To what end?

Mostly tuned in, with droll patience

By Scot Lehigh, 11/19/2000

sked to differentiate between degrees of bad luck, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli had no trouble: ''If Gladstone fell into the Thames that would be a misfortune. And if anybody pulled him out, that ... would be a calamity.''

If only the American media-political complex had the same puckish sense of perspective about recent events.

Instead, as Election 2000 detoured through the Sunshine State and headed into what could be its final chapter, the airwaves dripped with pundits' humid talk about anxious citizens, impending crises, and the national need for closure.

But the voters themselves have been holding up just fine. In fact, during the 12 days the nation has gone without knowing who its next chief executive will be, the electorate has displayed patience, humor - and even some entrepreneurial ingenuity - that few would have predicted. All despite the pundits' moaning.

'' What a bunch of crapola,'' snorts Alan Simpson, the Republican former US Senator from Wyoming. ''I don't see people saying this is the worst thing that could happen.... This is an amazing time, but I don't see it as a destructive time at all.''

Simpson's got it right. Actually, this has been kind of fun. And much of America is treating it that way.

Kenneth Berman on the role of the courts. C2

In few shorts days we went from being the gold standard of world democracy to the butt of banana republic jokes - and so far, we seem pretty comfortable laughing at ourselves.

As the dueling former secretaries of state tapped their strategic reserves of dignity to intone in solemn voice about finality or fairness, the grass-roots response could be measured in the ''dings'' announcing the arrival of the latest e-mail joke.

Endless butterfly-ballot takeoffs flew between e-mail boxes, with even using one to pitch its products.

Parodies proliferated. One of the best featured former President Bush, dressed as Dr. Evil from the ''The Spy Who Shagged Me,'' with a diminutive George W. on his knee. ''I will call him Mini-Me,'' the former president announces.

Another spoofed a popular MasterCard ad: ''Haircut at the Mall: $10. Suit off the Rack: $300. Losing the presidential election because 19,000 of your supporters are too damned stupid to ... fill out their ballots properly: priceless.''

A mock proclamation popped up from Queen Elizabeth II, announcing that, since we couldn't settle our own affairs, her royal highness was taking over - and asking that we improve our limited vocabularies and abandon football for soccer.

People followed the news closely - perhaps the widest impact was the national exhaustion experienced by those who stayed up to hear Leno or Letterman's or even Conan O'Brien's take on the day's events - but kept their cool as they tried to follow the dizzying array of legal suits.

''People who waited until after the election to bum out were just procrastinating,'' jokes political satirist Barry Crimmins. ''`Oh, no, there is a problem with our democracy.' `Oh, you just noticed?''' But seriously, says Crimmins, ''No one has been calling me even panicked about it ... It is not like, `Oh, no, please resolve this thing.'''

''The American people have been pretty calm about it,'' agrees historian Paul Boller Jr., author of ''Presidential Campaigns.'' ''It isn't a crisis the way 1876 was.'' One key difference: This standoff seems to be winding down after less than two weeks, while the dispute between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford Hayes dragged on for almost four months.

With the Florida Supreme Court taking up the crucial question of including the hand-counted ballots tomorrow, we'll have to be patient for a while longer.

No one is more sanguine about it all than voters, even as they stay glued to the news. As one, Debra Kirby of Hull, put it, ''This is not a national disaster. It is a national drama.''

She's right - and Americans know the difference. We'll stock up on candles, peanut butter, and bottled water at the slightest hint of a blizzard, but political hysteria leaves us largely unfazed.

Yes, by week's end, public opinion polls did show that Americans wanted the issue resolved sooner rather than later. But only in Florida did tensions run even moderately high. And even there, who could keep from chuckling as a plane passed overhead with a Wizard of Oz message on its trailing banner: ''Surrender, Gorethy.''

Even on talk-radio, the particle-accelerator of partisan grievance, there were no cries of ''Gore or War'' or ''W or trouble for you.'' Locally, not even the conspiratorialist cabal, convinced that the Democrats are out to snaffle Florida and thus the election, could work themselves into paroxysms.

Political consultant Michael Goldman, who has done regular stints since Election Day as a talk-show host on WRKO radio, says most callers are fascinated, but hardly distressed, by the daily developments.

''We have very few people who call up and say we are in a crisis,'' says Goldman. ''It is sort of like the blizzard of 1978: As long as people know it is not going to be there forever, they say, what the hell, let's roll with it and have a good time.''

So why are the American people keeping their heads (and humor) when all about them pundits are losing theirs?

Part of it is that, post-Cold War, the presidency doesn't command our attention quite the same way it once did.

Back when the United States and the Soviet Union glared at each other across a breach of distrust politically unbridgeable, but spannable by an ICBM in less than an hour's time, the presidency commanded a far greater claim on the American imagination.

But what H. G. Wells said of the death of Queen Victoria is equally true of the end of the Cold War: It removed a paperweight that had sat on men's minds for a generation.

That's one reason the presidency now rests so lightly on our imagination. Simply put, the president no longer seems as central to our lives. Although President Clinton didn't disappear from Washington for months at a time to conduct his office by mail and messenger the way John Adams did, or take all August off, as was President Reagan's wont, a casual observer could nevertheless lose metaphorical sight of the president for weeks on end.

That would be true even if he Clinton administration hadn't, for the last few years, been mostly about trifles and tiddlywinks, for notions about the role of government in domestic life have changed sharply, says John Samples, director of the Cato Institute's Center for Representative Government.

In the 1960s and 1970s, ''There was a concept that the core of the society was government and that the president was the only one with the ability to lead and energize the government,'' says Samples. Now we've entered a period where preserving the boat-lifting effects of a strong economy seems more important than mild attempts at social engineering.

And the president isn't seen as the key actor there.

In May, when a Los Angeles Times survey asked who deserved credit for the strong economy, the technology industry handily outstripped the president. Meanwhile, as Americans have become more economically literate, they've come to see Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan as just as important as the president in determining the nation's economy.

The dramatic increase in the number of Americans with 401Ks or IRAs or other stock market investments means millions of middle-class citizens have a greater stake in keeping the market healthy and interest rates reasonable than in the enticement offered by Al Gore or George Bush.

The change from homo politicus to homo economicus has softened the edges of American politics. Many Americans can eye the Florida fandango with a detached fascination, interested in the strategic struggle underway, but without feeling like their own well-being necessarily hangs in the balance.

Another measure of how our relationship with the Oval Office has changed is in our reaction to presidential dishonesty. When in May 1960, it became obvious that President Eisenhower had deceived the nation in denying that the United States had sent Gary Powers's U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, the revelation disillusioned the nation and helped hurry Ike into lame duck-dom.

Today, millions of Americans casually accept the notion that our president is a practiced prevaricator - and shrug as Gore jests about the story he offered in a federal fundraising probe.

If some of the cynicism is unfortunate, our changing feelings about the presidency have helped us endure the closest election since 1876 with patience, laughter, and remarkable repose.