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Jewish World Review Nov. 20, 2000 / 22 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Through a glass darkly: Scattered reflections on a shattered election -- WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT that Americans would one day envy the quick, clear, fair and decisive elections of a country like Mexico?

Last week, between George W. Bush and Al Gore, the presidential candidate who's looking good is Vicente Fox.

It's unlikely, but maybe next time Americans will hesitate before referring to any of our neighbors to the South as banana republics.

Unless we're talking about Florida.

Or New Mexico. Or Wisconsin. Or ... .

Remember those glorious days just after the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Soviet Union imploded? Teams of American political scientists and constitutional experts were being dispatched beyond the crumpled Iron Curtain to teach those benighted foreigners about democracy, continuity and stability.

Maybe we should round up all those experts again and listen to them ourselves.

If history teaches anything, it should be humility.

Did the Electoral College fail, or did we fail it? Between the networks' misinformation, and now the war of words over the returns in Florida, and the games being played by both sides, is it the system's fault or our own?

Learned Hand once defined the spirit of liberty as "the spirit which is not too sure it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias ... .''

In all the separate but equal wrangling over the outcome of this election, has anyone seen that spirit?

I don't remember whether it was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. or some Roman who said it: There comes a point when, more important than whether a question is settled correctly, is that it be settled.

But isn't that what we have a Constitution, laws and courts for?

Learned Hand, a great jurist and a greater seer, also had something to say on that subject:

"I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.''

The Constitution, marvel that it is, is not a machine that runs of itself.

Even now the spirit of litigation replaces Learned Hand's spirit of liberty. A legal feint from one side is met by legal action from the other, which in turn provokes a counter stroke, until the original point of contention is lost in all the lawyering.

Each side brings up its heavy artillery, its former secretaries of state and law professors, until an impenetrable fog settles over the trenches.

The spirit of liberty? It's hard to see it in all the small print.

Weather forecast: Jan. 20, 2001, is going to be a bleak, cold, dismal day in Washington, D.C.

Even if the sun is shining and the temperature hits 75.

The longer this season of discontent goes on, the colder Inauguration Day will be.

The candidate who eventually becomes the next president of the United States may have to be a political genius to keep resentment from filling the air.

Neither is.

The most eloquent plea yet for finality, for an end to all the legal wrangling and constant recounts, came from James Baker, George W. Bush's man on the scene in Florida.

Let us pause, he said, and realize what is at stake here. Let us put national interest above personal interest. His was an appeal to reason, to patriotism, to the higher angels of our nature.

Naturally he's now filed a lawsuit.

Counselor Baker, that increasingly gray eminence, has been leading the Bush camp's charge against more hand counts in Florida. Stick with the machine count, he says. "Machines are neither Republicans nor Democrats,'' he says.

What nonsense. Any comparison of the hand count with the machine count in Florida leads to one inescapable conclusion: Them danged machines have been voting Republican.

Historians long have wondered what would have happened if Richard Nixon had chosen not to concede in 1960. What would the political process have looked like if he had demanded recounts of all those questionable returns from Hizzoner Richard J. Daley's pre-cooked Chicago precincts and Lyndon Johnson's bailiwicks in South Texas?

Now we are beginning to find out.

It's enough to make one wonder which Al Gore will rue more, his concession or his retracting it. If he wins the presidency this way, will it be worth it?

How long before they begin calling the next president of the United States, if we ever get one, His Fraudulency? That's the title Democrats conferred on Rutherford B. Hayes after the bollixed election of 1876.

Did you see the pictures of officials holding those contested ballots up to the light in Florida? (''Lessee now, is this a hole or an indentation or an intention or a smudge or a wish or a cigarette burn, and maybe if I just stretch the card a little ... .'')

Is this what an election of a president of the United States should be about? Whether a tab on the back of a voting card is loose or not? Or what was in a voter's mind? In certain Florida precincts, political science has become a branch of mind-reading.

Before the polls closed, the Gore camp was explaining that it might lose the popular vote but could still win the electoral count. Now that the election's over and Hillary Clinton is senator-elect from New York, she says the Electoral College has got to go and that presidents should be elected by popular vote. Now she tells us.

Both Warren Christopher, the dull-gray eminence of the Gore campaign, and another Daley from Chicago now assure the country that all they're after is fairness.

This doubtless explains why they demanded a recount only in Florida, and only in four heavily Democratic counties in Florida at that.

And now a few words from a guest columnist: "How unsound and insincere is he who says, 'I have determined to deal with you in a fair way.' What, does he have to give notice of fairness? It will show soon enough in action. Truth will be written as plainly as if it were on his forehead.

"Whatever is being done, accustom yourself as much as possible to inquire, 'Why is this man doing this thing?' But begin with yourself, and examine yourself first.''

Thank you, Marcus Aurelius.

When this whole show grows depressing, think of the funniest statement of the 1992 presidential campaign. Asked what Bill Clinton's favorite book was, spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers pictured him drifting off to sleep every night pondering The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

The law may prove treacherous, justice impossible, but a couple of things remain transcendent, unifying, refreshing:

Humor and prayer.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate