Will New York suspend the law?

Posted: Oct 04, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--Americans groping for normality wonder when they can laugh again. How about: Right now. Now that a White House aide tells Time magazine that to keep Americans focused on the war, perhaps there should be a super-duper pop music concert for--get this--``educating a new generation of Americans on what war is all about." And now that the vaudevillian Jesse Jackson has been in an argument with the Taliban about whether he invited himself to Afghanistan (the Taliban said he did), making the Taliban seem truthful. And now that in a Maryland suburb of Washington a school official, who has a peculiar idea of Osama bin Laden's likely targets, has canceled pre-Halloween field trips of kindergartners and first-graders to a Poolesville, Md., pumpkin patch. Such episodes provide (in Mark Twain's words) ``not merely food for laughter, but an entire banquet." And for dessert we have Rudy Giuliani flinching from leaving office. In a 1993 referendum, New York City voters did what voters have done almost everywhere they have been allowed to vote on the subject: They imposed term limits on elected officials. Giuliani supported term limits for mayor and city council. However, as the Dec. 31 end of his second and final term approaches, and he rides a richly deserved wave of approbation for his steady post-attack leadership, his pugnacity, which mirrors that of his city, is bubbling up. He has been thinking of trying to get the state Legislature to overturn term limits, and then he, running on the Conservative Party ticket, could win a full third term. The other day he summoned the Republican nominee in the Nov. 6 election, and the two Democrats who are in an Oct. 11 runoff for their party's nomination, and gave them an ultimatum: Give me three extra months in office or I will run against the lot of you. Now, supporters of term limits, who understand how ravenous for power the political class usually is, are not surprised when one member of that class says to three others: Hey, why don't the four of us just agree that the law is a cake we can slice as we like? One of the Democrats balked, so it remains unclear whether Giuliani will continue in the grip of the delusion that he is more indispensable than, say, Thomas Jefferson was. In 1807 Jefferson was in his seventh year as president and the country was in a state of nervousness. The rights of American ships were at risk in ways that threatened to pull the infant republic into the warfare between Great Britain and Napoleonic France. And Aaron Burr had been attempting to separate some Western states and territories from the Union. So nine of the 17 state legislatures, and one territorial government, petitioned him to ignore George Washington's precedent of self-imposed term limits and seek a third term. Jefferson refused. He believed that Washington's self-restraint was an invaluable example because power is an addiction that causes those in its grip to discover that current circumstances render them indispensable. In July 1945, with war still raging in the Pacific theater and the Potsdam Conference about to begin, the British held an election and cashiered a prime minister--a pretty good one, named Churchill. But not indispensable. As Charles de Gaulle once said, with characteristic mordancy, the graveyards are full of indispensable men. There is one such man in the graveyard at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. For New York City to get on with picking a new mayor--and for Giuliani's combativeness to resurface--are ingredients of a re-emerging normality. If you have flown since September 11 you may have noticed an unusually subdued mood among travelers, and a quiet courtesy. The rambunctiousness of American life has been in abeyance. That will not last, nor should we really want it to. Muriel Spark's 1963 novel ``The Girls of Slender Means" describes V-E Day celebrations in London in May 1945, the crowd in front of Buckingham Palace emitting a ``huge organic murmur" like ``a cataract or a geological disturbance." This was a final moment of wartime solidarity. People who had been pounded together by terrible blows and fused by the heat of London burning were hungry for the little licenses of individuality. ``The next day everyone began to consider where they personally stood in the new order of things. Many citizens felt the urge, which some began to indulge, to insult each other, in order to prove something or to test their ground." Normality. It's nice.