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A novelist writes me: "Have you noticed that everyone is saying 'Happy New Year' sarcastically?" In the classified advertisements of the New York Review of Books, an academic couple, "in the wake of the national election," seeks employment in any other country. A Washington bank executive, whom I barely know, calls to ask what brand of cigarettes I smoke; she's decided to take up the habit again. Friends I meet on the street are less angry than dazed: marooned on the island of CNN for months, they now realize that no rescue ship is coming. The United States has suffered the first coup d'état in its history.
Although no tanks circled the White House and no blood was shed, the word "coup" is only slightly hyperbolic. An illegality declared legal, a corrupt usurpation of power did indeed take place in the nation that imagines itself the world's beacon of freedom. Let me briefly review the story:
Al Gore received some 540,000 more votes than George W. Bush. Presidential elections, however, are determined by the archaic system of an Electoral College, to which each state sends representatives who voteaccording to the will of that state's voters, nearly always on a winner-takes-all basis. An 18th-century invention, the College was a last-minute political concession to Southern slave owners when the Constitution was written. Representatives were apportioned according to population; slaves, of course, could not vote, but they were considered to be three-fifths of a human in the calculations, thus increasing the populations of the slave states and the number of their representatives. It was also believed at the time, though this has been forgotten, that an elite of respectable electors would prevent the possibility of an inappropriate candidate being chosen by an unpredictable populace. The Founding Fathers had a limited enthusiasm for democracy.
Last November, as everyone now knows too well, the race was so close that the contest for the Electoral College depended on the votes in the state of Florida. The state is governed by George Bush's brother; its legislature is overwhelmingly Republican; and its Secretary of State, in charge of overseeing the election, was the co-chair of Florida's Bush for President campaign.
The state has long been notorious for payoffs under the palms, for a Southern provinciality without Southern hospitality, and a political demagoguery unsweetened by rhetorical flourishes. Predictably, the state's technicalities of voting varied widely. Wealthy white communities, more likely to vote for Bush, had modern voting machines. Black communities-and Bush nationally received even less black votes than Reagan-had antiquated machines which failed to count tens of thousands of votes. In a bizarre incident, thousands of elderly retired Jews, some of them Holocaust survivors, discovered that, because of a poorly designed ballot, they had mistakenly voted for Pat Buchanan, a minority party candidate who has expressed admiration for Hitler.
When the ballots were counted by the machines, Bush had won by 547 votes out of six million cast. In most American elections, such a small percentage automatically leads to a recount. Because the older machines are so inaccurate-even their inventor stated they fail to count 3-5% of the ballots-these recounts are usually done by hand.
The Republican Secretary of State refused to allow a recount, and the Republican Florida legislature declared the election over. After weeks of maneuvers and reversals, the Gore campaign finally reached the Florida Supreme Court, which ordered a recount to begin. Republicans, in the hysterical surrealism of 24-hour news channels, relentlessly charged that the Democrats were trying to "steal" the election, and that humans could not count votes as "objectively" as machines-though hand counts are the practice in most states, including Bush's own Texas. More sinister, in the style of the Indian Congress Party and the Mexican PRI in the days when they ruled, the Republicans brought in paid demonstrators to disrupt the recount. These were housed at the Hilton Hotel, and the reigning Prince of Las Vegas, Wayne Newton, was flown in to serenade them at a special Thanksgiving dinner. Their demonstrations were so violent that the major potential source of Gore votes, the Miami-Dade County election office, was forced to shut down.
It was apparent to all that Gore would win the recount-according to the Miami Herald, a conservative newspaper, by at least 20,000 votes. So the Republicans went to the US Supreme Court. The deadline, under Florida law, for selecting the representatives to the Electoral College was December 12. On December 9-when, after endless legal battles, a system was finally in place to accurately count the votes-the Supreme Court stopped everything while it considered the case, on the bewildering grounds that a recount would cause "irreparable harm" to Bush by casting doubt on his victory. (The irreparable harm to Gore was not a consideration.) The vote was 5 to 4.
Supreme Court justices are appointed for life; seven of the nine had been appointed by Republican presidents. Among them, Sandra Day O'Connor had publicly stated that she was eager to retire, but would not do so if a Democrat were elected President. The wife of Clarence Thomas was already working on the Bush transition team, interviewing prospective employees for the new administration. The son of Anthony Scalia was a partner in the law firm representing Bush before the Court. Furthermore, Gore-never imagining they would decide the election-had promised in the campaign that he would appoint no Justices like the rigidly right-wing Thomas and Scalia; Bush had said they were exactly the kind of Justices he wanted. After all, his Dad had picked them.
