About Those Ads: A Reply to Chatterbox

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Nov. 15 2000 3:30 PM

About Those Ads: A Reply to Chatterbox

In an article yesterday, Chatterbox's Timothy Noah cited a couple of New York Times ads about the election and ascribed to them the doleful word "fiasco." I was one of the signatories of those ads and recruited some of the other signatories and generally helped, in a minor way, to put the thing together. I'd like to explain why said fiasco was actually a smashing triumph, despite a few lamentable glitches.

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In the rush of recent Floridian events, it's easy to forget that, in the first hours after the election, an enormous tide of pundit opinion rose up to press Al Gore to concede defeat. Patriotism, national stability, international stability, and market stability, not to mention the fortunes of the Republican Party, were said to require Al Gore to do the gentlemanly thing and throw in the towel. Now, some of us, in gazing at the election statistics, had come away with the impression that, on the contrary, Gore had won, not just in the popular vote nationwide. Even in Florida, he seemed to have won a plurality of the intended votes, judging from whatever was visible beneath the clouds of electoral murk.

And so, the tide of pundit opinion did seem worrisome. Personally, I found it shocking. I began to think that, if the instant conventional wisdom was left unchallenged, the pressure on Gore to concede the election might become irresistible, and his apparent victory (as I saw it) might be turned into a defeat with disastrous effects on democracy, even apart from Democracy. So I conferred with a few friends, who were in similar states of shock. And we set out to counter the tide of pundit opinion as quickly and visibly as we could, hoping to forestall the forestallable.

A couple of friends composed a statement, to which I and other people contributed a few editorial comments. We circulated the statement. We recruited still other people to sign and to pay for the ad. Timothy Noah in his article makes it sound like our ad called for nothing in particular. Not so. We called for the murk in Florida to be clarified in a careful and just manner. We called for legal and democratic processes to straighten out the mess, which was quite different from asking Al Gore to straighten it out by taking a dive. We didn't know exactly what legal or democratic processes would be appropriate, and so we suggested different possibilities. We cited the precedent from the disputed election of 1876 (which Noah found especially amusing, for some reason). We mentioned a revote in Palm Beach County as another possibility. And we addressed ourselves to the Florida Election Commission, which Noah likewise found somewhat humorous.

But to whom should we have addressed ourselves? It ought to have been obvious, in any case, that we were addressing ourselves to the public. We were saying: Wait a minute. This election isn't being fairly resolved. Let's find out who actually won, in reality and not just in appearance. Let's find a proper resolution and stop calling on Al Gore to back down.

Were we foolish to say such things? In the days since those ads appeared, many people have taken a similar position. But in those first moments, hardly anyone was speaking up. So we stood up and were among the first to do so, and I think that we did help to break up a very foolish tide of opinion in the media.

The ad ran a second day and had to be cut to fit a smaller space. In cutting sentences, the tentativeness of our proposed solutions to the crisis was lost. That was definitely a glitch. I think that many of us who signed the ad didn't and don't really care what the exact solution to the election crisis should be so long as it is in conformity with America's democratic idea--that is, so long as the voters end up with the final say. The lawyers who signed our ad are especially unhappy about the loss of vagueness in our language, and they are right to be. It might have been better to have the lawyers write the ad and have the rest of us sign it.

But I should point out that, in efforts like ours, slip-ups always occur. We are a group of friends; we are not a well-oiled political machine. We did this by the seat of our pants in a few hours. All kinds of mistakes took place that Noah didn't even mention. Philip Roth signed the ad, and somehow his name ended up misspelled. Imagine! Some very distinguished people signed and were supposed to be listed, but their names evaporated among the whirring e-mails. It's always like that when you try to throw together a political response in a few hours.

But our main message got out. To wit: The election was conducted shoddily, at best; the election should be resolved through careful, legal, and democratic procedures and not by saying, oh, what the hell, let George Bush have his way. That message was correct.

A couple of years ago, at the height of the effort to drive Bill Clinton out of office, some of us, in a similar state of patriotic panic, organized a teach-in at New York University. All kinds of wonderful speakers got up to address the crowd and the C-SPAN cameras. Arthur Schlesinger, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, Elie Wiesel, Ronald Dworkin, and Toni Morrison were among those who stood at the podium. Jessye Norman stood up in the audience and sang "America the Beautiful." Allow me to point out that Walter Shapiro wrote a Chatterbox item about that event, too, and found it similarly ridiculous. The column can be very good at sneering.