Election 2000: The Final Exam

Well, kids, it's sure been a wild ride in the middle schools of America these last few weeks. One moment you're studying the Rough Riders or the Tories or the ways in which the cotton gin shaped the economy of the Southern states, and the next--bam!--you're drawing maps of the contested counties of Florida and trying to figure out which court gets to do what. It's all because this presidential election is what we adults like to call a "teachable moment," which means the stuff in the lesson plan is getting old and the faculty will glom onto any new material. (They tried to do it with the impeachment process, but there was the cigar, and the dress, and the phone sex, and you just knew that the parents who went to the school board about Harry Potter were not going to dig that one little bit!)

I know, I know: it was bad enough during the campaign, having to watch the debates with your family and listen to your mom complain about how much bronzer some bozo had put on Al Gore while your little sister said, "What's in a lockbox? What are seniors? Who are all the American people?" But now you come home and ask your parents a question about the Electoral College, and it's just like asking for help with your math: "I don't know," they mumble. "Ask Doris Kearns Goodwin." And even the algebra teacher can't explain how the Republicans think all of the votes have been counted when there's a whole mess of them that haven't been counted at all. But before this teachable moment is over--if it's ever over--and you turn back to the Boston Tea or the Bull Moose parties, let's review what you've learned in the last four weeks:

Manners matter--not! Many of you have been assigned to watch "Hardball With Chris Matthews" or the Fox News Network political talk shows. And a few students have complained about that trick question on the homework: how many times did someone other than the hosts get to finish a sentence on those shows? Zero, right? And you got tired of counting the uses of the words "ridiculous," "preposterous" and "concede with dignity for the good of the country." It all looked like an episode of "Jerry Springer" without the tattoos, under the heading "People Who Suddenly Discover That Some People Belong to Opposing Parties!" Add to that the way reporters trashed Secretary of State Katherine Harris for her makeup, and it must give you some interesting ideas about how to behave during that next student-council election. And they say Bart Simpson is badly behaved.

It's not what you know, it's who. Of course, any boy in this great nation of ours can look around at this moment and know that it's possible for him to be president. (Any girl in this great nation of ours can look around at this moment and know that it's possible to be the president's wife and then a member of the United States Senate.) But as those of you assigned the candidate family trees can tell, it helps to have connections. Al Gore had a father who was a senator. But George W. Bush trumped him with a grandfather who was a senator, a father who was president and, most important, a younger brother who was the governor of Florida, hereafter to be known as the Can't Count State. For all you younger brothers out there, there was another valuable lesson. Although everyone knows that Jeb Bush is smarter, has a governor's job with more heft and would have been a better presidential candidate than his brother, it turned out birth order was all that mattered. Extra credit for those of you who can define "primogeniture."

If Mom says no, ask Dad. Or, in this case, another lawyer. I hope all of you are clear on the necessity of litigation even if it goes against your allegedly deeply held principles. Probably some of you were familiar with the fact that the Republican Party embraces states' rights--heck, it hugs them until they gasp for breath!--and is fond of making all federal institutions sound like front organizations for the Colombian drug cartel. But it turns out Republican lawyers are just like you and me: if they don't like the answer they get in one place, they go to another. That's how they wound up arguing before the Supreme Court of the United States after they didn't like the rulings of the Supreme Court of Florida. For those of you who were confused by all the trial courts, appeals courts and Supreme Courts, don't worry: this will not be on the test because no one but lawyers understands it. And your teachers are not allowed to teach you about lawyers. It's like sex education: your parents have to tell you at home, in their own special way. Or let you find out from Jonathan and Andrew at a back booth in the Burger King.

Every vote counts. This is the most important thing you've learned from this election, and it will be part of your heart for the rest of your lives. Government by the people. Democracy at work. Your vote is important. Unless you cast it in Palm Beach County. Or unless you are in the military and it doesn't have a postmark because it was bundled with other votes. Or unless you didn't push the little pushy things all the way through those weird cards. Those of you who are tech heads have asked over and over again in class how come you can turn a frame from "South Park" into your computer wallpaper and have CDnow remember which Pumpkins albums you own, yet so many Americans vote in antediluvian ways that mimic the worst parts of the SAT. All I can say is: stop showing off! The people who oversee voting in this country don't even know what DOS stands for.

Those of you who paid attention this fall may well remember this push and pull, this to and fro, this back and forth, this Sturmund Drang as the zenith of participatory democracy during your lifetime. From time to time you will tell your own children about the amazing presidential election of 2000, and they will roll their eyes and mutter, "Oh, man, not the recount and the bronzer thing again." Of course, those of you named Chad will remember this as the most nightmarish month of your life. We're sorry. We didn't know.