The country is already paying a price for Al Gore's unprecedented war for the White House. The price can be measured in cynicism.
Journalists are the most cynical human beings I've ever encountered. Some chalk it up to Vietnam and Watergate, when reporters were supposedly "disillusioned" by government officials who lied to them. Perhaps. But that doesn't explain it all. There has always been dishonesty. What's different now is the lack of belief in or hope for anything better among the opinion-shaping class.
Bill Clinton and his eager acolyte Al Gore have so thoroughly transgressed ordinary notions of fair play and decency that the liberal press has had only two choices -- denounce their own men and hold to their principles or adopt a wise-guy, cynical pose. With apologies to Edmund Burke, it seems that today, "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to say 'everybody does it.'"
For the past several weeks, various analysts on the tube and in print have urged upon us the notion that "if the roles were reversed, Al Gore would be making the arguments George Bush is making, and vice versa."
Exhibit A for this proposition is that the Bush campaign has asked for a manual recount in New Mexico, where Gore won with a margin of only 368 votes out of 550,000 cast. But in fact, in contrast to Palm Beach and Dade Counties, there actually does appear to have been a computer malfunction in New Mexico that might have affected the tally in one county.
Bush has been consistent throughout this process. He took the position that the two machine counts in Florida ought to have settled the election and opposed hand counts. He stuck to that position even when it appeared that the hand counts would go forward in four heavily Democratic counties. He remained firm even when it appeared that hand counting was actually producing more Bush votes than expected in some places, and even when the Florida Supreme Court invited the Bush team to ask for a statewide hand recount. Such a count is nowhere provided for in Florida election law and is, in fact, probably prohibited by it. Then again, the Florida Supreme Court does not, as we know, bother about "hypertechnical reliance upon statutory provisions."
Gore, by contrast, has pursued an "any route to victory" campaign, freely contradicting himself over and over again. Before the election, his supporters (expecting a Bush popular vote majority) argued that the Electoral College was all that mattered. The day after the election, they implied that any result awarding the presidency to the loser of the popular vote was illegitimate.
Gore has claimed that his effort was to count every vote. Yet he did not distance himself from Democratic efforts to disqualify the absentee ballots of military servicemen and others who tend to vote Republican. He has explained that holding voting cards up to the light and counting pregnant and dimpled chads is required because the right to vote is too precious to be compromised by insignificant errors. Yet with a straight face he turns around and endorses lawsuits in Seminole and Martin counties, brought by his partisans, which would throw out not hundreds but thousands of ballots because of the trifling matter of inserting voter ID numbers after, rather than before, the ballots were filled out.
It was never Bush's obligation to bow out gracefully. He won, however narrowly, every count of the votes in Florida. And he had good reason to cast a suspicious eye on the clear vote trolling that the Gore forces were attempting. But there is no doubt in my mind that a man raised by George and Barbara Bush would have done the right thing if the roles were reversed. He would have considered the good of the country, just as Sen. John Ashcroft considered the good of his state in declining to contest a razor-thin win by his late opponent's widow.
If Gore has ever put any consideration above his own self-interest, it is not apparent -- which is yet more evidence of his unfitness for the office he so unscrupulously seeks to gain.
It isn't yet true that "everybody does it." But the more the press takes it for granted that this is an acceptable fact of American political life, the more morally impoverished we will become.