Newton Minow, a former board member of the Federal Communication Commission, wrote a book a few years ago attacking TV and famously saying it had produced "a vast wasteland," inhabited by comatose Americans watching soaps and quiz shows and disregarding pressing problems of governance and the polity. How wrong Minow was! Courtesy of television, these days we have a vibrant democracy of well-informed citizens that would be the envy of Pericles.

I was wandering through a shopping mall in Eureka, Calif., the other day and came upon a gaggle of citizens looking raptly at a bank of TV sets in Radio Shack. Suddenly, they raised howls of excitement. The verdict on the Seminole absentee ballots had just come through. The Eurekans continued to watch, commenting knowledgeably to each other as law professors from Georgetown and Yale did battle over the meaning of the Florida Constitution, the U.S. Constitution and the thoughts of Madison and Hamilton.

Then I drove from Eureka, Calif., fifteen miles down the road to the smaller town of Fortuna, Calif. In the wood stove store, Steve Machado was also crouching in front of his TV set. Then he, too, began braying in triumph. The Florida state Supreme Court had just handed down its verdict ordering a hand job on votes in various counties. Machado then launched into a dissection of the forensic style of David Boies laced with speculations about the constitutional implications of any intervention by either the Florida legislature or the U.S. Congress.

So much for Minow's wasteland.

The only groups professing to be oppressed by the glorious crisis in Florida have been the Fourth Estate, and of course, the Republicans. Each evening we are worn down by pundits calling gravely for "closure" or "finality," and by Larry King importuning Republicans and Democrats with anguished questions about whether they can "come together." Why should they? The whole point of the political campaigns just concluded was to indicate to the citizenry that there are national issues about which there is serious division. So why should we now be informed that these pretenses of grand divisions were essentially bogus and a national coalition government would be satisfactory?

And why should we have had "closure" until the challenger exhausted every recourse, and until disappointed Florida voters explored every avenue for redress? Back at the time of Watergate, the pundits were the same way, timidly squeaking that probes into Nixon's election activities were "excessive." Barely had the scandal begun to unroll before the opinion formers were urging that we put it all behind us.

Same again in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Just as the nation was hunkering down for months of prurient fun, the pundits were calling on Clinton to resign and spare the nation the "trauma" of impeachment.

This latest saga of shenanigans in Florida has been a splendid civic education. We have learned that the way many counties officially tally vote bears a strained and sometimes distant relationship to the way citizens actually voted. We have been given some -- not nearly enough -- insight into the utterly disgraceful way blacks and Haitians were scared from the polling places in some counties in Florida, yet another seamy chapter in a southern narrative stretching back to Reconstruction.

We have learned to appreciate yet again that judges' politics weigh far more strongly upon their opinion-forming faculties as a thousand precedents in American constitutional.

This has been a year when some members of the U.S. Supreme Court have discredited themselves thoroughly. Justices Rehnquist, Kennedy and Scalia all have sons who were involved in the Microsoft case, from which the Justices nonetheless declined to recuse themselves.

So far as the Florida decisions are concerned, Scalia should certainly have recused himself since he had more than one conflict of interest. For example: On Nov. 7, his son John joined the Miami law firm Greenberg, Traurig. The following day, Barry Richard, a partner in that firm, said he was called to represent Bush in Florida.

Clarence Thomas' wife has been working for the Heritage Foundation which is putting forward resumes for appointments in the Bush administration. Section 455 of Title 28 of the United States' code requires recusal if a spouse has "an interest that could substantially be affected by the outcome of the proceedings." Other family relations, such as Scalia's, can cause for recusal. Scalia has leaked stories to the effect that if Gore were to be elected, he would leave the Court.

It is true that very, very little separated Bush from Gore. That is surely why the Florida imbroglio has been so enjoyable to the national audience, at least when they are not being brainwashed by the pundits into thinking that "closure" is desirable. Never has there been greater fuss over smaller stakes. If this has been a constitutional crisis, the fates gave us the right time to have one.

Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair's new book, Five Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond is forthcoming from Verso. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.