"The inevitable demands for recounts erupted like acne..."

There's only so much pressure a human brain can take. At a certain point--reached, in this instance, around 9 pm Eastern Standard Time on Tuesday night, when Florida's Supreme Court let it be known that pregnant chads would determine the future of the American polity--the brain screams 'escape'. And turns to fiction, the trashier the better.

But what fiction about US Election 2000 can be available now, with the drama only weeks old, and the battles still unfolding?

Well, actually, there is a novel out there to satisfy the political escapist. It is Dark Horse, by a longtime columnist from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Fletcher Knebel. Dark Horse* was written three decades ago. Knebel committed suicide in 1991, when people still thought Jeb Bush was the brother with the political future. No matter. The novel still offers a tantalizing number of parallels to this year's contest.

A November Surprise: An outsider, Eddie Quinn--Americans prefer their hero surnames monosyllabic--enters the election 19 days before the vote. Our Dark Horse has emerged from nowhere, the way a trashy hero will. The only public office he has held is as commissioner of the New Jersey Turnpike. But citizens like his steak-and-potatoes simplicity, and his affection for autos. They are wary of his opponent, a water-bed-owning parody of radical chic named Hugh Gregory Pinholster. What's more, voters love Quinn's platform of a 30% flat tax rate. They support his plan for forced conscription for men over the age of 50 (sorry, this was written in 1970, when the country was in high anti-military dudgeon).

As for readers, they are also supposed to be won over or impressed by Quinn's bedroom prowess, also vintage 1970s. On this matter, I'm not so sure--not everyone would be transported, as Quinn's paramour is, by 'the feeling of being trampled up and down the spine by thousands of tiny ski boots'.

But back to politics. Quinn is in like Flynn.

And then, just two days before the election, news of an unfortunate mishap involving a car ruin the Dark Horse's chances. Quinn, it emerges, broke the law in a speeding accident. He admits it like a man. Shades of Dubya!

Record Flubbing by the Media: Come election eve Tuesday, it looks like Quinn may still prevail--voters are pleased he was honest about the accident.

'The computer has projected a winner', the silver-haired anchor says, just like Brian Williams, the NBC host who said very early a few Tuesday nights ago that Mr Gore had won Florida.

'My God' the underdog Quinn thinks, a là Al, 'I'm President Elect of the United States'. Minutes later, the anchor has reversed himself, and by morning it is Pinholster who was collected the requisite amount of electoral votes.

'I don't know what happened', mutters the embarrassed TV host. 'I assure you it wasn't a Freudian slip...' US anchors, are you reading along?

An Uncertain Outcome, Even Post Election: The legal outcome is clear: Pinholster wins. But 'democracy' suddenly becomes a big theme. The will of the people, pollsters find, is that Quinn serve as president. Instantly, there is talk of corruption in suspect states--'the inevitable demands for recounts erupted like acne'. A movement for a revote grows, and rebellion builds in the electoral college. Electors are deserting Pinholster and joining 'Exit 9' Quinn. Chances are Quinn may pull it off by the mid-December deadline, when the electors vote. Quinn considers demurring, showing a praiseworthy--particularly in this week's context--respect for the rule of law: 'To change the nation's decision after the fact, upon whatever pretext, would be to destroy a government of law and custom and substitute the whims of anarchy'.

Still, things are uncertain, and the markets swoon: 'Nothing congeals the arteries of commerce more swiftly than uncertainty, and men of means and influence did not want more defecting electors to disturb the marts of trade when the country returned to work Monday morning.'

And then--but no, I'll stop here with my story unresolved, just like that other potboiler, Election 2000.*

*I got my copy of Dark Horse (Doubleday) by post from bibliofind.com., a book finder service, and last I checked there were at least 20 more where it came from. While I haven't heard of any publisher planning a fictionalisation of Election 2000, there is nonfiction already in the works: word has it that Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker will do a book with Random House, and Little, Brown, has another in the pipeline. Let's hope one of them publishes in time for January's Inauguration Day.

© Copyright 2000 Financial Times

Available for order:

To book Amity Shlaes for a speaking engagement, contact Jamie Brickhouse at the Red Brick Agency, 646.281.9041.
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