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What Happened To Idealism?
Published on Tuesday, November 14, 2000 in the Boston Globe
What Happened To Idealism?
by Joan Vennochi
IN THE MIDST of the country's ongoing political crisis, we packed up the kids in the family minivan and took a ride to a more innocent time: the '60s. Legendary folk artist Bob Dylan was in town, and we planned to share the rhythm of one generation with the next. But what began as a simple exercise in musical nostalgia ended as something else - a longing for a time when the struggle wasn't over power, but righteousness.

The '60s are remembered for their turbulence, even chaos. A president, his brother, and the country's top civil rights leader were assassinated. America was ripped apart by racial strife and torn over its involvement in the Vietnam War.

In spite of those events - maybe, because of them - idealism flourished. The battle lines seemed clear. On one side, stood the young; on the other side, the old. One side represented peace and love; the other side, napalm and materialism.

Perhaps that is an overly romantic, simplistic view of history. But at least it is possible to look back and glean a collective purpose from that period of struggle. Forty years from now, what will our children see when they look back at this time of struggle?

As George W. Bush and Al Gore squabble over victory in Florida and elsewhere, the only great cause they seek to promote is their own.

As candidates, they were afraid to stand for much of anything. Now locked in the limbo of being pretend president-elects, neither one looks particularly presidential.

There is a campy foolishness to Bush and running mate Dick Cheney, as they plan a premature transition dressed in matching shirts and ties. And the same is true of Gore and running mate Joe Lieberman, as they try to look natural in matching sweaters and khakis, under the most unnatural of circumstances.

As for their emissaries, it is hard to favor one over the other.

Bush's representative, former Secretary of State James Baker, wears a snarl on his lips and a cold glint in his eye. One minute, he stands on the brick plaza between Tallahassee's old Capitol building and its new one and pledges to abide by Florida law, a law that authorizes hand ballot recounts.

Because the Bush camp fears a hand recount will hand Florida's electoral votes to Gore, they change their mind about honoring state law. So, with no trace of embarrassment, Baker switches gears and announces Bush would file suit in federal court to stop the hand ballot counting.

On the surface, Gore's representative, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher is all scholarly courtliness. On his way up to a strategy session in Tallahassee with Gore campaign manager William Daley, he is asked if he worries about the impact of the impasse on the country. ''Of course we worry about it,'' he says. ''We're very conscious of our historic responsibility. None of us wants to cause any damage to the country, and certainly the vice president doesn't want to do that ... Right now, we think we have a big obligation to try and see that there's a full and fair count.''

Such high-minded rhetoric doesn't hide the less-than-noble truth. The Democrats are going ballot-hunting and won't back down until the ballots fall their way.

On both sides, this fight is not over principle, but ego.

It's not about wanting to govern, but about wanting to control the perks of government.

The Democrats feel them slipping from their hands. The Republicans held the promise for an instant on election night and now struggle to get it back in their grasp.

As this extraordinary power struggle plays out, most Americans are mere observers, the antithesis of what is supposed to happen in a democracy. A few are willing pawns and props, hustled out onto the Florida streets to parade in front of television cameras.

For the country, I think the greatest frustration is not so much about the lack of resolution to the presidential election, but about the feeling of helplessness about bringing it to a close.

It's out of the voters' hands, and in the hands of political operatives and constitutional lawyers.

Not so very long ago, people, especially young people, believed they had the power. They believed their actions mattered. They believed their participation could bring about positive change. They could sing about the answer ''blowin' in the wind,'' as Bob Dylan did the other night, and feel hopeful, not silly.

For all the turbulence, it really was a time of innocence, wasn't it? Today, there is just turbulence.

Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company


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