would leave Mr. Bush — who seems to be far more prankish in proportion to his imperial war chest and stands to do a good deal more damage to Gore-ismus than merely tipping three, or four, or eight, battleground states to himself in today's melee of the focus groups — open to a serious thrashing in the Raines woodshed. But no, the Times wants to remind us of its even-handedness in plumping for proven fundraisers: "The country deserves a clear up or down vote between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore, who have waged a hard, substantive and clean campaign." One wonders if this surreal estimation means that the editorial board left off reading the Times's news coverage some time ago. Yet it is, of course, Nader's supporters who are the "gulled" and "deluded" ones — in thrall to a "wrecking ball candidacy" spearheaded by an "ego run amok."

Nor was the Times's liberal bloodlust yet slaked. With a third pronunciamento, "Al Gore in the Home Stretch," the royal We astride the Paper of Record gleefully recounted a didactic set piece from The Today Show, wherein TV's Marlo Thomas duly stomped on hubby Phil Donahue's Nader-promoting star turn. For good measure, the good Gray Bloviators denounced Nader's factual assertion that the executive has comparatively little power in determining the future of abortion rights (and that therefore the NARAL assault ads trained on his candidacy reduce to a "scare tactic") as "male chauvinism carried to a new extreme." Combined with the sickeningly admiring plaudit to Dear Leader Gore — "if his supporters can match their energy to his," the Times exhorted in conclusion, our hero "will cross [the finish line] first" — the effect here is an unholy alliance of North Korean cheerleading and high-celebritist morality play (in which we are advised to heed the "civics lesson" That Girl has dealt her loudmouth soulmate with the metaphorical back of her Carnaby-gloved hand "on national television"). Free to Be, You and Me, indeed.

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