Temptation

Different understandings, but Goreites are too close to the fire

Issue: "Judicial overreach?," Dec. 2, 2000

Maybe because one of my dogs is named Pokey, I received all day Friday e-mail containing that new hit song, "The Palm Beach Pokey": "You put the Gore votes in, you put the Bush votes out, you put the Gore votes in, and you do another count. You do the Palm Beach Pokey, and you turn the count around, that's what it's all about!"

What's it all about? The two sides have different understandings of what an election is. For Republicans, taking after 18th-century British thinker Edmund Burke, the rule of law and tradition is paramount: Whoever gets the most votes by accepted electoral practice wins. For Democrats, taking after 18th-century French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the "will of the people" comes first: Whoever is divined to have had the greatest support, even if people did not fill out their ballots properly, should win.

What's it all about? Clinton-Gore aide Paul Begala argues that George W. Bush won states "where James Byrd was lynch-dragged behind a pickup truck until his body came apart ... where right-wing extremists blew up a federal office building and murdered scores of federal employees," and so forth. I argued in a recent WORLD column, "Why should we be surprised that people who approve of an abortionist puncturing the skull of a mostly-born baby also approve of electoral theft?" But here's a difference: Most Republicans condemn both sets of extremists, most Democrats condemn the first set of extremists but defend the second.

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What's it all about? Democrats say that if they had a slight lead, Republicans would demand a recount. Republicans counter that history is on their side, since in 1960 and 1976 they did not demand even a machine recount, let alone a hand one. Democrats then say that this election is closer than those. But this seems to be a convenient rationale, particularly at the epicenter. After all, when Beverly Green, a Republican from Palm Beach County who is black, lost just three months ago a state House of Representatives primary race by 14 votes, she asked for a hand recount; the Palm Beach County board authorized only one by machine. When that showed her losing by only 11 votes and she renewed her request for a hand recount, the board ruled that such a recount could be justified only if machine malfunction or fraud had occurred.

What's it all about? It's about the presidency of the United States, a position much more significant than that of state representative. Winston Churchill supposedly once asked a woman if she would sleep with him for one million pounds; the answer was yes. He then asked if she would sleep with him for two pounds, and she angrily answered, "What do you think I am?" His response was something like this: "We know what you are, madam, and now we're merely haggling about the price."

Churchill was defining her rightly, but the story also shows that the size of the prize affects ethical positions. It's hard for the whole Gore apparatus to avoid cutting corners when the stakes are so high. I suspect some Bush folks also succumb, but here's the difference: Al Gore and William Daley are leading their followers into temptation by pushing for hand counts, because the only way they can win is through that mischief-filled method. This is wrong, but just as Bill Clinton slowly turned some decent aides into accomplices to adultery and false witness, so Mr. Clinton's disciple is corrupting the decent folks in his campaign.

The saddest corruption is that of many reporters. Journalistic pioneers like John Peter Zenger went to jail for the right to be skeptical of official pronouncements. Not so long ago a well-trained reporter standing in front of a white house, and asked the color of the house, would respond, "The front of the house is white." In other words: Don't make assumptions. Eyeball everything. But when network journalists commented over the weekend on Republican affidavits about hand counting irregularities, the typical reportorial response was a shrug-it-off "no problems."

How could a reporter say that, unless he was still watching shortly before 1 a.m. so that he could see a determined Democrat dimple a chad, or a tired, elderly counter drop a pile of ballots? How could he be a lap dog for the Gore message of "let the people decide," after Goreites pressured the Broward and Miami-Dade County boards to reverse themselves and do Al Gore's will, and then change their standards in a desperate attempt to grab more votes? How could he take seriously the Gore campaign's expressed desire for every vote to count, while it was pushing to toss out numerous votes from American soldiers and sailors overseas?

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