At 10 p.m. on December 12th, the Court, in another 5-4 decision, ruled against a recount for three reasons: There were only two hours left until the deadline-thanks to them!-therefore it was too late; the Florida Supreme Court had no jurisdiction over an election in Florida; and the recount was unconstitutional, on the grounds that the various kinds of ballots and ways to count them violated the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees "equal protection" for all citizens. Although the political bias and mendacity of these grounds were blatant, Bush was now legally and irrevocably the President.
The decision presented a practical dilemma. Every community in the US votes in a different way, with different ballots and different machines. Claiming that this difference was unconstitutional would clearly open the way to challenges to every future local and national election in the country. So the Court, even more astonishingly, also ruled that this constitutional violation only applied to this one election this one time in Florida.
The heart of the matter was articulated by Justice John Paul Stevens, in his dissenting opinion: "Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner in this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in this Court as an impartial guardian of the law." Americans, until December 12th, had a blind faith in the Supreme Court: that no matter how corrupt or misguided the Executive or Legislative branches, somehow the lofty disinterest of Justice would prevail. This flagrant politicization of the Court is the greatest shock to the system since Watergate and Nixon's resignation. Its repercussions remain to be seen.
There are coups led by powerful individuals to install themselves, and coups where powerful forces install a figurehead. This American version is clearly the latter. In terms of previous government service, George W. Bush is the least qualified person ever to become President. For most of his life, he has been a type familiar to most of us from late adolescence: the bad boy rich kid, the one who always has a new idea for a party or a prank. Grandson of a well-known Senator and Ambassador; son of a Congressman, Ambassador, CIA chief, Vice President, and President; his family connections got him into Yale and Harvard, where he spent his time on things like personally branding the initiates of his fraternity with a hot iron. Having graduated with the old Ivy League "Gentleman's C," the family secured him loans of millions of dollars from wealthy friends to start a series of businesses that all failed.
Success came when his father was elected President. A group of Texas millionaires decided to buy a mediocre baseball team, and they shrewdly installed the President's son as general manager. His mission was to persuade Texas to build a stadium for the team, entirely at taxpayers' expense. He succeeded, and a luxurious stadium was built, drawing the crowds. There was no doubt that Bush Jr. was a friendly and persuasive guy and, now that he had renounced his lifelong excesses with alcohol and drugs and, as they say, let Jesus Christ into his heart, it was apparent on the golf courses where these decisions are made that Jr. would make a fine governor. A few months after his election, the baseball team was sold for a fortune, and the partners decided to give him many millions more-out of their own pockets-than his proper share. This was, of course, to reward his fine work, and not because he was the Governor with billions of dollars of contracts to award.
Bush may not be as stupid as he is tirelessly portrayed by cartoonists and television comedians-the most popular website of the moment is bushorchimp.com, comparative photographs of Bush and chimpanzees-but he may be the least curious person on earth. What is known about him is what he does not do. He does not read books, go to the movies, watch television, or listen to music of any kind. Despite his wealth, his only travels outside of the US have been a single beach vacation in Mexico, a short business trip to Saudi Arabia, and a summer vacation in China when his father was Ambassador, where he spent his time, reportedly, trying to "date Chinese women." During the five weeks when the election results were being contested, Bush remained secluded at his ranch, where he does not have a television. In other words, he was the one person in America not transfixed by the intricacies of the continuing story. Like a Chinese Emperor, his only source of information was what his ministers told him.
He is in bed by ten and takes long naps during the day; he always carries his beloved pillow with him. He likes to play solitaire on a computer and something called Video Golf; his favorite food is a peanut butter sandwich. As Governor, he never read reports, but depended on summaries from assistants; details bore him. His difficulties with the English language are legendary, and there is a website, updated daily, of his mangled sentences. One journalist has speculated that he has a serious reading disability. Bush responded-and this is neither a joke nor apocryphal-"That woman who said I have dyslexia, I never even interviewed her!"
