Published in the February 2001 issue of The Progressive
The Phony President
by Barbara Ehrenreich
In the tradition of the Emperor Who Had No Clothes, there is now the President Who Doesn't Have Quite Enough Votes. The Miami Herald is estimating that Bush will come out 20,000 votes short in Florida when the press recount is finished, making him the first President in American history to win neither the popular vote nor the bizarro, archaic, Electoral College vote.
So you have a choice: You can be rude. You can put on one of those "Reelect Gore in '04" bumper stickers. You can start sniggering about how the band ought to play "Hail to the Thief."
Or you can try to make a courteous adjustment. We may not have a President, but we certainly have a "president," so let's try to make the most of it.
True, it takes a little getting used to.
All through the long, dismal campaign, everyone remarked on how "real" W. seemed compared to the congenitally phony Gore, a man who cannot say "pass the salt" without evincing the painful facial exertions of a liar at work. W., with his jaunty stride and trademark Alfred E. Neumann smile, won praise for looking "warm" and "genuine," while Al looked like a fellow whose doctors never could get the lithium dose quite right. Yet the outcome of the election--or should we say "selection"?--is that the "phony" Gore is now a "real" loser, and the "real" W. is only a phony President.
Odd, too, that one of the purposes of the unseemly rush to declare someone--anyone--President, regardless of the actual vote count, was precisely to preserve the "legitimacy of our democratic process." Very early on in the sporadic Florida recount process, the chin-strokers on CNN started to fret that if the recounting dragged on too long, Americans might begin to doubt the infallibility of our institutions and even our system.
In much the same spirit, a state will often execute some poor fellow, despite the discovery of exculpatory evidence, because--hey--the electric chair's already plugged in and any appearance of hesitation might call into question the infallibility of our criminal justice system.
No dithering! That's the American way. Fry 'em, bomb 'em, beam 'em into the Oval Office--and let God sort out the evidence.
I should mention parenthetically that there is at least one tragic difference between an overly hasty execution and a circumvented election: The executed person is no longer with us and is all too quickly forgotten, while the not-actually-elected person can be expected to live for four years or even longer. In the one case, a life of "crime" is abruptly ended; in the other, it's given an enabling boost.
But enough whining! Let's get constructive here and try to figure out, among other things, the etiquette of the situation.
For example, when addressing George W., will it be necessary to raise both hands and make quote marks with one's index and middle fingers while uttering the words "Mr. President"?
Should anchorpersons refer to him as the "so-called President," or is the "quote-President" marginally more respectful? One thing seems clear already: Other nations will not have to send their actual heads-of-state to meet with him. Any third-generation ex-pat czarina will do.
Here's a weightier question: Do the quote marks now extend to the federal government itself? Can a "president" preside over an actual government, or should his jurisdiction be considered only a "government"?
Here we turn to no less an expert than W. himself, who has sent numerous signals that the government he will be running should not be taken too seriously. How else to interpret his assertion that Social Security is not a federal program, or his recent playful reference to HUD as the "Department of Housing and Human Development"?
Then there's that tax cut. By renouncing the power of taxation--in fact, persisting in his proposal for a $1.6 trillion tax cut--W. is clearly signaling that ours is just a "government."
Other, far deeper questions come into play: Can a population headed by a "president" be considered a bona fide nation, or is it only a "nation," as in the magazine or the Nation of Islam?
During the recount process, the phrase "banana republic" was batted around, suggesting that the USA had become something less than an actual nation--perhaps an overpriced clothing chain.
Once you start chipping away at the "legitimacy of our system," you are well along the way to the kind of looking-glass world occupied by Nicholas Cage in The Family Man. Who are you, really? What are you doing here, and why are you doing it?
Finally, the question that Al Gore and his lawyers are probably pondering right now: Can a "president" be impeached? In this case, probably not, since he will always be able to fall back on the argument that he was not actually elected, and hence that the only legitimate impeach-ee is Al Gore himself. Should W. commit any high crimes or misdemeanors, you can expect to see Al go to jail for him, with the Supreme Court's hearty approval. After all, W. is just impersonating a president, which is no crime at all--look at all those Reagan masks.
And speaking of masks, there was serious discussion about having the inauguration blast be, for the first time in history, a masked ball. The Secret Service nixed the plan, but why not? Be what you want to be--"Pope," "Napoleon," "Hillary," "President."
Reality is for losers (or winners, depending on how many of the votes you bother to count).
So get into the spirit of it! Don't pay taxes in April; just send the IRS a bill. All that time you wasted watching campaign coverage and following the recount process should now be considered billable hours. You took the election seriously--earnest soul that you are--and deserve to be paid for playing the role of "citizen" in the drama that led to our first American "president."
Copyright 2001 The Progressive - Madison, WI