Bush an imposter?

Posted: Dec 04, 2000 12:00 AM
Suppose -- the reader is requested to luxuriate in the metaphor -- suppose that The New York Times simply refused to acknowledge that George W. Bush was the president of the United States ...

That's make-believe, of course. There are people who twit the Times' hold on reality by such wisecracks as that John Whatshisname can't really be dead -- The New York Times hasn't recorded the event!

But moving from fantasy in the direction of palpability, however ephemeral, there are people out there who are going to say that Mr. Bush is not truly president. They'll parse that differently. The Democratic bean-counters will stress simply that he got fewer votes nationally than Al Gore. Others, while not ignoring that observation, will refine it by insisting that he "really" got more votes in Florida than Bush did.

Never mind, for the moment, whether the true Florida count will be ascertainable. If judicial action arrests another recount, that will leave critics saying that the rejected recount would have established Gore's victory. If a recount is done that does less than establish Gore's putative victory, dissenters will argue that arbitrary, or unreasonable, methods were used, or tolerated, in conducting that final recount.

What can be generated here is a mood: Is that man really the father of that child? ... Did "the people" really bear George W. Bush as president?

In midweek, at a seminar of conservative men and women of intellectual inclination, one opinion was that the claims to legitimacy by a President Bush would never be consensually affirmed. No one at that seminar denied that if Bush is sworn in as president, he can drop the atomic bomb legally. What is raised is the question of legitimacy as rising from the loins of "the people": the ultimate mystique of self-government, the transubstantiation of the single voter who, begetting a majority, creates a legitimate government.

The formal authority of President Bush would therefore be acknowledged as simply factual. But if a corrosive dissent, alleging his failure actually to have won a majority of the Florida voters, were doggedly advanced, the authority of the president would be affected in ways other than simply by the congressional friction one anticipates when the two political parties are roughly equal in representation in the Senate and the House, and in the distribution of electoral support. Is he really the father of that child?

The only way to wrestle against the temptation to illegitimize a sworn-in president is to examine the mystique that brings legitimacy, and give it just a touch of restorative skepticism.

Consider the implications of the democratic formula. If 50 million people vote for John and 50 million plus one vote for James, James is legitimate. But that is nothing more than a procedural covenant. There are abundant historical reasons to remind ourselves that the ballot isn't necessarily the agent of wholesome government. In 1836, a democratic Congress passed the gag rule forbidding so much as the filing of any document against the institution of slavery. Almost exactly 100 years later, a democratic vote elected Adolf Hitler leader of Germany.

Lincoln, at a grave moment in our history, intoned his solemn salute to the ballot. "When ballots have fairly, and constitutionally, decided (a political question), there can be no successful appeal ... except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace; teaching men that what they cannot take by an election, neither can they take it by war -- teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war."

Any attempt to dismiss the election of George W. Bush as fraudulent invites the wrong kind of skepticism, as if to say that the priest hiccoughed and thereby invalidated the act of transubstantiation. The right kind of skepticism should rest with the acceptance of electoral results in well-intended democratic exercises as conclusive -- until, as Mr. Lincoln put it, successful appeals are brought by succeeding elections.