French President Charles de Gaulle once famously asked the rhetorical question, "How can you govern a country with 250 different kinds of cheese?"
Big deal. In this respect, America is far more "French," to continue the apt analogy, than France is. We may not have 250 different kinds of domestic cheese, but if you include our many "immigrant" cheeses, such as Welsh Caerphilly, Spanish Manchego and Polish Morski, you begin to see the problem. Not only do we have a lot of cheeses, but none of the labels are in the same language. Try to govern a country like that.
Consider this well-know anecdote from America's earliest days as a young democracy:
Following months of rancor and wrangling between deeply divided delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a weary Benjamin Franklin emerged from Philadelphia's Liberty Hall. There, on the wet, mossy cobblestone street he encountered a young woman who immediately recognized the gout-plagued old inventor-printer-patriot.
The woman, aware of the gravity of the negotiations which had been taking place in the venerable building, stopped the elder statesman and asked, "Dr. Franklin, what have we got?"
Franklin replied "A Constitution, Madame, if you can keep it!"
The woman thought about this for a moment, then kicked Franklin in the balls, informed him that his stove was a piece of shit, too, and walked away, repairing to Alexander Hamilton's house for, as she wrote in recently discovered private correspondence, "ƒex."
(Bowing to the conventions of the day, Hamilton not only bragged about the steamy affair to his drinking buddies at the Sons of Liberty pub, but published a brief acknowledgement of it in newspapers up and down the Atlantic Coast. The public reaction was so positive that Hamilton decided to serialize the accounts of the tryst in increasingly graphic monthly installments. When the woman succumbed to Yellow Fever, Hamilton simply continued making up stories as if nothing had happened, launching a pornographic empire which remains intact to this day, in the form of the longest running continuously published men's magazine in America, Alexander Hamilton's "Gent.")
No, governing America has never been easy, but it's even harder now that we're overrun with Welshmen, Spaniards and Poles.
Which is why we have decided to forego jokes and jocularity this month in favor of bringing fresh perspective to an election which many have called the most important in a generation. The issues involved are complicated and serious; they deserve careful scrutiny and quiet deliberation.
Most of us will be voting for Mr. Kerry, because Mr. Bush is a douchebag.
But this is not a unanimous opinion. Jeff Mandel writes us from prison...
Overheated partisan bickering is all well and good, but what have we learned from the candidates themselves?
Mr. Bush has told us that he wants to "put a leash" on his two daughters. Washington superlawyer Robert Bennett's retarded brother William might think this is recommendation for the highest office in the land -- he has often pleaded for a return to "exquisite" corporal punishment at our leading universities--- but we disagree, although we'd like to see the photos.
Otherwise, unless we read the newspapers and visit their websites, we have to rely on hearsay and gossip to learn what the candidates really think.
Example: Not once during this campaign have we heard either candidate discuss public transportation. Not once. We have to go back 10 years to an interview in "Cigar Aficionado" to find out that First Lady Laura Bush believes that "subways are like sex, just there to keep the blacks happy."
Nor are the media helping. CBS, on the heels of its "60 Minutes" documents fiasco, has announced that it will no longer cover the campaign at all, because, in the words of Viacom chairman the late Sumner Redstone, "covering the election prior to the election might influence the outcome of the election."
Of course, this isn't the first time style has won out over substance. Consider the words of publisher Benjamin Bache describing John Adams in the first contested American election in 1796, urging a vote against "His Rotundity [with his] sesquipedality of belly." Not only were they fond of an insult back then, they just made up nasty sounding words that didn't even exist.
A century later, William Howard Taft was known as a dapper dresser, but that was in the days when a man was judged by the amount of cigar ash on his shirt.
And what to make of the election of 1980? Ronald Reagan, who, it is universally agreed, looked like an avuncular serial poisoner, won out over the incumbent Jimmy Carter, who my wife wouldn't vote for because his name was "Jimmy."
Which brings us to today. We are offered one candidate who believes that God chose him to run the country into the ground, and another who believes he can do it all by himself.
So, we continue to look for guidance to an older, wiser generation, the "Greatest Generation," the generation that gave us station wagons and the interstate highway system to drive them on.
They smoked. They drank. They smoked some more. They beat the crap out of snot-nosed middle class draft resisters and bra burning debuttantes alike. They took long shots and short naps. They wore simple Republican cloth coats and went toe to toe with Kruschev, forcing him to take off his shoe in humiliation.
It was good while it lasted...but on a bleak winter day in early 1978 it ended. That was the day I moved to Los Angeles, but it's a whole different story.
In any event, the dream was over and we were left with either a ravaged landscape of bargain hunting bleakness or an exciting new world of everyday values --- take your pick, just get to the checkout line before the bent old lady with the coupons and food stamps does. Or we'll never get out of here.
So, we ask -- who will protect that sad woman? Who will protect us? The answer, says the poet, is not in us, but in ourselves.
Look, 364 days a year Bill Gates is a lot richer than you are. But on November second, you are equally wealthy...in votes! You each have one. Everybody gets just one, except for some Cubans down in Florida, but that's only fair.