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Jewish World Review Dec. 20, 2000 / 23 Kislev 5761

Philip Terzian

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Cooling down -- THE BEST THING about Al Gore's concession speech was its tone. Self-pity was notably absent, and while he gave his father credit for a line from Edwin Markham ("Defeat may serve as well as victory/To shake the soul and let the glory out") Gore's strengths, and not his weaknesses, were largely on display. He was correct, magnanimous, brief, and to the point.

It is an interesting fact that concession speeches are often more successful, and memorable, than victory statements. What else do we remember about Adlai Stevenson? This should not be surprising. Failure and disappointment inspire introspection and eloquence; winners are admonished to restrain their joy and relief.

There is an element of insincerity as well. While Gore managed to make fun of himself, and speak in generous tones about George W. Bush, his genuine emotions had to have been concealed. As he spoke, I was reminded of a passage in Harold Nicolson's diaries. Franklin Roosevelt had just died, and Nicolson was listening to Winston Churchill's memorial tribute in the House of Commons: "I did not think him very good -- nothing like as good as when he made the funeral oration on Neville Chamberlain, which was truly Periclean. Which all shows that when one really does mind deeply about a thing, it is more difficult to write or speak about than when one is just faintly moved by pity or terror."

Now, Washington is awash in sentiment, not pity or terror. The vanquished Vice President is surrounded by goodwill -- I thought poor Chris Matthews on MSNBC would burst into tears at the end of Gore's statement -- and the triumphant George Bush is exhorted to be merciful. There's a double standard, of course. I don't recall Bill Clinton, who was elected president with 43 pecent of the vote, being advised to invite Republicans into his government, or work closely with the right wing of the congressional GOP. But that's the culture of Washington: Democratic victories are glorious restorations; prevailing Republicans are treated like usurpers.

All of which President-elect Bush will take in stride. If there is one lesson I have learned in a lifetime in the nation's capital, it is that the received wisdom of the moment is almost invariably wrong. Bush will tip his hat to the gods of bipartisanship, but will govern on the principles that got him elected. And given the short memories of most politicians, and the public generally, the mood of the nation will be transformed by late January.

At the moment, by contrast, we are told that the institutions of American democracy were wounded in Florida, and will not be easy to heal. But I have my doubts. Both ends of the political spectrum are perpetually aggrieved -- listen, if you can, to Jesse Jackson and Pat Buchanan -- but the governing establishment always reverts to form. Who, now, is animated by the furies of the primaries? Will the unions embrace campaign finance reform which, if comprehensive, would surely diminish their capacity for mischief? I would be happy to bet on whether the legislatures of America's smaller states will ratify a constitutional amendment abolishing the electoral college. And while everyone is excited at the prospect of voting for president by computer -- a typical American technological fix -- no one is pondering the thought of power surges, or hackers in basements, or the old admonition: garbage in, garbage out.

Or consider, for that matter, the U.S. Supreme Court. Those who welcomed the rulings of a bitterly divided (4-3) Florida Supreme Court were astonished by the judgment (5-4) of a bitterly divided high court in Washington when it ruled against their favorite. It all depends on whose bitterly divided court you prefer. The status of the U.S. Supreme Court has been "diminished," says Th New York Times, and another objective observer, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., is "shocked by the partisanship ... [in] the lofty halls of the Supreme Court."

Democrats took particular comfort in Justice John Paul Stevens' intemperate dissent.

Is this news? Dissents, by their very nature, are embroidered: It's the loser venting his spleen. And it is not as though the court's decisions are never fractured. Did the Times worry about the stature of a bitterly divided court when it settled Roe v. Wade in 1973? The Supreme Court has weathered greater challenges than Charlie Rangel. When the Hughes Court struck down the NRA in 1935, and other New Deal measures, FDR sought to "pack" the court -- and was rebuffed by congressional Democrats. Many Americans were enraged when the Warren Court banned mandatory prayer in public schools in 1963, but the court is still in session, and prayer remains forbidden.

No, Al Gore struck all the right notes in his statement, nodding at the pain of political reality, and acknowledging the truth that passions are easily aroused by events, but cannot be nurtured indefinitely. One blessing of democracy is a short attention span.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2000, The Providence Journal