Jewish World Review Dec. 21, 2000 / 24 Kislev, 5761
The words from this election year
that may echo the longest
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
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
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
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
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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