Citizens in less godforsaken states might think the national affliction of the last two years started in Florida on November 7, 2000. But Missourians had already felt the evil on a stormy night three weeks earlier, when the governor's plane crashed into a wooded hillside west of Pevely.
We elected the dead man to the Senate. But dark forces mocked us. The man we just wanted to go away, John Ashcroft, became more powerful than Mel Carnahan ever would have been. So the curse continues.
It's turned the dead man's friends into zombies. It makes Mike Kelly, head of the Missouri Democratic Party, tell The Kansas City Star that, with regard to Attorney General Ashcroft, "We all admit he has done a fine job."
It makes widow Jean Carnahan, now trying to get elected to the Senate for real, brag that she's "voted 71 percent of the time with the president."
Who snatched these people's bodies? It's demon fear. They're scared of losing the next election to the Bible-verse-quotin', Newt Gingrich-locksteppin', NRA lovemuffin Jim Talent: a younger, cuter John Ashcroft.
Talent's pictures in the paper make him look like a freaky frog, but in person those little glasses are sort of hip and his suit fits him fine. He's cool like a student council dweeb tryin' out a John Wayne imitation. He has a contingent of overheated fans calling themselves Women for Talent. (One of them is Mrs. Ashcroft.) And on October 24, the afternoon of the final Talent-Carnahan debate, rowdy students at the edge of Columbia College shouted "Hey, hey, ho, ho! Carnahan has got to go!"
Inside Launer Auditorium, C-SPAN was in the house. Carnahan and Talent walked out onto the stage, trailed by Libertarian Tamara Millay -- whose violet dress clashed with her orange hair -- and the Green Party's Daniel "digger" Romano, looking smelly in his thrift-store duds and gray dreadlocks. Talent twitched like a boxer.
As it turned out, Millay and Romano were the only ones who really answered questions from the four panelists. They were alter egos, shadow souls for the sold-out major party candidates. If Talent said he supported an increase in the minimum wage only if it came with tax breaks for small-business owners, Millay the Libertarian opposed the minimum wage altogether. If Carnahan tried a dodge on school vouchers, Romano said vouchers violated the wall between church and state.
When the questions came around to Ashcroft, Talent genuflected, and Carnahan said he was in her prayers. Only the candidates with no chance of winning dared say what the rest of us really think.
Millay: "Not only has John Ashcroft misplaced his copy of the constitution, I'm not sure if he ever read it."
Romano: "If I were senator, one of the first things I would do would be to ask for repeal of the USA Patriot Act and move for the impeachment of John Ashcroft."
Moments like this got a smile out of Carnahan. She'd never cop to wanting Ashcroft gone, yet Romano was saying what so many Democrats yearn to hear. And when Carnahan agreed with him, it seemed that all might not be lost for the center-hogging party.
When a panelist asked about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the audience -- even Carnahan -- giggled in gleeful anticipation as soon as Romano stood up.
"The pretext for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is that it would cut our dependence on foreign oil," he began. "That is balderdash ... We could conserve, easily, all the oil we need to replace what would have been taken out of the ANWR. We should not be prepared to exploit every wilderness, to use warfare against indigenous peoples around the world so that we can over-consume in this country."
After that, Carnahan merely had to say she opposed drilling in the ANWR to look perfectly reasonable. Talent, however, launched into his ridiculous stump speech about how raping the refuge will save Missouri's economy.
When a panelist asked about the war on terror, Romano reminded the audience that the United States supported and armed Osama bin Laden during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He noted that the U.S. government did nothing after Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds in the late '80s -- though now it's supposedly a reason to invade Iraq. "A homeland security act is not going to make us secure," Romano said. "We need to stop supporting these types of dictatorial regimes. U.S. posturing needs to change."
A few minutes later, Talent felt he just needed to say something for the record. The war wasn't about oil, he said. The United States had been attacked, and 3,000 people had died. We'd gone after a great evil that had been oppressing the world for twenty years.
But Romano had laid open too many truths about the other side, and Talent's patriotism sounded pat.
The debate ended with a standing ovation. At first, people stood because it seemed like protocol, but then their applause grew more and more heartfelt: For once, the race had felt real. Millay and Romano had forced their overly scripted sidekicks into a spirited exchange of ideas. Democracy had been exciting.
The candidates looked surprised.
The next day's news, though, would be about Jean Carnahan's finger. (At one point, she'd waved it in Talent's direction as part of their tedious -- and irrelevant -- snit over whether he's doubting her patriotism.) Millay and Romano would be obligatory footnotes. We would be back to reliving the same eerie election. John and Mel. Jim and Jean.
Across the street, a young woman climbed out of a minivan and nodded at all of the satellite trucks on campus, the reporters and cops and bomb-sniffing dogs. "What's going on?" she asked. Learning it was just the debate, she looked relieved. "Oh," she said. "I just wanted to make sure it was safe to go over there."