Electoral gridlock in U.S. could use the spice of jazz 

Softly, as in a morning sunrise, and after the rain, November 8, 2000, arrived, and the sun shone through the autumn leaves drifting slowly by my bedroom window and gently wakened me.

"What a difference a day makes," I thought, having stayed up late to listen to the results of the previous day's presidential election here in the United States. I'd been awake for the post 1 o'clock jump of the gun as the returns from Florida came in. As I ruminated about Republican George W. Bush's maiden voyage into national politics, and Vice President Al Gore's fervent wish to leave the lush life of the largely ceremonial office he's occupied for eight years and to join the in crowd in the seat of power, I went well beyond a practical bedtime and finally retired, leaving the candidates to their blues in the night.

But, for lack of rest, I was moanin' the next morning.

"I can't get started," I said to myself as I brewed black coffee. "Mercy, mercy, mercy -- those pundits must have called the election by now." I thought that, despite the thin vote margin at the time I went to bed, a gap must surely have widened, leaving a clear victor miles ahead of the loser.

So I took my steaming cup of java into the living room, flipped on the radio and parked myself in a rocking chair, rockin' in rhythm to the lead-in music of NPR's "Morning Edition," only to find that my country hadn't a president-elect yet.

"What's this here?" I asked myself in a mellow tone as the strange story of the logjammed election unfolded. I'd thought Bush had won as I went to bed, but, I realized, "It ain't necessarily so. Who's sorry now?" Would Gore retire in obscurity to the Memphis underground? Would Bush carry his sack o' woe to Austin and resume his gubernatorial duties in the Longhorn State? And were each thinking of the other, "Just wait. You're flyin' home. I'll be planning the transition after you've gone. Tempus fugit. If you think there's a prayer for you -- well, you needn't.

Elections, even those as unforgettable as this one, have never been one of my favorite things during my long career as a journalist. After a long session with the radio pundits, I decided to take five and wait a while for those three little words: "Bush [or Gore] has won."

Because of our peculiar national mind, we Americans have a strain of politicians who would trade body and soul for a shot at the White House. And they lust for their ascension in the national corridors of power by telling the electorate, "I've gotta be me. I'll never lie to you. I'm not afraid of the sidewinder who waits to strike at our national moral fabric under the guise of political correctness. I'm no Mr. P.C. And I won't be a part-time president. You'll get all of me."

Despite this invariable descant that runs up to our elections, the candidates are closely watched to make sure they straighten up and fly right; that they ain't misbehavin'; or drinking their whiskey straight, no chaser; or, because of the example set by our current president, walkin' in solitude 'round midnight for a tryst that might include tea for two with some sophisticated lady not his wife on the night train to national embarrassment.

"So what?" you ask.

Well, we Americans have a Victorian strain in our national character that requires prudishness, even though many of us line up, as in a caravan, to find out what a little moonlight can do. Europeans, with a healthier attitude, laugh at us.

"Compared to what?" you ask.

Well, compared to themselves. I had an air mail special delivery letter from a friend in London named Willa who likes to poke me about being an American, because she found our attitudes so peculiar when she and I attended college together. She got right to the point about our national election.

"Freddie Freeloader," the letter began, "as usual for Americans, your minds are on vacation and your mouths are working overtime. As [one of our mutual friends from the southern U.S. who attended university with us] would say, 'Shaw 'nuff!' But, dear friend, now that we're becoming old folks, I want to talk about you. After all this election business is finished, and when you're smiling again, write me a long, newsy letter about what you are up to these days."

"Dear Will," I began my return letter, "since the election, every day I have the blues. I grew up with a lot of jiggery-pokery, in the form of civics lessons, about the 'American Dream,' which holds that even a poor Midwestern corn-fed boy like me can grow up to be president. Darn that dream. My dad believed it, cynical as he could be, even, as your father did, fought a war over it. But he'd be ashamed of any candidate we can muster these days. That candidate is a clone of all that it worst in us. Now he sings, now he sobs. And Will, better git it in your soul, as each day passes without a result, more and more of us are thinking, 'Well, here's that rainy day everyone's always preached about.' My dear Will, oh, weep for me and my countrymen. Even though I don't get around much anymore and haven't done a poll of my acquaintances, I fear the dream has died.

"All I have to replace it is the hope that some meaningful reform, a change that will make us stronger and more tolerant, will result from this fiasco. They can't take that away from me. I want the change to stand as a kind of national song for my father and your father and all those who put their lives on hold for many years during World War II, under very dangerous circumstances."

And the letter to my funny valentine goes on. I'll finish it tomorrow.

Meanwhile, as I write, the predictions are that the uncertainty could continue for several more weeks. A commentator was trying to teach me tonight that it would all be settled this week. I don't believe it.

No, in my mind's eye, I see George W. Bush and Al Gore moping around until the middle of December, when members of the Electoral College will cast their votes and this anomaly of my country's history will be at an end -- until the next time.

"All right, OK, you win," I can imagine the loser saying at last. "I'll be around." And he leaves, in a silent way.