- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2000

No-controlling-legal-authority Al Gore is at it again. But this time the stakes are very high indeed the presidency of the United States. If the vice president were requesting a simple recount in Florida, no one would object. And indeed George W. Bush raised no objections to the initial computer recount, which Tuesday night certified him the winner of Florida by 300 votes (assuming the overseas ballots break his way).

Yet this recount was not to Mr. Gore's liking, so he proposes to count and count and count again, by hand or by foot or whatever, until the numbers come out his way. And if manipulation-by-recount fails, Mr. Gore has sent nearly 100 power lawyers to Florida to get the courts to find the people's "true will" to be in his favor. This is otherwise known as stealing an election.

On the brink of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln noted "that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided [an election], there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections." The country today is not about to be torn apart in a hail of gun fire and bullets, though the fact that the Bush and Gore camps have tapped their respective party's former secretary of states to communicate with each other is hardly a sign of comity. A constitutional crisis is not inconceivable.

But this political war will be fought by means other than bullets. Substitute the word lawyers for bullets and you have Mr. Gore's end game. Having lost the count and the recount in Florida, the vice president is poised to appeal to his lawyers to secure for him what he could not get at the ballot box.

And as the legal wrangling drags on, pressure will mount on Mr. Bush to do "the right thing," like Richard Nixon in 1960 and Gerald Ford in 1976, and not to contest the election anymore. Soon a chorus of editorials, retired statesmen and "wise men" will call on Mr. Bush to back down for the country's sake. They will promise to praise him and honor him, they will call him a statesman. Yet it's not clear that conceding under the present circumstances is the patriotic thing to do.

It's one thing not to challenge a stolen election when the thievery is done in the dark of night, when no one is really paying close attention. Let the dead vote in Chicago's Cook County. The damage to the country in such cases results less from the crime itself, as bad as it is, than from the uncovering of it. Had Nixon pursued legal action against John F. Kennedy in 1960, he would have drawn the public's attention to probable crimes they were only more or less aware of, throwing the country into a constitutional quagmire. A partial ignorance is occasionally better than having democracy's imperfections thrown in our faces. As Nixon put it then: "No one steals the presidency of the United States."

Mr. Gore is attempting to corrupt the electoral system in the broad light of day, however. He is manipulating the vote not behind closed doors but shamelessly, in front of us all, with the networks, CNN and C-SPAN televising around the clock his tactics and stratagems.

Consider that any fair-minded TV-viewer will quickly come to the conclusion that the Democratic-designed "butterfly" ballot in Florida is perfectly clear. Certainly, Gore campaigner William Daley himself knows it is, since Cook County has a very similar ballot; so too the 95 percent of Floridians in Palm Beach County who cast their votes without confusion or mishap.

And consider that it is quite obvious to the public that Mr. Gore's proposed hand recount is easily manipulated by local partisans, and that it is patently unfair to allow such an extraordinary procedure only in heavily Democratic districts. And finally, that a level of desperate absurdity has been reached when the Gore camp sues one county for counting "hanging chads" but not "dimpled chads."

Thus if Mr. Gore's various court challenges succeed or if he manages to pad the final vote with hand-counted "hanging," "dimpled" and "pregnant" chads, this will be no mere late-night larceny. Instead, like in the new reality-TV shows, the entire country will watch as the theft takes place live on their television screens. What most Americans will conclude is this: Elections go to the guy with the best lawyers, not the most votes.

The damage done to the country's democratic and constitutional traditions will not only be attributable to those who attempt to pull off the heist. That they are guilty goes without saying. But those who prefer to be remembered as "statesmen" rather than object to what every American can see anyway Mr. Gore's shameless power grab will also have to shoulder blame for the consequent corruption of our democracy and electoral system. If Mr. Bush desires to go down in history as a true statesman, he will have to find a way to defend his likely Electoral College victory while preserving Americans' faith in their democracy.

As for Al Gore, it's plain that far from being "his own man," he has become Clintonized to the core.

The most troubling aspect of the Clinton scandals was not that President Clinton lied under oath or had an affair with a young intern. That was all bad enough, of course. Far worse was that Mr. Clinton convinced the American people that none of this mattered or that the Republicans were simply out to get him. He showed no shame or remorse for what he had done (as Nixon had); instead, he bragged of defending the Constitution and demanded a Republican apology. In this sense his "personal mistake," as he deceptively called it, became not his alone but ours as well. By successfully holding onto power, he made accomplices of us all in his crimes and lies.

Mr. Gore in his effort to gain Mr. Clinton's tainted office would evidently do the same. No dead men (at least not yet) voted in Florida on Election Night. Instead, Mr. Gore brazenly attempts to take the election by the manipulation of the hand counts or by overturning Mr. Bush's victory through the courts. If we let him do it it's still a democracy, after all we will have only ourselves to blame.

Adam Wolfson is executive editor of the Public Interest.

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