Journalists are looking at the bright side. Or trying to. Yes, they say, it's been a mess, the biggest mess in American electoral politics since Tilden and Hayes in 1876. And before that, you have to go back to Jefferson-Adams in 1800. And before that, you can't go back; there were no messes.
But look at the good that will come out of it, reporters insist. There will be new techniques of exit polling. There will be improved methods of vote counting. There might even be cameras in the Supreme Court — the controversy over the Florida recount decision leading to a window into one of democracy's most secretive institutions.
I think the members of the press are right about the first two. I hope they are wrong about the third.
My objection to cameras in the Supreme Court is not the usual one, not the argument that the mere presence of television equipment alters the behavior of those being photographed and, thus, affects the nature of their deliberations. I suspect that, after a time, lawyers and judges and juries get used to TV paraphernalia, that it becomes part of the furniture to them, and as such affects their deliberations no more than the rest of the furniture in the courtroom.
My objection is a more subtle one. In an age in which virtually every kind of event is televised, from athletic contest to police raid to governmental hearing to confession of adultery to desert island survival, it is the event not televised that stands apart. In an age in which virtually every kind of person is a celebrity, from comedian to lawyer to chef to interior decorator to Oval Office fellatrix, it is the person of accomplishment whose name is not common currency who commands respect, his self-regard not dependent on the number of strangers who have heard his name.
More than ever, the Supreme Court needs to stand apart. More than ever, the justices need to command respect. It is they who have decided the outcome of the 2000 presidential campaign, and by so doing, have been charged by some with acting more like political hacks than impartial arbiters. Evidence that they are, in truth, the latter, is at least partially provided by their continuing refusal to allow cameras in their courtroom and their continuing emphasis on the demands of occupation, rather than the hoots of the culture and the pleas of the media.
Is the court's insistence on a blackout a form of elitism? Of course, and that is a dangerous thing to advocate in a democracy, especially one that is hung over — and in some cases still drunk — from the muddle of political correctness. But the recent election was so close and the aftermath so bitter that it is crucial for the judges not to be seen as partisan.
For this reason, it is helpful that they not be seen at all, except in stock footage. Their relative invisibility tells the rest of us that they will not allow even the slightest possibility of distraction. It tells us that they hold tradition in high regard. It tells us that they insist on taking themselves seriously, and so will not compete with Sally Jessy Raphael or Judge Judy for ratings. They are a deliberative body, not an afternoon soap opera or a prime-time drama. They understand that there is a connection between remaining off the air and above the fray.
Someone has to maintain this kind of detachment, even — or perhaps even especially — in a democracy.