- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2000

It was close, it was drawn-out and it ended in a legal quagmire, but 50 years from now, with most of the key players dead and gone, the 2000 presidential election should go down as one of the most interesting and important in our nation's history.
Those living through it now many emotionally spent after staying glued to the news for weeks remain as divided as ever politically, say historians and political scientists, who call this election "monumental."
How President-elect George W. Bush handles himself and his administration in the coming weeks and months will weigh heavily in how he appears in history's rearview mirror.
Will Mr. Bush be regarded by scholars as a beloved "uniter" who did the right thing at a critical time? Or will the millennium's first president be held up as a selfish politico who did little more than extend gridlock in an aging two-party system?
For now, it is too soon to tell, as an antsy citizenry waits for Mr. Bush to assume office and lead.
What can be noted, however, is that the messy past five weeks provided an upside that history may remember fondly. Amid the nattering din of punditry and the incessant legal tug of war, our politically ambivalent nation was as deeply focused as it ever has been on America's unusual and remarkable process of governing.
Gas-station attendants became students of the Constitution; commuters were glued to talk radio, and elementary pupils cited the rules of the Electoral College with glee.
These indeed were historical times, and Americans were caught up in the significance.
Occasionally, we looked like buffoons on the world stage with television news programs calling the election too early and then later yammering on about pregnant chads. But as a nation, we took what the media hyped as a "crisis" in stride.
No machetes, no insurrections, no martial law here. Most simply groused at the news reports, made fun of the litigious cast of players and peacefully awaited the drawn-out decision from Florida, where election law reform is certain to come.
Once the hoopla is over and the inaugural confetti thrown, textbooks may record this time as an important snapshot of a nation at the crossroads, desperately seeking its direction.
Never before, observes historian Shawn Lay, has a modern election been such a stark barometer of the enormous cultural and philosophical divide between liberals and conservatives in the United States.
"We are a nation that is politically divided in half, with one group demanding more from the federal government and the other asking for a curtailment of federal power," says Mr. Lay, an associate professor of history at Coker College in Hartsville, S.C.
He describes the 2000 election as "the ultimate outcome of the culture wars that have raged for the past 20 years between conservative traditionalists and postmodern multiculturalists who have rejected even the most basic assumptions of Western society."
This race is "a watershed event," adds Mr. Lay, who thinks the country is on the cusp of making a critical decision of where it is headed.
The choices? "Toward a return to big-government liberalism or toward a more decentralized era in which private initiative and personal liberty prevail," he says.
Lawrence J. DeNardis, a political scientist who has served as president of the University of New Haven since 1991, says the tight Bush-Gore race may foretell more frequent close elections in the future.
Politically, he adds, the turmoil shows that the nation has turned the corner to a time where the populace is not responding to periodic electoral alignments like the New Deal, for example, that have happened in the last century and served to shape our path.
In the past, he notes, Americans have "sort of voted on cue," and if they weren't up on the issues, they fell along their traditional party lines.
In future elections, voters are are destined to vote more unpredictably, says Mr. DeNardis, a former Republican U.S. representative who ran against and defeated Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph I. Lieberman in the 1980 congressional race.
"As parties and partisanship lessen significantly as a factor, the American public is up for grabs," Mr. DeNardis says. "They don't have the attachment they used to have, particularly the young people for whom political party is alien."
Charles Dunn, dean of the school of arts and letters at Pennsylvania's Grove City College, calls this presidential contest "extraordinary," "unique" and one that will be studied years from now, particularly by those interested in politics.
"It's much more than a blip on the radar screen," he says. "This will stand out as a monumental election."
Of its historical significance, future observers will make much of Mr. Gore's selection of Mr. Lieberman the first Jewish vice presidential candidate as his running mate, predicts Mr. Dunn, who calls the decision "one of the most brilliant" in presidential campaign history.
Although it did not win Mr. Gore the White House, the decision, Mr. Dunn says, ranks right up there with President John F. Kennedy's jail-house call to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., which helped him defeat Richard M. Nixon, and Harry S. Truman's campaign against the "do-nothing" Congress, which helped him to triumph over Thomas Dewey.
"Without Mr. Lieberman on the ticket, Gov. Bush would have waltzed to victory," says Mr. Dunn, who has written several books about the presidency. "Lieberman breathed life into his political soul."
President-elect Bush, he says, will have an enormous task ahead in uniting forces divided over issues and the lingering debacle in Florida.
"Absent of critical times, like a war or a depression, these will be the most difficult times of government for any president."
Historian Wilfred McClay says an interesting parallel can be drawn from the late 19th century at a time when the parties were evenly divided and politics was regarded as something of a "sideshow."
Even then, in the so-called Gilded Age, people found their heroes not in political figures, but in the titans of industry who did more to advance the economy and the culture.
"It's not for nothing that most Americans can't name a single president between [U.S.] Grant and [Theodore] Roosevelt," says Mr. McClay, a professor of history who holds an endowed chair of humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "The fact is, politicians weren't the big kahunas of American cultural heroes."
Neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Gore is likely to capture history's fancy like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Alan Greenspan in this era, "people whose greatest notability stems from their involvement in the economy and new technology and the transformation of our infrastructure, who are more prominent," Mr. McClay says.
"With the '90s and now the turn of the new century, it's hard to find political figures who command respect in which people place their hopes and aspirations," Mr. McClay says. "We haven't had a president who commanded anything close to universal respect since [Ronald] Reagan."

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