How to practice disrespect

Posted: Jan 15, 2001 12:00 AM
The president of the United States, no less, has lightheartedly questioned the legitimacy of the presidential election. Lightheartedly not in the sense of a roast, at which you are invited to say uproariously improvised defamations of the guest of honor; lightheartedly in the sense of Mr. Clinton's historical insouciance. No one can know better than a president who has served in office the axiomatic dependence on legitimacy. Now Mr. Clinton is making jokes on the subject that should be off-limits this side of Letterman and Leno.

What Clinton said about campaign manager William Daley was, "I think he did a brilliant job in leading Vice President Gore to victory." He said it again at the banquet that night: "What I told them upstairs was Bill Daley ran the first presidential campaign in history that was so clearly winning, a court had to stop the vote in order to change the outcome."

The next day -- inevitably -- the president-elect was asked about it. Governor Bush was piqued, but brushed Clinton off with less of the retaliatory verve one might have got from, say, Ronald Reagan. Are there reasonable limits to the expression of sour grapes?

In Little Rock, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publishes a weekly column by Gene Lyons, who hosts an annual event designed to elicit "wit, irony or sarcasm for humane purposes." Mr. Lyons quotes as "hard to surpass" a proffered pledge of allegiance by one Paul Kirkpatrick. "... I will badmouth the president daily, I will work in whatever small way I can to defeat and undermine his programs and agenda, I will believe every scurrilous lie told about him, and I will criticize and ridicule his wife and children at every opportunity."

Mr. Lyons brings to mind the line by the critic Guy Davenport: "Sometimes, on reading Goethe, one has the paralyzing suspicion that he thinks he's being funny."

But professor James K. Galbraith was not trying to be funny, as far as one can tell, when he wrote for The Boston Globe lines gleefully quoted in the Democrat-Gazette column. "The key to dealing with the Bush people ... is precisely not to accept them. ... I will not reconcile myself to them. They lost the election. Then they arranged to obstruct the count of the vote. They don't deserve to be there, and that changes everything. They have earned our civic disrespect, and that is what the people should accord them."

These lines are a part of a longer piece that will appear in the Texas Observer. There we will have the judgment of professor Galbraith on "the events of late in the year 2000." It is that "the United States left behind constitutional republicanism, and turned to a different form of government." We have now "corporate democracy. A system whereby a board of directors -- read Supreme Court -- selects the chief executive officer. The CEO in turn appoints new members of the board. The shareholders, owners in title only, are invited to cast their votes in periodic referenda. But their franchise is only symbolic, for management holds a majority of the proxies. On no important issue do the CEO and the board ever permit themselves to lose."

This is a fantasy that Linda Chavez will especially enjoy. Mr. Galbraith is University of Texas Professor of Government in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where he can study stolen elections under high domestic patronage.

The planted axiom here is that five members of the Supreme Court were what? -- bribed? coerced? persuaded? -- to ignore their oaths of office in order unconstitutionally to effect the election of a Republican. That kind of language hasn't been around since the John Birch Society taught that genuine understanding of postwar history required one to understand that Dwight D. Eisenhower was a Soviet agent.

Fellow travelers in sedition don't need to buy the entire Galbraith dogma. But they might find his practical advice enticing. "The new president should be allowed lifetime appointments only by consensus. The public should oppose -- and 50 Senate Democrats should freely block -- judicial nominations whenever they carry even the slightest ideological taint. That may mean most of them, but no matter. And as for the Supreme Court especially, vacancies need not be filled."

Individual items on the Bush agenda should be "furiously opposed," as for instance the elimination of the estate tax. Is there a foreign-policy plank in the Galbraith agenda? For sure. "The people must unite to oppose the global dangers of National Missile Defense -- a strategic nightmare on which Bush campaigned -- that threatens for all time the security of us all."

To which the obvious comment is that professor Galbraith shouldn't worry: Corporate capitalism would not permit corporate suicide, so he is safe after all.