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Rosalea Barker: Ada v. Gloria

Rosalea Barker: Ada v. Gloria

One particular TV ad in the "got milk?" campaign has been playing rather a lot in the last 36 days. It features a young guy stuffing what looks like a giant Oreo (cameo creme) in his mouth while walking around a zoo. He stops outside a chimpanzee cage and taunts the monkey with the food, saying "Want some?", then whisks it out of the primate's reach every time it gets near to grabbing it. Noticing a food kiosk nearby the guy strides purposefully over to it, whereupon the woman serving in the kiosk abruptly pulls down the bars to close up shop and waves a carton of milk just out of his reach.

Well, George W. Bush got the milk AND the cookie after all, and Al Gore is going down home to mend fences so as to persuade the lady in the kiosk to open up shop for him again some time in the future. Not that I think he's a taunter or that Bush is a monkey, but it is the year of the snake coming up and hell, let's face it, they're both politicians. Both their speeches this evening were political speeches and already sounded tiresome and trite and like the political campaign all over again.

And the analysts were in on it straight away, saying it was significant that Gore congratulated Bush on "becoming" President rather than on "being elected" President. Vox pops taken by local TV stations immediately after Gore's speech produced reactions ranging from "it obviously came from the heart" to "it obviously was completely phony" - reactions that were reflected in the opinions of political analysts as well. One woman in Oakland said that at least some good has come out of it: "Hillary Rodham Clinton will be our next President."

Presidential historians opined that when people look back in 100 years this will be remembered as the time "we found our democracy in need of repair". Another commentator on the same programme said that every element of the election process has been tarnished, from the media right through to the Supreme Court. A lone protester doggedly tried to get his or her placard seen behind an on-air reporter filing a report from Washington, but all we got a glimpse of was "MEDIA HACKS".

All the talk of healing and bipartisan government and the quotes from Lincoln and Jefferson and the inscriptions on statues and buildings that have been bandied around in the last hour by commentators and candidates alike are just so much syrupy icing being poured over a cake that has been well and truly left out in the rain. Nonetheless I'm a sucker for stirring talk like Gore's quote from his dad that "defeat can serve as well as victory to shake the soul and let the glory out." Or was that "shape"?

Six months ago I didn't know a thing about how the US political system worked. I went to night school and took a high school course in what they call "Civics"; a month ago Americans went to the polls and took the same course writ large. Yet for all the talk about how this election will make more people go out and vote, in the run-off election held yesterday for nine of the 11 positions on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (city council) less than 25 percent of registered voters bothered to vote.

So, on a day when the US Cole is returned to a naval shipyard on the Mississippi for repairs, the hawks get the White House. I know I watch too many movies and too much television and my brain gets addled but I couldn't help feeling a chill when I saw that first shot of the Chamber of the Texas House of Representatives before the Speaker came out to introduce the President-Elect. It reminded me of a movie I haven't seen in a while, but one of my favourite political movies ever.

It's called "Ada" and the eponymous star of the film is Susan Hayward. Her co-star is Dean Martin, cast - incongruously perhaps but with surprising success - as a country singer who is enormously popular and who gets talked into running for office in a western state. Was it Texas? Was that the same visitors gallery where Susan Hayward sits to watch her husband finally break free of his manipulators? Damned if I can remember the name of that fine British actor who specialises in machiavellian roles, but he's tall and thin and doesn't look a bit like the new Vice President and he's in it as well.

It's fascinating that the trait that is the most refreshing about the American people is also the thing that's led to this bloody battle in Florida - their utterly staunch defence of the notion of individuality. If it puzzles you that the canvassing boards couldn't agree on some kind of standards state wide - or even district wide - for the inclusion or not of dimpled chads then puzzle no more. That is the very essence of the American way.

I first encountered it helping out at a conference, where first one person would say: Put the name tags in alphabetical order, and then someone else would come along and say: No, put them in order of the company they represent. They didn't argue about it because there was nothing to argue about - they were both right and everyone accepted they were both right and had an equal right to have things done each and either way.

If the Florida Supreme Court had ordered the various county canvassing boards to all apply the same standards to the vote recounts - as the US Supreme Court suggested not once but twice it should do - it would have violated this fundamental principle of the right of individuals to exercise their own discretion. Ironically, it was concern about violation of what seems to be the same principle - equal treatment for every individual under the law - that was at the heart of the second US Supreme Court opinion.

Now, can we all please get some sleep?

Lea Barker
Wednesday, 13 December PT

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