Yet, almost half of the voters (that is, 24% of the eligible voters, since only 50% actually voted) voted for him, thanks less to Bush's abilities than to Gore's ineptness. Gore, in a neurotic insistence on disassociating himself from Clinton as a person-even though no one imagined he'd be having Monicas under his desk-refused to run on the eight Clinton-Gore years of economic prosperity. Nor did he ever bother to link Bush to the more unpopular aspects of the Republican Party, including their continual investigations of Clinton and the impeachment hearings-a six-year, slow-motion coup attempt that ultimately failed. The election, in the end, came down to who was perceived as a nicer guy. Gore had the mannerisms of a very nervous kindergarten teacher trying to be patient, while Bush was simply the guy who brings the beer to the party.
The last friendly dodo to be President, Ronald Reagan, was extreme in his servitude to what Eisenhower famously called the "military-industrial complex." Taxes on corporations and the rich were cut to almost nothing, defense spending escalated astronomically, the country went from a surplus to a trillion-dollar deficit, the middle class became poor, and the poor were devastated. Bush, however, belongs to a new power structure, one that may well prove even more frightening: the military-industrial-Christian fundamentalist complex.
It is clear to everyone, left and right, that the least important man in the new administration is George W. Bush. His ignorance of all aspects of government and the world is so complete that he will be depending entirely on the advice of those in the senior positions. Many of them come from the Pentagon. His Vice President, Dick Cheney-universally seen as potentially the most powerful Vice President ever-was Bush Sr.'s Secretary of Defense during the Persian Gulf War. The Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, is a charismatic man with a moving personal story of rising from poverty, but it should not be forgotten that he helped cover up the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, oversaw the contras in Nicaragua, and led both the invasion of Panama and the Gulf War. (His appointment is also a violation of the unwritten rule that the State Department and the Pentagon, the diplomats and the generals, should remain separate to keep each other in check.) The Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, is an old Cold Warrior who served in the same position under Gerald Ford in the 1970s and presumably has been defrosted from a cryogenic tank. He is well known for his opposition to all forms of arms controls and enthusiasm for warfare conducted in outer space.
Their principal concerns will be to resurrect Reagan's science-fiction Star Wars defense system (against whom is unclear) and, equally terrifying, a return to Iraq. In their circles, the Gulf War is seen as a failure because it did not end with the assassination of Saddam Hussein. Bush must vindicate his father, and Cheney and Powell must vindicate themselves. On Day One of the Bush presidency, the front pages of the newspapers were already carrying stories about the buildup of "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq. The only spontaneous news, of course, is earthquakes and plane crashes; the rest is always created by someone. If the economy sinks, as it probably will, a return to Iraq will certainly be the most expedient distraction.
Clinton's corporate friends tended to be from Wall Street or Hollywood; his last act as President was to pardon a long list of white-collar swindlers and thieves. But at least his corporate allies were environmentally benign. Bush's capitalist universe is the Texan world of oil, energy, mining, and logging corporations.
Clinton had put a freeze on the economic exploitation of federal lands and declared millions of acres as protected wilderness areas. Bush has already announced his intention to open up those lands, most notably in Alaska, for mining and oil drilling. (Even his loyal brother is fighting him over plans to set up oil derricks off the Florida beaches.) While Bush was Governor of Texas, Houston became the most polluted city in America because he instituted a policy of voluntary compliance with pollution regulations-and, needless to say, none of the heavy industries bothered to comply. His new Secretary of the Interior, Gayle Norton, refused to prosecute polluters when she was Attorney General of Colorado, enthusiastically supports mining and drilling in the national parks and voluntary compliance with environmental laws, does not believe that global warming is caused by humans and, most bizarrely, opposes regulations to prohibit lead in paint. The new head of the Environmental Protection Agency was the Governor of New Jersey, the second most polluted state (after Texas), where she also promoted voluntary compliance. The new Secretary of Labor is anti-union, and opposed to minimum-wage laws and workplace safety regulations. The new Secretary of Energy is a former Senator who unsuccessfully introduced a bill to abolish the Department of Energy.
Excerpted from WHAT HAPPENED HERE by ELIOT WEINBERGER Copyright © 2005 by Eliot Weinberg. Excerpted by permission.
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|Prelude : the city of peace||1|
|Un Coup d'Etat Toujours Abolira le Hasard||7|
|New York : the day after||23|
|New York : three weeks after||34|
|New York : four weeks after||44|
|New York : one year after||50|
|New York : sixteen months after||65|
|Where is the west?||78|
|Two years after||85|
|Bush the poet||96|
|A few facts & questions||100|
|Republicans : a prose poem||109|
|Freedom is on the march||139|
|What I heard about Iraq||144|