The torch has been passed. Last week, as millions of pock-marked ballots and swinging chads were trucked to Florida's state capital in a Ryder van, few could disregard the eerie similarity to a more famous slow-speed chase.
So what if A.C. Cowlings wasn't at the wheel? It was a long, anticlimactic drive in a sunny place, force-fed to the public on TV.
With that ride, the mantle of perceived lunacy lifted from California and definitively settled on the East Coast's Sunshine State. After years of escalating absurdities on both coasts, it suddenly seemed beyond doubt that the preponderance of flakes, fanatics, and eccentrics had tilted to the Atlantic rim.
"We're no longer the butt state of the nation. I pass the baton to Florida with great delight," crowed Los Angeles comedian Harry Shearer.
Said Hollywood writer Ann Beatts: "The words 'Florida voters' will now pass into the lexicon, along with 'California hippies' and 'brash New Yorkers.' " What a fitting end to the lengthy war between the states. But the shift signals something of comedown for the country, she adds. "In L.A., the slow-speed chase was an SUV with a celebrity inside. In Florida, it was a truck driven by a guy in a uniform. It's really a loss of glamour."
Of course, Florida has been striving for years to distinguish its own brand of corruption, kookiness, incompetence and crime from that of L.A. And it's had some exotic material to work with. Serial killer Ted Bundy, Versace killer Andrew Cunanan, car-bump killers who target tourists driving vehicles rented at the airport. Then there's the lunatic fringe: the Miami mayor who went door to door in his bathrobe, asking why residents didn't vote for him. Or Kendall Coffey, who resigned as U.S. attorney in Miami after a topless dancer said he bit her. (He's now a lawyer for Vice President Al Gore.)
Not to mention the devout Miami locals who venerated little Elian Gonzalez. And let's not forget Florida's reputation as a haven for users, losers and thugs. From mobster Meyer Lansky in the 1950s to "Miami Vice" to the shifty drug lords of today. "Everybody in Florida looks guilty of something," said L.A. comedian Marc Unger. "You ask them, 'Do you know what time it is?' and they give you this look like, 'Hey! I did not know there was cocaine in the trunk of my car.' "
Only its location on the East Coast gives Florida a measure of gravitas, said L.A. comedian Dani Klein. "The nouveau wackiness of Florida is going to be balanced out by the repression of the Northeast. So overall, on the Richter scale of wackiness, the East Coast will still keep its dignity, no matter how wacky Florida gets."
The two states have so much in common: the Disney factor, the weather, the immigrants, O.J. (the Juice and the juice).
California has long been stereotyped as being in the grip of plastic surgeons and personal trainers. As being a State of Danger--from gangs, rogue cops, gangs of rogue cops to rattlesnakes, coyotes and bears that wander into hot tubs and backyards.
It has struggled to be taken seriously, suffering setback after setback. There was that painful time in the late '80s when the New York press had a field day over the existence of the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. Garry Trudeau had a ball.
But stereotypes of California really are generated from a few specific outposts--the ultra-liberal Bay Area, ultraconservative Orange County and, of course, El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula.
And what about California's successes? The L.A. Olympics, for example. As if there will be a Miami Olympiad any time soon, West Coast boosters say.
Not all agree, however, that Florida is technically the winner of the contest for kookiest state. "It's just weird in a different way," said Marty Baron, executive editor of the Miami Herald and a former editor at the Los Angeles Times. How do Rodney King, the '92 riots, the Menendez brothers and the Orange County bankruptcy stack up against Elian Gonzalez, a bathrobe-clad mayor and hanging chads?
"All I can say is it's an honor to be in the place the entire country is laughing at," Baron said, adding that it was a similar honor when he worked in California.
Current comedy routines have narrowed the focus to a few categories: race, stupidity and senility.
Jay Leno: "Last night Al Gore spoke to the nation. A lot of folks in Palm Beach missed it. They couldn't find the right channel on their remote."
David Letterman: "I had a fun day today. I slipped away and saw that movie 'Rugrats in Broward County.' Coming back from the movie I saw . . . a squirrel hand-counting his nuts."
Jamie Masada, owner of the Laugh Factory in Hollywood: "Florida ballots should look like bingo cards. Then they'd know how to punch them."
The layers of hypocrisy seem endless.