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Jewish World Review Nov. 16, 2000 / 18 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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TO BE CONTINUED: Waiting for president godot -- LET ME set the scene. It is election night, and the vice president of the United States, now bidding for the presidency itself, huddles with his handlers. It has been a long night. Agonies have been succeeded by ecstasies and then back again.

The vice president's handlers are outraged by what they call blatant vote-stealing. They urge him to fight, fight, fight. The lawyers are looking into a recount. The trend is against the candidate, but key states are still out. The nation is waiting. The candidate makes his decision. With his tearful wife at his side, he announces:

"While there are still some results to come in,'' says Richard M. Nixon, "if the present trend continues, Senator Kennedy will be the next president of the United States.''

No! No! Don't concede! Never! the crowd yells. Sorrow and anger mix. Both grow as the returns from Texas and Illinois are examined. In one South Texas precinct, civic virtue had been so intense that 6,138 votes were cast by only 4,895 registered voters. And in Chicago, the Daley machine had been foresighted enough to pre-program the results on one voting machine.

But the candidate, having made his concession, would not retract it. Why? In his memoirs, written years later, Richard Nixon would explain:

"Mind you, there were good legal grounds for a challenge. We could have financed it. ... A lot of people said that if the shoe had been on the other foot, Kennedy would have contested it. So I thought about it. My heart told me to do it, my head said No for two fundamental reasons. One, it would have meant that the United States would be without a President for almost a year before the challenges in Illinois and Texas could be taken. I felt that the country couldn't afford to have a vacuum in leadership for that period. Two, even if we were to win in the end, the cost in world opinion and the effect on democracy in the broadest sense would be detrimental. ...''

It was Richard Nixon's finest hour -- in a career that would not have enough fine hours. His self-abnegation, his patriotism, his putting the country's interests above his own ... . It was so unlike the Richard Nixon we would come to know and loathe. In fairness the Nixon of 1960 should be remembered, too. Especially now.

How strange it feels, citing Dick Nixon as some kind of moral exemplar. Sometime during this election night that refuses to end, it also occurred to me that, after his resignation as president, Mr. Nixon had surrendered his law license in California -- rather than force his native state to discipline him. Unlike Bill Clinton.

Another vice president, this one locked into an even closer race for the presidency, called his opponent early last Wednesday and offered his concession, too. But he took it back an hour later. And, it should be emphasized, Al Gore had every right to do so, maybe even a duty.

Then, the day after the election, the candidate appeared before massed American flags in Nashville. He said all the right things about the Constitution and the rule of law and the need to decide this election promptly and with dignity.

But he also said more than the right things, for he spoke of the will of the people and the consent of the governed as though he were laying the groundwork for a legal challenge. A protracted legal challenge.

Then he and his running mate moved smartly offstage, leaving the more contentious remarks to his consiglieri. It was all a little too cagey. God help us if the litigators decide this election. Or rather undecide it.

It was quite a scene there in Nashville. There was Warren Christopher in the background even when he was speaking in the foreground.

And, shades of 1960, there was one of the Chicago Daleys explaining that he was there to assure a clean election.

I laughed so hard I thought my eyes had teared up. A thin film seemed to appear over the television screen, as if irony had become visible.

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney also appeared the morning after the election, both appropriately low-key.

The governor congratulated his opponent on a fine showing. He said he thought and believed the recount in Florida would confirm that he had been elected president of the United States. If that were so, he said he would seek to earn the confidence of those who had voted for his opponent, too. And that was about all he said, or should have said.

I didn't detect anything cagey about his remarks. Or any room for more than one interpretation. Or anything that smacked of a lawyer letter. It was as if he were already trying to earn everybody's confidence.

Should the governor indeed become the president-elect, George W. Bush will need to leave those big boots of his in Austin and come into office on little cat feet. He is still behind in the popular vote, and, depending on what happens in Florida, he will have been elected president by the smallest majority possible: one electoral vote.

The Electoral College did not work its usual magic this year. It did not instantly produce the next president of the United States. Whether the American future holds a President Bush -- or a President Gore, this election will have conferred all the power of the presidency, not necessarily the authority.

But that is the way it has always been. It is not the margin of electoral victory that in the end confers legitimacy on a president but what he does in office.

Lyndon Johnson won a sweeping victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964, only to step down four years later, defeated by events.

Richard Nixon won re-election in 1972 in what may have been the greatest landslide in the history of modern presidential elections, only to resign in disgrace a few years later rather than be impeached.

This much is sure about the outcome of the presidential election of 2000: The next occupant of the Oval Office will enter it under a cloud. And he will have to shine not by arguing endlessly over every vote cast in Florida -- or Oregon or Iowa or Wisconsin or New Mexico -- but by what he does in that office.

The other night I had the strangest dream. George W. Bush and Al Gore appeared on the same platform in a place that might have been Austin, or Nashville, or Washington. They were accompanied by their wives and families and counselors. They shook hands and inquired after each other's health. They announced that each would prepare for the transition from this administration to the next. And that they would work together to assure continuity and stability.

Then the candidates parted on the best of terms. Their aides established a channel of communication between the two teams.

In short, both acted like Fellow Americans. They seemed just as calm as The People have been. There was no sign of CNN and its running counts of one thing or another at the bottom of the screen, all equally dubious.

Then I awoke to the recount that will never end.

In a way, the candidate who finally loses this presidential election will win.

By that, I don't mean that he will have the sympathy of the country, or be Positioned for Victory in 2004, or any of the other usual punditspeak.

I mean that, however bitter his and his partisans' feelings about this election and how it ended, it is better to suffer injustice than to inflict it.

Socrates tried to teach us that.

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