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FROM CHADS TO CHAGRIN, A DETAILED LOOK INSIDE THE 2000 ELECTION

Given the troubled state of the free world - and the intense focus on its recently elected leader, George W. Bush - it's impossible not to speculate on how Al Gore would be handling the job.

After all, as Jeffrey Toobin makes clear in this fascinating look at the 2000 election, Gore should have won the office. He had the votes, according to the compelling case made here.

But as Toobin also makes clear, Bush may have the better temperament and style for these difficult times.

In those bizarre days following the closest presidential election in history, Al Gore was process-oriented, unwilling to fight dirty, and over-involved with the minutiae of the post-campaign campaign. He was obsessed with how his every move would be seen by pundits, editorialists and historians; and he always took the high road - which, in politics, is seldom the road that gets you where you want to go.

George W. Bush, by contrast, delegated the matter to the loyal and ruthless James Baker, and headed back to Texas. But, when consulted, Bush was willing to make tough and unpretty decisions and to fight like the devil. If that meant taking undue advantage of his political connections in the state of Florida - including his brother Jeb and Republican operative Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state, so be it.

Get the job done.

Smoke 'em out of their Democratic caves.

Get to the Oval Office and still manage to be in your PJs at 9 p.m. (Lest this last comment be considered an unfounded slur on the leader of the free world, it's actually one of the wonderful details vacuumed up by Toobin's Dirt-Devil reporting. On Dec. 12, the night of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on Bush v. Gore, Bush aide Karl Rove called his boss to tell him the good news. "Though it was just after 9 p.m. in Austin," Toobin reports, "George W. Bush was already in his pajamas at the governor's mansion.")

Jeffrey Toobin has written an important book -- maybe the definitive book -- on the historic and utterly strange presidential election of 2000.

He examines the 36 days (starting with Election Day, 2000) in which Americans discovered dimpled chads, weighed Warren Christopher against James Baker, and marveled at Katherine Harris' chutzpah (not to mention her troweled-on mascara).

These were the same 36 days in which Americans were disabused of any lingering notions that Supreme Court justices are above politics, and that you can believe everything you hear on CNN.

It's a wonderful bonus that this highly significant book is also a highly entertaining book -- at least for those who enjoy legal and political intrigue. Toobin's writing, based on thorough reporting and seen through the lens of his keen intelligence, is extraordinarily engaging.

However, that combination of qualities is no surprise to those familiar with Toobin's earlier work. A Harvard-educated lawyer and a staff writer for the New Yorker, he has done this sort of thing before, to considerable acclaim. His treatments of the O.J. Simpson trial ("The Run of His Life") and the Clinton impeachment ("A Vast Conspiracy") were in the same rare mold -- important books on big subjects that make terrific pleasure reading.

Toobin shows a firm command of both ends of the observational spectrum: finding tiny, telling details and recognizing big-picture meaning.

Consider his portrait of Florida circuit court judge N. Sanders Saul, one of the many factors in Gore's loss.

"He was petty -- he fought his first wife in court over a $50 saddle. He was inept -- he was often reversed by appellate courts. And he was vindictive -- he tried to fire the court administrator who dared challenge his choice for a patronage appointment on the court."

These are the kinds of bits and pieces that lead inexorably to Toobin's devastating, well-founded conclusion. The political wrangling, the thousand twists of fate, the smart and foolish decisions of fallible human beings -- all were distractions from the one necessity: to determine the intent of all Florida voters as accurately and thoroughly as possible.

This was no impossible task; it was simply one that Bush managed to avoid and Gore was unable to force. (Another Al -- T.S. Eliot's ineffectual J. Alfred Prufrock -- comes to mind: "Should I ... have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?")

The final, chilling paragraph of Toobin's book bears repeating here in total:

In the cynical calculus of contemporary politics, it is easy to dismiss Gore's putative victory. But if more people intended to vote for Gore than for Bush in Florida -- as they surely did -- then it is a crime against democracy that he did not win the state and thus the presidency. It isn't that the Republicans 'stole' the election or that Bush is an 'illegitimate' president. But the fact remains: The wrong man was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2001, and this is no small thing in our nation's history. The bell of this election can never be unrung, and its sound will haunt us for some time.

The country and the world may wind up being better off with Bush at the helm. After all, the election aftermath suggests that he is a leader who manages to get done what he sets out to do. But only a cynic can applaud the way he got there.

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