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Jewish World Review Dec. 21, 2000 / 24 Kislev, 5761

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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The words from this election year that may echo the longest


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IT'S TEMPTING to be lighthearted when predicting what the most historically lasting statement to come out of Election 2000 will be.

In the absence of something along the lines of "Give me liberty or give me death," the front-runner for posterity would seem to be:

"You don't have to get snippy about it."

Those, of course, were Al Gore's much-reported words when he phoned George W. Bush to retract his earlier concession call. And -- in the spirit of a wrung-out nation's pursuit of a sense of levity -- "You don't have to get snippy about it" would appear to be the most memorable words of the election season.

But the words that will really last the longest were not funny at all. In the exhausted relief with which the country has greeted the end of the long fight for the White House, the words I refer to have been momentarily cast aside -- put in the dust bin with the millions of other election-season words that bombarded us.

Generations from now, though, these particular words will still be studied. They are as troubling as words can get in our democracy -- and the fact that they came from the person they did makes them even more ominous.

They are the words of United States Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, in his dissent to the court's decision that in effect stopped the counting of disputed ballots in Florida, and gave the election to Bush.

I know, I know -- no one wants to think about any of that now. The election is over; Bush is going to be the president. Anyone with any regard for our country hopes that he will turn out to be a good one -- for all of our sakes.

But Justice Stevens' words carry a weight that will make them endure long past our current controversies. Here is what he wrote:

"Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the law." Stevens wrote that what the Supreme Court did "can only lend credence to the most cynical appraisal of the work of judges throughout the land."

Note that Justice Stevens did not limit his remarks to what he fears the public's feeling may be toward the Supreme Court; he refers to "the judge as an impartial guardian of the law" -- he chose the phrase "the judge" with evident care, to emphasize what is in peril. He underscored it with the use of the phrase "judges throughout the land."

If Justice Stevens is correct -- if an increased cynicism toward what judges do is the eventual result of how the Supreme Court acted this month -- that will be a terrible thing. Judges can be excused for sometimes believing the public is always ready to be against them -- what else could account for the angry criticism that often greets some of their decisions?

But my belief is that the public is not predisposed against judges -- the public, at its heart, has an almost desperate desire to trust in judges, to put a willing faith in their impartiality. The public wants to believe passionately in judges, to count on them -- in the end, when there is no fairness to be found anywhere else, a judge is supposed to be the last, best chance of those who are out of hope and out of strength. Cynical about what judges do? The public, or so I have found, yearns to be free of cynicism about the judiciary -- the public yearns to trust that somewhere there is an even playing field, where the weak have as much standing as the powerful. A judge's robes are supposed to have much as symbolic weight in this country as the American flag itself.

Justice Stevens' words would be sobering enough if they were uttered by a news commentator or a politician. The fact that they were written by a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court should argue that they simply cannot be ignored. And if any of us takes comfort that Stevens' words have been, for the moment, pushed off to the side....

Think of what those words will mean if non-official recounts of the Florida votes should, in the coming months, indicate with any certainty that the man who won the election somehow didn't really win it. Think of that in the context of a photo we will all soon see -- of Chief Justice William Rehnquist swearing in one man as president, while the man he ran against stands on the inaugural platform a few feet away.



JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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