- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2000

I take as my text today the words of Oliver Cromwell in a letter to the Elders of the Church of Scotland: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken." Cromwell, the scourge of Ireland, but yet the father of modern parliaments, wrote those words 350 years ago in an age of fiercely held beliefs that had spawned religious and civil wars.

If Cromwell, a leading protagonist in that age of certainties, could proffer a doubt, surely we who argue today over the lesser matter of Vice President Al Gore or governor George W. Bush should be able to recheck our certainties. Whether it is in the bowels of Christ, or in whatever passes as a vouchsafe of secular earnestness, isn't it time we all paused to question whether we are completely certain of our own virtue and the other fellow's evil?

It is almost preposterous that our country is on the brink of constitutional crises and moving fast down a path to years of bitter recriminations over the outcome of an election that was fought over minor personality quirks and small policy differences.

The vehemence and certainty expressed on both sides of this post-election process are belied by the constantly switching rationales. In the last week the Bush and Gore legal teams have each argued both sides of the proposition that technicalities should be ignored on behalf of counting all the votes. In the case of the absentee ballots, Bush advocates argued that mere technical violations of procedure should not invalidate ballots cast with the best of intentions, while the Gore lawyers fought fiercely for the transcendent importance of following procedure. Then, a few hours later in another courtroom the lawyers reversed field and argued the other side of the issue over manual recounts. And, in each case, those of us in the chattering class seamlessly switched our arguments to support the shifting case for our implicit clients. And all of these twists and turns are propagated with the most unctuous sincerity.

Our behavior is reminiscent of the communists of the early 1940s who first opposed fascism, then when the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 was signed, quickly shut up about it. Finally they switched back to vehement anti-fascism again when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.

It is not that we are all intellectually dishonest (I hope). Rather, a more subtle force is at play. Psychologists have long noted the tendency of strongly held ideological loyalties to direct (or misdirect) a person's reasoning powers to arguments that support the objects of our loyalties.

I first noticed this phenomenon in myself and many others during the impeachment fight. I believed then, and I believe now, that President Clinton's conduct constituted an impeachable offense, and that failure to prosecute him would do lasting damage to the rule of law. But as I spent a year debating the matter on television I noticed that, while some of my opponents were unscrupulous, hired apologists for Mr. Clinton, other of my opponents I had known for years as honest and thoughtful people. It seemed unlikely that merely our disinterested reasoning powers had led us each to arguments that benefited our side of the political battle. But as I checked and rechecked my assumptions, I still held my positions sincerely.

Likewise, in the current election aftermath I continue to believe that Mr. Gore's self-serving, carefully selected recounts by Democratic partisans is a travesty of an honest vote count. And I still believe that it would be an outrage to throw out thousands of absentee ballots because of hypertechnical procedural flaws in their applications. I have talked to honest commentators on the other side who have revalidated their own contrary conclusions. So, what is to be done?

It is time for each of us to look modestly on our own reasoning powers. Perhaps, each of us has not been uniquely endowed with unprecedented gifts of insight. After all, the Bible teaches us that pridefulness is a sin.

Finally, there is something more important than being right. It is more important to do right by our country. And what our dear country needs now is a cessation of the violent rhetoric that both sides are firing wantonly at whatever person or institution stands athwart our political objective.

Recently respectable senators, the New York Times, former secretaries of state and other allegedly senior statesmen are uttering calumnies against, variously, the Florida legislature, the Florida Supreme Court, the leaders of Congress, The U.S. Supreme Court and the Constitution itself. We all have to live in the future we are all so busily despoiling.

While we should each continue to make our case, let us do so without that terrible moral squint that judges the other fellow not only wrong, but evil. In the bowels of whatever we hold sacred, let us think it possible that even we may be mistaken.

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