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With election at a stalemate, coverage shifts into overkill


As is usually the case when I’m in California, the talk turned to real estate. A 75-year-old retiree told me exactly how much it cost him to buy all the cacti surrounding his pool. A stockbroker from Seattle said the house she recently bought was originally owned by Col. Tom Parker and had a TV room that was specially built for Elvis Presley. Everyone talked about someone named Sven, who was moving out of a beautiful home down the street to a smaller, less attractive and more expensive place 10 blocks away simply because it was a snazzier neighborhood.

No one talked about the stillborn presidential election, which seemed odd since we were all college-educated adults attending a private cocktail party in tony Palm Springs. I had always imagined that people who went to such parties talked about nothing but politics. These revelers, however, were providing a sharp contrast to what The New York Times called “an audience communally obsessed [and] privately agape” at the Florida recount.

Even my mother, who lives in Florida, wasn’t interested in talking about it. “Frankly, I’m sick of it,” she said when I called her just after the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would review the Bush team’s request to ignore the recount. Though she had voted for Gore she didn’t find much to approve of in the behavior on either side.

“Side” is the operative word here, since the news shows gave the impression that what was going on was beyond the control of the two men who were putatively fighting it out. What made the coverage annoying was how exuberantly the press played up and, consequently, fortified partisan antipathies. Democrats were invariably asked if they didn’t think Mr. Gore wasn’t being a sore loser, while Republicans were always asked what exactly it was about the recount they were afraid of.

Freed from the unpleasant responsibility of making policy relevant and understandable to an electorate that wanted everything explained in terms of their own individualized needs, the media happily stirred things up. Nothing they could do would change the outcome, so why not profile and analyze every smallest player and his brother’s dog until the outcome was known?

This mischievous tone was best represented by Chris Matthews, the motormouth political pundit of CNBC’s “Hardball,” which is a less civil alternative to ABC’s “Nightline.” Matthews’ job is to bring the art of the political interview into a more realistic but no less informed realm of discourse. He does this by referring to any group of like-minded people as “these guys” and speculating to the brink of libel about activities that go on behind closed doors. Hearing him expound, red-faced, on the vagaries of the Florida recount to the exclusion of everyone else on his show was like watching an overloaded Cuisinart freak out.

While it was obvious that some high-ranking Floridians were pursuing personal agendas, the media encouraged the idea that the whole state was either dishonest or stupid or both. “I don’t think I can be funnier than the state of Florida is being,” commented novelist Carl Hiaasen during a yuk-filled analysis that also included fellow Florida-based humorists Dave Barry and Edna Buchanan. “In Miami, they only count the ballots with bullet holes,” joked Barry.

I missed the episode of “Saturday Night Live” where they parodied Katherine Harris, the much-reviled Florida secretary of state who on Monday declared Bush the winner. But the affable and lukewarm host of NBC’s “Today Show,” Katie Couric, assured her viewers that the skit was “pretty cruel.”

As inevitably happens when a story is analyzed past the saturation point, the coverage itself was now being covered. The New York Times kept referring to the whole mess as “theater,” somehow forgetting its own role as stage manager.

Conspicuously missing from these acts of self-reflection was talk about the premature predictions of a winner on election night and shortly thereafter, an embarrassment that the recount effectively erased from everybody’s memory. The Japanese media were still having a field day with that mess, rerunning the Dan Rather and CNN faux pas over and over, chuckling at the humiliation of those cheeky Americans. (They, of course, would get their own comeuppance a week later when those dirty, rotten LDP traitors decided not to rebel. Oh, the humanity! Oh, the missed opportunity!)

The overkill was compared to the O.J. Simpson saga or the Monica Lewinsky imbroglio in scale, but there was one big difference: As the drama unfolded it seemed to me that more people were becoming less concerned with the outcome. They weren’t all, like my mother, “sick of it,” nor were they necessarily turned off by the less salutary behavior of the principal players. They were simply more impressed by the hubbub than what the hubbub was about.

It may have had to do with my vantage point. Palm Springs is traditionally Republican, but the town’s most famous citizen, Bob Hope, is almost dead; and in the past five years or so the area has attracted, on the one hand, more young families and, on the other, a sizable upscale gay population that is buying up all those famous desert ranch houses that used to belong to people like Liberace. Property values are soaring across the board.

In truth, most of the people I know or met openly told me they voted for Gore, but they didn’t seem to have much stake in his continuing the fight to the bitter end. They were ready to accept Bush if only because that sounded like the quickest return to normality.

A telecommunications executive at the party put it to me this way: He wanted to buy a new car and had been planning to sell some of his company stock because he preferred to pay cash. With the election still undecided, though, the market was in the dumps. Politics means little to a man who’s got a $70,000 BMW on order and nothing to buy it with.