Reflections on the Election of George W. Bush

by Stanley Meisler

December 18, 2000

I'm hesitant about adding to the cacophony over the elections, but I do have a few reflections. These bear no hallmark of objectivity. I do not like the strutting George W. Bush and can not conceive of him growing into greatness la Truman.

What if? I have toyed with this a lot. What if Governor Jeb Bush of Florida and his henchlady Katherine Harris had announced from the beginning that, in view of the closeness of the machine recount, they had ordered a hand recount of all the votes of Florida. They were not acting as Bush partisans but as dutiful officers of the state. Perhaps Vice President Al Gore would have won. Perhaps not. In either case, a lot of us would have felt very good about America.

Is this reverie of mine too wild and wooly? Is our view of politicians so cynical that we cannot imagine any acting this way? Perhaps Gore would have shown himself as ruthless as the Bushes did. But I like to think that some politicians - perhaps John McCain, perhaps Bill Bradley, perhaps Mario Cuomo - would have behaved with honor. Am I an old fool to think this way?

The Republicans behaved badly, in a dangerous and despicable way. They fought a fair count incessantly. From the beginning they thundered that Gore was a sore loser and, worse, a usurper for exercising his right under Florida law to demand recounts by hand. He was hurting America, they warned, by refusing to concede. They derided hand counts as inherently inaccurate and never wavered from this outrageous line. Their argument only hardened with time, and their venom intensified.

They regarded any discovery of Gore votes as robbery. They worked themselves into a strident state that could never have accepted Gore as president. Their hatred became an ironic argument in Bush's favor, for only a Bush victory, it seemed, would guarantee peace. They took no chances. They intended their control of the Florida Legislature to insure a Bush victory no matter how many votes the Florida courts allowed Gore.

The venom troubled me. I have seen it among Republicans before. It roiled political life after World War II when Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon and others accused Democrats of treason, subversion and failing to save China. And, of course, it emerged again with the right-wing treatment of Bill Clinton as illegitimate white trash. These flare-ups of hatred have sometimes backfired in the past (it was the main reason many journalists like myself always harbored contempt for Nixon) and may do so again.

The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court saddened me. I worked in the South for the Associated Press during the crises that followed the court's 1954 school desegregation decision, and Earl Warren and his associates always seemed heroic. For years as a Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent, I patiently explained to others the genius of a system that empowered an independent court to protect the rights of individuals against abuse by bureaucrats and legislators. Not even the French or the British had such protection.

My admiration was so great that I believed until now that even a conservative court would apply reason and great principles to all matters before it without favor. Even when I did not like their decisions, I always assumed that the guiding principles of the justices, while different, were just as honest as mine.

But the logic of the majority decision in the Florida case is so tortured and mean-spirited that it is hard to believe any principles were involved. The reasoning of the court mattered far less than its action. Five justices halted vote counting in Florida to prevent, they said, irreparable harm to Bush. They then made believe they were relenting a little by decreeing that a modified manual recount could go on if there were enough time but alas, alack, they insisted, time had run out.

The five justices had obviously decided that Bush must win and rationalized their choice in legalese. The decision was so blatantly political that Justices Anthony Scalia and Clarence Thomas should have recused themselves. They had, after all, become an issue in the campaign with Gore deriding Bush for saying he wanted more justices like them. Moreover, Scalia's son worked in the law firm of the counsel who stood before the court defending Bush, while Thomas's wife was collecting resumes from conservatives who wanted a job in a Bush Administration.

The mischief of Ralph Nader is infuriating. Decades ago, when he and I were young contributors to The Nation magazine, its brilliant editor Carey McWilliams invited us to a meeting in New York to bat around ideas for future articles. I had never met Nader before and was astounded at the breadth of his knowledge of Washington politics and bureaucracy. I was a Washington reporter then, but from his vantage in Connecticut, he knew far more than I did about the machinations of the capital. A few years later, when I was a Peace Corps official, I proposed that the Peace Corps hire him as an evaluator of our programs. He thanked us for the offer but declined politely. He had a book on cars coming out the next week, he explained, and thought that promoting it would keep him too busy to accept another job.

That book, Unsafe at any Speed, attracted so much attention that it transformed Nader into an institution protecting ordinary Americans from Big Corporations and Big Government. For many years since then, Nader demonstrated how hard-working outsiders, if they dug up enough facts and wielded them wisely, could bend the Washington system to accomplish good. Nader became an icon of non-partisan honesty and achievement.

But power corrupts, even when it is power for good. Nader's candidacy this year was quixotic, egomaniacal and destructive. Without Nader, Gore would have won. In Florida alone, Nader had 95,000 votes. If only one out of five had voted for Gore, the vice president would have taken Florida easily. Nader's contention that he found no difference between Bush and Gore was blather. No one knows better than Nader that a presidential election brings us far more than a president. Bush will appoint several thousand new policymakers and administrators, and most are sure to stand in the way of everything that Nader and his Greens want.

There has been a lot of talk from politicians and journalists lately about national unity and reaching out and the end of recriminations. We have only one president, they insist, and we must gather behind him. But President Bush will be a maimed president with a stain on his legitimacy. That does not guarantee that his place in history will be no more distinguished than that of Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison. But he has a lot to prove, and Congress need not be cowed by his mandate. He doesn't have any.

December 18, 2000
Washington D.C.

see also:

Dark Election
November 17, 2014

My Role In the Presidential Election of 1960
December 22, 2012

A Hopeful End to a Shameless Campaign
November 11, 2012

Race and the Election
September 7, 2012

The Intellectual Congressman
August 25, 2012

Washington Out of Whack
August 4, 2011

Belated Thoughts on an Awful Election
November 14, 2010

The Filibuster in the Broken Senate
March 7, 2010

Very British Republicans
December 28, 2009

Inaugural Fog
January 31, 2005

Bitter Returns
November 3, 2004

The Hidden Bush
August 10, 2001

The Monica Affair
September 28, 1998

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