The challenge that faced the young country was clear: "Could she produce sufficient men of insight and good will who would persuade both the governing class and people to face squarely the pressing problems of the day and seek solutions for the common good even when this might involve some sacrifice of individual gain by leaders and common man alike?"
Historian H.H. Scullard wrote those words about Republican Rome, but they easily could apply to America. Rome failed the challenge. Power-grabbing and corruption ruled the day. Crafty pols no longer respected the spirit of the law; their careers were dedicated to finding loopholes with which to make mischief. They cared more about winning than governing.
Of course, there are big differences between Rome B.C. and USA 2000. Rome fostered gratuitous violence for entertainment and profit, countenanced slavery and limited citizenship to men of certain means and families. The modern American pol risks being ridiculed or thrown out of office; the controversial Roman patrician risked being killed, exiled and bankrupted by rigged courts.
Nonetheless, there is a parallel, and it speaks to this moment in America. Rome lost republican government after its leaders got too clever. They stopped working together, preferring to rely on legal loopholes to grab power for themselves. They cared about winning first, punishing their enemies second and serving Rome if doing so was handy.
Tribune Gaius Gracchus pushed through a law that retroactively outlawed trial courts that had been used to prosecute followers of his brother Tiberius. UC Berkeley classics graduate students Amir Baghdadchi and William Short point out that at one election, when Pompey realized that his rival Cato was about to win the ballot, Pompey "dismissed the voting assembly on the technicality that he had "heard thunder' ... a foreboding omen which prevented the superstitious Romans from completing their task."
(Cato later was so intent on destroying his enemy Caesar that he proposed handing the successful general over to the Germans.)
Baghdadchi and Short note: "The disintegration of the Roman Republic was fraught on one level by hair-splitting over legal technicalities. Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon, motivated by his desire for personal power and gain was accomplished under the rhetoric of protecting the integrity of the system of checks and balances."
By the time he prevailed, there was no system left to protect, there was only a gnarled body of violated laws.
In the last month, Al Gore's operatives have sought retroactive changes in the law -- making counties set new criteria for ballots cast weeks ago. They've sought to overturn the results of an election they didn't like by encouraging demonstrations for a revote in Palm Beach County.
Too bad for the country: What he may well have won honestly, he preferred to win surely, if dirtily. Ironically, the only thing that has stopped Gore from winning the race through legal trickery is that his overrated legal stars miscalculated.
George W. Bush has made a show of trying to be above the legal bickering. Nice try, but Bush is not above the fray. His victory -- if it occurs -- will happen in part because a Seminole County election official allowed GOP officials to fill out absentee ballot applications. That action shouldn't taint the absentee votes -- but it taints the victory.
Everything is tainted. Talk to partisans about this election and you'll find only one institution they all trust. It's not the White House, not when it's occupied with a president who decided to lie in order to win; it's not Congress, or Republicans who demanded more honesty of the president than Speaker Newt Gingrich.
The only institution partisans on both sides trust to do the right thing -- and the legal thing -- is not the White House, not Congress, but the United States Supreme Court.
When the spirit of the law means nothing, and getting around the law means everything -- and if the vicious cycle repeats itself enough -- there is no law left.