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UNPRESIDENTED

George Bush Steals the White House and All We Do is Crack Jokes About It

By William J. Mann

The bumper stickers were inevitable. "Don't Throw Away Your Vote. Let Katherine Harris Do It For You."

Okay, so I laughed. I'm sure the lesbian who put it on her car laughed too. The printer who ran it through the press and the typesetter who put it together no doubt had a big guffaw as well. Comedians are embracing Bush's victory as the best thing since Monica.

"Bush trusts the people but not if it involves counting," said Letterman.

"Disney gave us Mickey, Florida gave us Dumbo," said Leno.

"My parents retired to Florida and all I got was this lousy president," said Joy Behar.

Everybody's getting into the act. "Hey, it ain't over til your brother counts the votes!" a friend shouted to me at a local bar. Seems the whole country's laughing.

Especially the folks who stole this thing right out from under Gore's ass.

Call me a curmudgeon, but all this hilarity is starting to bug me. Humor has its place; it's gotten us through a lot. But is that all we can do? Crack jokes? Not to be too original here, but there's a divide smack dab down the middle of the good old U.S. of A. -- and I'm starting to feel the side I'm on just doesn't have the Right Stuff. Let's face it: behind the laughter something really iniquitous has taken place in this nation. The guy who won the presidential campaign isn't moving into the White House. The guy who lost is. And all we're doing about it is being wry and witty.

During the month-long debacle of the Florida recount, I'd flick the remote throughout the day to see who was up, who was down. At my gym, we'd gather around the TV in between bench presses to hiss Katherine Harris or cheer the Florida Supremes. But behind Greta Van Sustern or Bill Hemmer there always seemed to be a throng of Bush supporters, with their "Thou Shalt Not Steal" signs. The chutzpah! To charge the Democrats with trying to steal the election!

I was on the phone immediately with a friend in the labor movement. "Where are your people?" I asked. "Why aren't there as many Gore supporters protesting as there are Bush people?"

She sighed. "They've beaten us at our own game. Used to be we had the edge when it came to protesting." She paused. "But then, we never had to pay our protesters."

For solace, I turned to Barney Frank. Thank God for Barney Frank. "Bush should be grateful for this whole Florida mess," he told Chris Matthews on MSNBC. "Otherwise the headline would have been 'Loser Wins.'"

Exactly. Somewhere in the midst of all the Bushfolk's "Sore Loserman" signs, a bit of Orwellian alchemy took place: Gore became the loser and Bush the winner. The spin from the Bush camp completely erased Gore's popular-vote victory from people's minds, a popular vote that has (unlike other close races) actually grown steadily as supplementary returns have trickled in. The day after the election, Gore's lead stood at 97,773. A week ago it had reached 357,576, with experts predicting the final plurality for Gore over Bush would be between a quarter million and four hundred thousand.

Four hundred thousand. And it's Gore who they're calling a loser!

Once, despite what the Constitution says about electoral votes, I had thought that the court of public opinion wouldn't tolerate a non-popularly elected president. Once, I had thought the media would be so relentless and savaging that anybody trying to claim the White House without a majority of the popular vote would be hounded and humiliated.

But that's not what's happened. Back when the Monica mess was dominating the nation's news, I remember being heartened by the American public's reaction: they didn't care. Try as they might, the Right couldn't get the nation outraged. I took it as a sign that the nation had matured. Finally, I felt in sync with the majority. I felt maybe we were coming to share some common values. But it appears it was just apathy. They didn't care about a president's affiar with an intern. That I could understand. But they also apparently don't care that the real winner of the election is being denied the presidency.

Pick up a copy of any newspaper and there's Bush smiling away (he tries, but it still comes across as a smirk), appointing his cabinet, trying his best to look presidential. It's business as usual, with nobody saying a goddamn thing about legitimacy or constitutional crises. Right from the start, the media seemed in a rush to get this thing done. Commentators relinquished any appearance of objectivity by openly groaning at the Florida Supreme Court's eleventh-hour decision to restart the hand-counting -- then sighing with relief when the U.S. Supremes ruled against them.

What was up with that? I'll leave it to The Nation to expound on the influence of corporate ownership of the news media, but suffice to say it did seem a little peculiar that the networks (particularly the all-news cable channels) acted as if they wanted this over and done with as quickly as possible -- when not so long ago they'd all sprouted hard-ons when given the chance to go round-the-clock with Monica and Elian. This time, however, all reporters wanted to do was hound Gore's lawyers with talk of a possible concession, while the most probing they ever got of the Bushfolk was to ask when (not if) they should start calling the Governor "President-elect."

No hard questions, either, about Justice Antonin Scalia's ties to Bush or his supposedly judicious "logic" of not counting all the votes because they might show Gore won Florida -- which would damage a Bush presidency. Yeah, damage it all right: a full count could have prevented it from happening. So what happened to the attack-dog media? Where are Woodward and Bernstein? Oh, right: Bob Woodward's a paid consultant for CNN.

Meanwhile Jesse Jackson keeps calling for demonstrations and hardly anybody shows up. The country may be divided, but only one side seems to have any guts, and it's not the one I'm on. I'm not sure who makes up the two sides: it's too easy to say it's liberal versus conservative, for not everyone who voted for Gore fits a leftist label and not everyone who voted for Bush fits the old right. (Don't even get me started on the Nader people.) It does seem, at least among people I know, that most gays are on the Gore side, but the Log Cabinites and exit polls give the lie to that impression. Rather, it's more a divide based on temperament and tolerance, attitude and point of view -- with each side believing adamantly that their way is the right way. And increasingly, there's little room for compromise.

We've seen it before. Monica, again: where one side believed fiercely that what had taken place was wrong, illegal, immoral -- something so bad it cried out for dramatic remedy. The other side, meanwhile -- the side I'm on -- never felt it was anything worth losing sleep over. But despite calls for "the good of the country" and "the need for unity," those who believed something egregious had taken place pressed on with their cause. They took it all the way to the floor of the United States Senate before being beaten back.

Now it's reversed. Now it's the side I'm on that feels something wrong, illegal, and immoral has taken place. But the difference is: we're not pressing on. Look, there on the front page, spineless Democratic leaders are shaking hands with the new Anti-President Bush (there were Anti-Popes, now there's an Anti-President.) While we might think that what took place in Florida and on the Supreme Court was wrong, our dramatic remedy is vastly different from the other side's. They impeach; we resort to ironic humor. "George W. Bush," another bumper sticker reads. "The President Quayle We Never Had."

Ha ha ha ha ha. Go ahead and laugh. It seems it's all we know how to do.

William J. Mann is a best-selling author and journalist living in Provincetown MA. He can be reached at wmjmann@aol.com.


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