Opinion » Bill Cope

The Sunshine Couple

Last curtain call for two old troupers


It was good to see James Baker and Sandra Day O'Connor working together again, wasn't it? The two of them at those Iraq Study Group press conferences ... gosh, it was like watching Fred and Ginger reuniting for one last waltz ... George Burns and Gracie Allen setting up one more gag ... Roy Rogers and Dale Evans riding off down one, final happy trail.

Oh, c'mon. Don't tell me you don't remember the Baker and O'Connor Review. Six years ago? Florida? Butterfly ballots and the Supreme Court ... ring a bell?

OK then, let me tell you how the act went as I remember it. A landmark in situation comedy, it was. Sort of like the Carol Burnett Show, only not nearly as funny. The setting was Florida--which (coincidentally, I'm sure) is where circus clowns go when they retire--and the plot was about who would end up top banana, Bush or Gore. Listen, if you think Iraq is one zany place, you'd love Florida in 2000. They couldn't get their ballots printed up so's you could tell which punchhole went with which candidate. They couldn't get their absentee votes checked in a reasonable, legal manner. I tell you, it was like "Abbott and Costello Meet Katherine Harris." About the only routine they managed to pull off with no hitches was to deny tens of thousands of Afro-Americans the right to vote.

When it became apparent that the future of our nation hinged on the most Stoogely-run state in the union, hundreds of Republican Congressional staffers and thug functionaries rushed down I-75 and set up camp like an army of New York City waitresses on a casting call. They congregated outside the counting stations and heckled the municipal workers who were trying to sort the flap-doodle out. On top of that, the Bush people sent in a regiment of lawyers to impede any development that might indicate Gore was the winner.

And who led this legal chorus through their song and dance? Who played the straight man, the Dean Martin, for this phalanx of shrieking, intimidating Jerry Lewises? Why, none other than James Baker III.

Over 35 days of the lowest slapstick you can imagine, the Florida secretary of state (that would be Ms. Harris, who was easy to spot in the chorus line, seeing as how she always wears enough makeup to destroy what's left of the Everglades should it ever melt off her face all at once) proclaimed Bush the winner--which came as no surprise, considering she also chaired that state's effort to elect him--and she put an end to the recount.

Florida's highest court then entered from stage center and declared the recount must go on. And go on, it did--until James Baker pushed for the matter to be taken out of the state's jurisdiction and sent to the Supreme Court. The ultimate vote to nullify the recount (which by many indications ... and this is the really funny part ... had shown that Gore was moving ahead) came down five to four, with the worst punch line in America's history being delivered by none other than ... drumroll, if you please, Maestro ... Sandra Day O'Connor!

(Should you doubt where Mrs. O'Connor's loyalties tended, she was heard at an election night party to say, "This is terrible," when Gore was announced the winner early in the evening.)

To my knowledge, Baker and O'Connor haven't performed together since that night, December 12, 2000--not until the Iraq Study Group was assembled. Call me an old romantic softy if you will, but I like to think that--at some point during the weeks the group met--James and Sandra snuck off to a quiet corner, just the two of them. Maybe out for a late coffee. A discreet cocktail, perhaps. I can imagine them, old pros both, sliding into a booth in the back where they won't be noticed. Or overheard. Wouldn't you love to be an olive in their martini for that conversation ...

"It's so good to see you again, Jim. I've thought of you often over the years. Too much, maybe."

"And I think about you, Sandy. Every day. We had us some times, didn't we?"

(O'Connor blushes and coyly runs her finger around the rim of her glass.) "Oh my, yes. We did have some times." (There follow a few moments of not-uncomfortable silence as they both drift wistfully down their private memory lanes.) "Jim ... Jimmy ... I never thought I'd have the opportunity to ask you this, but ... but do you ... "

"Just say it, Sandra. We're too old for beating around the bush."

"Jimmy, do you ever have any regrets? Do you ever wish we hadn't ... hadn't done it?"

(James tightens, clenches and looks away. At the other end of the establishment, someone drops a quarter in the jukebox and the Dixie Chicks begin to croon "Not Ready to Make Nice." James winces and Sandra can see her old partner's pain. She reaches out and lays her hand on his, tenderly.)

"Sandy ... God help me ... there's not a day goes by that I don't wish we ... that we ... had done things ... things ... "

"Differently?" she offers. His shoulders slump. "Yes... differently."

(Time ticks away as they absently watch Keith Olbermann mouth another "special comment" on a teevee over the bar. The sound is off, but the strip on the bottom of the screen scrolls on. "Five more Marines killed in Fallujah ... al-Maliki government on verge of total collapse ... Scooter Libby trial set to begin in January ... New Zogby poll shows 71 percent of Americans now think ..." James sighs, deeply, and slugs down the remainder of his scotch and soda.)

"It hasn't all been bad, has it, Jimmy? There's been some good come of it. Tell me there has. Tell me, Jimmy. Tell me now! I need to hear it."

"I suppose, I suppose. Our friends all have a lot more money than they used to. There's that. And he sure stuck it to those green bastards, didn't he?" (James chuckles and Sandra rolls her eyes in mock disapproval.) "And of course, there's Alito."

"Yes, Jimmy. We'll always have Alito. They can't take that away from us. And Roberts. We mustn't forget Roberts."

"There's another thing, Sandy. Maybe the most important thing."

(They gaze into one another's eyes across the booth, as though they both know what the other is thinking, and always have.) "What is it? What's that other thing, Jimmy?"

"If we hadn't put him where he is, you and I, we'd never have been together again. Don't you see? We wouldn't have this opportunity ... this Iraq Study Group. You and I made him possible, Sandy, now he's given us another chance. We wouldn't have this ... not with Gore in there."

"Oh, Jimmy. You always did know how to make me laugh."