This era in our public life seems sure to be remembered for its frequent outbursts of political and legal hysteria--round-the-clock, cable-televised scrums of lawyers, pols and pundits scuffling over the latest Great American Court Case. First O.J., then Bill and Monica, and finally, in 2000, Elian and then George W. vs. Al. Maybe it's fitting that both of this year's courthouse telethons played out in South Florida--the sun-bleached, strip-malled, multicultural face of America's future.
For the first six months, the nation argued the fate of Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old miracle child rescued off the Florida coast after a shipwreck had killed his mother and 10 others as they fled Cuba. The argument boiled down to family vs. freedom--was the boy better off in Cuba with his father or in Miami with relatives?--and vented long-dormant cold war-era passions. The boy and his father finally returned to Cuba in June, but the argument lives on.
For the rest of the year, the public did its best to ignore two presidential candidates, George W. Bush and Al Gore, who insisted there were big issues at stake. Instead of paying attention to them, most folks watched some fascinating scenes roll past: thousands of anti-globalization protesters disrupting a World Bank conference in Washington; Ford and Firestone executives blaming one another for a string of auto fatalities; Bill Clinton taking a last, slow lap around the presidential track as his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton made her first successful run for public office. Finally, the presidential campaign that everyone thought was boring suddenly became all too interesting. The election ran aground in Florida, its outcome simply too close to call, a digital-photo-finish that defeated the state's analog voting equipment (and meanwhile added a 1950s term, punch-card "chad," to our lexicon). The cable-TV pundits made their dependable racket and protesters filled the South Florida streets, but as the votes were recounted and Gore contested Bush's apparent victory, the public remained admirably patient--content to let this truly important episode play out. Our frivolous, sometimes hysterical age proved that it is still capable of serious thought.
A Night to Remember, Part I