The Donkey in the Living Room

For many years there has been a famous phrase that derives from the 12-step recovery movement. It refers to a thing that is very big, and obvious, and of crucial importance, that people around it refuse for whatever reason to acknowledge. It’s called the elephant in the living room.

There is an elephant in the living room in the Florida story. Actually, it’s a donkey. And actually, there are a number of them.

When the story of the Florida recounts and hand-counts and court decisions is reported on network and local TV, and in the great broadsheet newspapers, the journalists uniformly fail to speak of the donkey in the living room. They give great and responsible attention to the Florida story. But with a unity that is perhaps willful, perhaps unconscious, perhaps a peculiar expression of an attempt at fairness, they avoid the donkey.

You know what the donkey is. The donkey is the explicit fear, grounded in fact, in anecdotal evidence, in the affidavits of on-the-ground participants, and in the history of some of the participants, that the Gore-Clinton Democratic party is trying to steal the election. Not to resolve it—to steal it. That is, they are not using hand-counting to determine who won, they are using hand-counting to win.

They are attempting to do this through chicanery, and by interpreting various ballots any way they choose. As in, “This ballot seems to have a mild indentation next to the word Bush. Well, that’s not a vote. Person might have changed his mind. This ballot seems to have a mild indentation for Gore; the person who cast this ballot was probably old, and too weak to puncture the paper card. But you can see right here there’s a mark kind of thing. I think that’s a vote, don’t you Charley?” “Oh yeah, that’s a vote all right.”

That’s how the chads probably got to the floor in the counting rooms. That is one of the increasing number of stories—none of which are ever the lead, all of which wind up on page 11—indicating the possibility of significant vote fraud throughout the election.

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Columnists are writing about it—George Will wrote a great column suggesting what is happening in Florida amounts to an attempted coup, and Michael Kelly wrote suggesting Mr. Gore is not a helper of democracy but a harmer of it; the conservative magazines have weighed in, as has The Wall Street Journal editorial page. You can hear vote fraud discussed on the all-argument political shows on TV and radio.

But it is not reported as news. And it only counts when it’s news. And this is most extraordinary because the Republican fear of fraud—the legitimate fear of it—is the major reason the Bush people don’t want more hand counts. They do not trust the counters.

This question—the extent of vote fraud in this election, and the fact that the Republicans think it is governing what is happening in Florida—is not the unspoken subtext of the drama. It is the unspoken text.

Republicans are convinced, and for good reason, that Bill Daley, who learned at his father’s knee, and Al Gore, who learned at Bill Clinton’s, are fraudulently attempting to carry out an anti-democratic strategy that is a classic of vote stealing: Keep counting until you win, and the minute you “win” announce that the American people are tired of waiting for an answer and deserve to know who won.

Could a political party in this great and sophisticated democracy, in this wired democracy where sooner or later every shadow sees sunlight, steal a prize as big and rich and obvious as the presidency?

Yes. Of course. If the history of the past half century has taught us anything it’s that determined people can do anything. What might stop it? If the media would start leading the news with investigations into the prevalence of vote fraud and the possibility that the presidential election is being stolen.

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There have been a number of shameful public moments in the drama so far—Mr. Daley announcing that “the will of the people” is that Mr. Gore win, Mr. Gore’s own aggressive remarks in the days just after the election, Hillary Clinton announcing, in the middle of what may become a crisis involving the Electoral College, that her first act will be to do away with the college. And there is this Internet column from Paul Begala, who prepped Mr. Gore for his debates with Mr. Bush. He acknowledged that when you look at an electoral map of the United States, you see a sea of red for Mr. Bush, and clots of blue for Mr. Gore.

“But if you look closely at that map you see a more complex picture. You see the state where James Byrd was lynch-dragged behind a pickup truck until his body came apart—it’s red. You see the state where Matthew Shepard was crucified on a split-rail fence for the crime of being gay—it’s red. You see the state where right-wing extremists blew up a federal office building and murdered scores of federal employees—it’s red. The state where an Army private who was thought to be gay was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat, and the state where neo-Nazi skinheads murdered two African-Americans because of their skin color, and the state where Bob Jones University spews its anti-Catholic bigotry: they’re all red too.”

It was a remarkably hate-filled column, but also a public service in that it revealed what animates Clinton-Gore thinking regarding their opponents: hatred pure and simple, a hatred that used to be hidden and now proudly walks forward.

It stands in the living room too.

As does the unstated but implicit message of the hatred: that extraordinary means are understandable when you’re trying to save America from the terrible people who would put George W. Bush in the presidency so that they can kill more homosexuals and black men and blow up federal buildings and kill toddlers. Really, if Republicans are so bad it’s probably good to steal elections from them, don’t you think?

I never thought I would wind up nostalgic for the days when I merely disagreed with Democratic presidents. But whoever doubted the patriotism, the love of country, of John Kennedy or Jimmy Carter?

This crew we have now, Messrs. Gore and Clinton and their operatives, they seem, to my astonishment as an American, to be men who would never put their country’s needs before their own if there were even the mildest of conflicts between the two. America is the platform of their ambitions, not the driving purpose of them.

Another donkey in the living room: the sense that Republicans are no match for the Democrats in terms of ferocity, audacity, shrewdness, the killer instinct. Republicans seem incapable of going down to the level of Gore-Clinton operatives. They think that you cannot really defend something you love with hatred because hatred is by its nature destructive: It scalds and scars and eats away.

Republicans seem to be losing the public relations war. The Democrats have David Boies and Bill Daley, each, forgive me, smooth as an enema, in Evelyn Waugh’s phrase. The Republicans have James Baker, who seems irritated and perplexed. Perhaps he is taken aback by how the game has changed, how the Democrats he faces now operate by rules quite different, and much rougher, than the ones they played by 20 years ago.

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Now the game for the Gore camp is to win any way you can in Florida, and if you can’t win delay, and in the delay maybe you’ll win when the Electoral College comes together, or maybe at the very least even if someone stops you, you’ll have ruined the legitimacy of the man who does win, which will make it easier for you as you wait in the wings for the rematch in 2004.

There are a lot of donkeys in the living room in Florida, and maybe the Bush people should start to talk about them. Maybe that will make them news. It can’t hurt. It’s a circus down there anyway.