Motorcading among Washington's marble monuments, George W. Bush spent the day warming up his presidential engines, jawboning the Fed chairman over a tax cut, schmoozing the president of France, glad-handing the big boys on Capitol Hill.
But under another whited dome a continent away, in the California Assembly chamber with its carpetbagger-era desks and carpeting the color of a new dollar bill, the Democrats were having themselves one last wistful, cheerful hurrah.
An hour or so earlier, Nevada had locked it up for Bush with four electoral votes, one vote more than the 270 he needs to be named president come Jan. 6. California's electors could vote in pig Latin, vote for Warren Beatty or FDR, vote for God almighty, and it wouldn't change those 271 votes.
Yet up on the speaker's dais, Roz Wyman, grande dame of California Democratic politics--whose politics date to a photograph of her at age 2, next to an FDR banner in her parents' store--was swinging her gavel as if Florida had voted on the square and Dubya was back home on his Waco-adjacent ranch with nothing more onerous on his holiday schedule than a game of fetch with his dog, Spot.
"It is with a great deal of honor and distinction," she was saying, "that we cast our votes for a great American, the vice president of the United States, 54 votes for Al Gore!" The electors leaped to their feet and beat their palms together. In the white-and-gilt balconies, their families did the same. The electronic board behind Wyman signaled in red lights, "California Casts 54 Electoral Votes For Al Gore."
Now, until this go-round, the electoral college has always been a wobbly gag at best. Garrison Keillor likened it to a certain type of marriage: "It works OK if you don't think about it." At dinner the night before with her 12-year-old granddaughter, Samantha, Wyman was threatening to wear her Electoral College gag sweatshirt to lighten everyone up, but she did better than that. As the two youngest and spriest of California's 54 electors gathered up the robin's-egg-blue votes, Wyman assured electors, "These ballots will be hand-counted." Big laughs, big applause.
And after the ballots were hand-counted, Wyman played straight woman to party honcho Art Torres: "The state chair wondered if I could have said 57 votes instead of 54. Sorry, Art."
Considering the corrosive Ph level of this acidulous election, there was far more anger outside, at a protest where Santa Claus and Mother Nature and a battered-looking Statue of Liberty with broken torch and neck brace wigwagged homemade signs on paper plates and packing boxes wanting to know, "Where's the democracy?"
Inside, the mood was field trip and prom night--just not quite inaugural ball. Like the line for photos with Santa, electors waited with their families to pose with Speaker Robert Hertzberg. And look, honey, over there there's CNN, and there's C-SPAN, and up in the balcony, there's the official photographer, herding, coaxing, "Everybody's looking here, holding stiiiiiilll . . . that's great, keep it up, eyes opeeeeen. . . ."
Eyes open--maybe that accounts for the merriment. Sure, four years ago, eight years ago, the votes cast here made Bill Clinton the president. It didn't happen for Al Gore. But Democratic fortunes are high in California; in this chamber, in the scarlet-appointed Senate chamber and in the governor's office, the party of FDR calls the shots. Gov. Gray Davis shook hands all the way from the back of the chamber to the dais, the first time since 1964 that a Democratic governor had welcomed Democratic electors. And 2004 is only a sigh away, and nobody, nobody can afford to blow off 54 electoral votes.
Good spirits in a losing cause? "Yeah, it's surprising," says Lane Sherman, a return elector for her son, Rep. Brad Sherman. "The last time, we were voting for Clinton, everything was fine. But this time, there's sparkle, there's electricity--and I think hope also."
God rest ye merry, ladies and gentlemen.
The elector's chief duty is signing papers, starting--typical California--with the one to reimburse them for mileage. But if they felt like the vestigial appendix of politics, they weren't letting on. Organizers struggled mightily to make all this more than perfunctory, but the best bits always come serendipitously:
Two electors found out at the door of the Capitol that their federal jobs disqualify them. So they drafted their siblings, who'd just come along for the show--Cecelia Fuentes from San Francisco, who almost slept in Tuesday morning, and David Mann from Susanville, a leather jacket in a roomful of pinstripes, a man so wrapped up in waving to the balcony he didn't hear them call his name for the oath.
Maybe every electoral college vote has been as entertaining as this one, but who knew?
Columnist Patt Morrison's e-mail address is email@example.com