One for Our Grandchildren

We will never forget this night as long as we live. We will never stop talking about it. What a moment in our democracy—and it was Al Gore who captured with what now seems a certain prescience how the whole election might turn out. In one of his last, dramatic rallies Monday morning, Mr. Gore spoke in Miami, and he told the audience that this would be the kind of election we told our grandchildren about, the kind of election where we could brag, “My vote made a difference.”

Well, everyone’s sure did. But not enough!

Almost a hundred million cast. And it may come down to a few thousand this way or that.

And what a night! Florida given too soon to Mr. Gore, taken too soon from Mr. Bush; then Florida, now perhaps the key, is called undecided. Then Florida, now crucial, now decisive, is given to Mr. Bush, who is the winner and our next president. He accepts Mr. Gore’s concession. Then Mr. Gore rescinds the concession. He thinks he may have won Florida.

And so an election that has quite preoccupied the country for more than a year will not, amazingly enough, reach its climax at the end of the day of voting.

The story continues.

And with it come what will soon be a million questions, some of them serious, some of them matters of deep concern.

If Mr. Gore wins the popular vote and Mr. Bush the electoral vote (or Mr. Bush the popular and Mr. Gore the electoral), will the ultimate victor’s prize—the presidency—be diminished or even tarnished by the drama of this election? Will the American people accept as legitimate a presidency that lacks the two pillars of popular and electoral victory, that stands unsteadily on only one? Will the eventual winner forever be Asterisk Boy, his office won by a handful of votes?

What will be the international implications of such an outcome? The world is used to an America that sees itself as the oldest and most stable of democracies. An election of this extraordinary closeness—of this extraordinary delicacy, if that’s the word—might well tend—subtly or maybe not so subtly—to undermine the authority and standing of the future American president in his dealings with the world.

What about voter fraud? How believable will the final Florida outcome seem, and who will decide what is believable and what is acceptable as believable? If the vote count in Florida comes down to a few hundred votes—if, as is possible, Florida, and therefore the presidency, is won by Mr. Bush or Mr. Gore by, say, 214 votes, what is to stop a dozen other close states from having their final tallies challenged? How would this all work, how would it all play out?

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Was Mr. Gore right to retract his concession? Certainly the votes were close in Florida, and the national popular vote remains unsettled. But I must admit my thoughts turned this morning to Richard Nixon and his great patriotic act. Nixon, of course, lost the 1960 election against John F. Kennedy by more than 100,000 votes. And he had every reason to believe—and history has tended to back him up—that those votes came through the last minute electoral chicanery of Chicago’s loyal old Democratic war horse, Mayor Richard J. Daley—the man whose son Bill, in the wee hours of this morning, announced that Mr. Gore wasn’t conceding.

Nixon could have challenged the outcome of the election. He was urged to. But he resisted. Do you remember why the famous bad man didn’t challenge the results? If you’re of a certain age you do. He thought it would be bad for the country.

It was a patriotic act—even his great foes admit as much, and have lauded his statesmanship in this instance.

One wonders if Mr. Gore had a moment of remembrance of Nixon’s great moment, and thought himself of holding back on his rescinding of his concession. Perhaps. But one tends to doubt it. The idea of such statesmanship these days might seem quaint. And Mr. Gore’s hunger for power seems sometimes similar to that of Bill Clinton—huge and, perhaps, ungovernable.

In time we’ll read the histories, and know. Perhaps.

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As Florida is recounted, will it turn out to be possible for anyone to assert with conviction that in an election in which 100 million votes have been cast, most every vote has been being correctly accounted for?

A last question, and of course like all the others a big one, maybe the biggest, if not the most immediate, of all. The extraordinary and historic closeness of this election puts in sharp relief what so many of us have perceived over the past few decades. And that is that more and more, not less and less, America seems to be divided into two countries—two entities that live with each other, together and yet apart. We have different names for the great divide and refer to the two nations with different phrases—”the culture wars,” “up North and down South,” “big city vs. outer suburbs,” “Christian right vs. Hollywood,” “liberal vs. conservative.”

But it seems this is a time to note that these divisions are growing not smaller in our lifetimes but perhaps more definite, and more evenly divided. Exactly half of our country voted for the liberal, and appears not at all to like or respect Mr. Bush. Exactly half of our country voted for the conservative, and in general seems not at all to like or respect Mr. Gore.

All night all of us looked at the electoral maps—with the big red L starting at the top of the Mountain states, and going on down to Texas, turning right and finishing up on the Atlantic shore. That is Republican America. And dotted in the Northeast, around the Great Lakes and on the Pacific, we see Democratic America.

The states can and do change here and there and now and then. But the sentiments—the worldviews, to use the clunky but serviceable phrase—of the people of each of the two camps seem to stay, and dig in.

And what is most worrisome is the idea that that each of the two nations seems to distrust the other more with time, not less. And yet one of the nations will have to bow to the leadership of the other at some point over the next few days or weeks. And the difficulty with which it bows may tell us a few things about just how divided, and untrusting, we really are.