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Jewish World Review Jan. 11, 2001 / 16 Teves, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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The necessity of grace -- SHOWING GRACE, authority and a sense of humor, all transcendent qualities, the vice president of the United States fulfilled what could not have been an easy duty Saturday. He presided over the formal recognition of his opponent's election as president of the United States.

A losing candidate hasn't chaired the counting of the electoral votes in Congress since 1961, when Richard Nixon oversaw the count that made John F. Kennedy president. It was a routine if piquant moment then, nothing more. The election machinery had worked even in a tight race, thanks to a little grace election night on the part of the loser. There was no extended post-election election that year.

Al Gore, performing one of his last duties as vice president, conducted Saturday's joint session with the simplicity and dignity that befit a republic. One only wishes he'd shown the same equanimity for 36 days after the first presidential election -- when the country was plunged into a second, unnecessary and far messier presidential election in various courts.

This year's count was not conducted without its sore losers; about 20 of them objected to accepting Florida's decisive votes for George W. Bush. Sixteen walked out, Gromyko-fashion, when their objections were overruled by the chair -- politely but firmly. Al Gore hasn't shown such command of himself and others since his graceful -- if long-delayed -- concession.

The country can still count on Maxine Waters, congresswoman from California, to prove an embarrassment, and she did not disappoint. Her objection to the electoral tally was turned down by the vice president because she hadn't followed the rules and failed to get a senator to co-sign her motion. But the congresswoman said she didn't care. That's when Al Gore advised her that "the rules do care.''

And a republic must care about the rules or become something else. It is one thing to dislike the outcome of an election, another not to care about the system that makes free and orderly elections possible. There will be another presidential election in four years; one cannot order up another republic once its rules are ignored.

There was only one faithless elector this year, and she cost Al Gore an electoral vote in the District of Columbia. Barbara Lett-Simmons left her ballot blank to protest the capital's political status under the Constitution (It gets no U.S. representative, no U.S. senator). But just to make a gesture, this elector disenfranchised the capital's voters herself. Here was another way of walking out on the system.

Democracy will always have its discontented and will have to rise above them if the remarkable American combination of liberty and order is to be assured. It is a combination that requires a rare self-restraint, like the kind Al Gore was called upon to show.

More important than who was elected president is that once again a president was elected. Once again power passed peacefully from one political party to another. It has happened regularly in this country since 1800 when John Adams handed over the reins to Thomas Jefferson -- after another bitterly contested election that lasted too long because of low intrigues and mutual suspicions.

The names of the parties have changed; they were called Federalists and Republicans then. What has not changed is the necessity of grace. John Adams, the victim of many a slander during that campaign, could have used his influence to deny Mr. Jefferson the presidency after a fluke had tied the electoral vote between two Republican candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. (The electoral machinery wasn't perfect then, either.) But Mr. Adams engaged in no such mischief, despite his talent for harboring resentments.

Mr. Jefferson, who had also been the object of a vicious campaign that year, could have held a grudge. Instead, he extended a healing hand in his inaugural address when he reminded the citizens of that young republic: "We are all Republicans -- we are all Federalists.'' And we still are. Just as now we are all Democrats, we are all Republicans.

Mr. Jefferson's tone -- and even his words -- should commend themselves to George W. Bush's speechwriters as they prepare for the 54th presidential inauguration in the history of this still young republic. The more things have changed since 1801, the more they stay the same.

Once again grace transcends any of our differences, however deeply felt, despite the noisy objections and unseemly behavior of a few. The Aaron Burrs will always be with us, but we also have the examples of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. They rose above circumstances because they rose above their own passions. Just as Al Gore did last Saturday, and as George W. Bush surely will Saturday, Jan. 20.

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