TCS Daily

Providence and Al Gore

By Lee Harris - January 6, 2004 12:00 AM

Those seeking to find evidence of God's providential intervention in the affairs of men need only to reflect upon the political career of Al Gore.

This is a man who had four chances to become President. First, he might have been elected in his own right in 1992, if Bill Clinton's vastly superior charm had not dazzled the Democratic Party.

Second, Gore might have succeeded President Clinton if the latter had done the gentlemanly thing and resigned as President at the first hint of the Lewinsky scandal, or if Congress had removed him from office.

Third, Gore might have won the election in 2000.

And, fourth, Al Gore might have easily won the nomination of the Democratic party in 2004, instead of throwing his weight -- what weight he has left -- behind a candidate who couldn't be elected medical examiner of the least significant county in Mr. Gore's home state of Tennessee -- or in any other part of the south.

The first three failures cannot be directly blamed on Al Gore himself. In each case, it was not Gore, but the Democratic Party, that kept him from becoming President. This was obviously true in 1992; but it was also true in 1998, as I discovered when discussing the Lewinsky scandal with some of my true blue Democrat neighbors. My position was simple: Clinton should have resigned, and Al Gore should have taken his place. Yet each time I made this remark to my neighbors, they reacted with quite profound horror -- despite my pointing out how that such a switch would virtually assure the Democratic Party of an electoral victory in 2000. They did not merely prefer Clinton to Gore -- which I found natural -- instead, they positively dreaded the thought of Al Gore in the Whitehouse.

I remember, at the time, the thought crossing through my head, Do they know something about this man that I don't, but should? From my point of view, as an independent, Gore seemed innocuous: wooden and stiff, as everyone agreed, but someone who could be trusted to behave himself like a gentleman; I had admired Gore's father, one of the south's most distinguished Senators, and, like many southerners, I assumed that the apple could not have fallen too far from the tree -- and certainly it never occurred to me that it could have landed and rolled all the way across town.

But it did -- a fact that I learned about three o'clock in the morning after the Election of 2000, when I woke up to hear that Gore had conceded the election to Bush, and then had called him back to tell him, Gosh, gee-wiz, he had changed his mind.

My first thought was: You simply don't do that. It is a violation of the code of a gentleman -- as corny as that might sound nowadays. And it disturbed me greatly, though in this case, as in many others, it was not at once clear to me why the retraction struck me as so intuitively wrong; and I went back to sleep naively thinking the media would slaughter Gore the next day for having done such a thing the night before.

I was soon disabused of my illusions about the media. None of the pleasant faces I saw on CNN or the other news channels seemed to suggest the slightest hint of disapproval for Gore's conduct. (I did not then know that FOX news even existed.) What could be more natural, these pleasant faces seemed to suggest, than retracting one's concession in a Presidential Election?

So I started to ask myself, Was I crazy? Certainly my response was not due to any partisan bias, since I had voted for Gore myself -- voted, I hasten to add, for the image of Gore that I had developed prior to the retraction. In which case, why was I so deeply troubled by what he had done?

Then I remembered a book that I had read many decades before, called How To Do Things With Words. According to its author, the twentieth century English philosopher, John Austin, it is an error to think that words only describe things, as in the statement "The cat is on the mat" -- since they also do things; or, more accurately still, since they also allow us to do things with them, such as making a promise and taking a vow.

Austin's example comes from the marriage ceremony. When the couple says, "I do," they are not describing an action, but making a commitment, just as when a man says to you, "I promise to bring you the money I owe you on Friday." Such a statement must not be seen as a prediction, such as "I am sure Joe will pay you back on Friday," but rather as pledge to perform a future duty, and one which I am willing to stake my honor on. No matter what other contingencies may arise, no matter what unanticipated costs I may encounter, I am declaring to you that I will let none of these prevent me from carrying out my promise.

To concede to an opponent is to make a promise to him -- the promise that, on my word of honor, I will do nothing to challenge your position as the winner. It is not to make a prediction, such as, "It looks like you will get more electoral votes than I." After all, Gov. Bush could have figured this out quite easily on his own, and did not need a call from Gore to see what any fool could see by watching TV. But what no TV could have declared to Bush is that Al Gore had, after suitable deliberation and reflection, conceded the election to him, thereby bringing to a formal and even ritualistic conclusion yet another American election.

You cannot unconcede an election, just as you cannot take back your marriage vows, or unmake a promise. These are all acts that, once performed, create a wholly novel state-of-affairs, one in which Do-overs are no longer possible -- at least not for grown ups.

This accounts for Gov. Bush's shock at Gore's second phone call -- what Gore, in his ethical oblivion, referred to as Bush's "getting snippy" with him. From Bush's point of view, Gore's retraction was simply unthinkable -- it was a violation of the gentleman's code that he quite naturally assumed must have been instilled into Gore.

It was like hearing a recently married friend say, "You know, I was so rash to make my vow. I really regret doing it now." Well, yes, you may well feel this way now, but the fact is that you did make that vow, and if you made it rashly, then whose judgment does that reflect upon? If a man declares that he is not competent to make a promise or give a pledge or take a vow, then what trust can we repose in his general mental competency?

And that is the same question that must be asked of Gore. If he did not deliberate sufficiently before making his concession, then he should have simply admit this to himself, and stuck by his concession. But to acknowledge that you failed to think through the giving of a pledge can never be an excuse to retract that pledge -- unless, of course, you are willing to admit that you are simply not the kind of man that anyone should take seriously in the first place: a high price to pay, indeed.

But this, I submit, is the price that Gore paid within his own party; and nothing betrays the truth of this more than the raving of those Democrats who claim that Bush stole the 2000 election from them -- and never, if you notice, from Al Gore. They are willing to shout from the rooftops that Bush should not be the President, but none of them ever express any regret that Gore is not in his place instead.

After all, if they wanted Al Gore in the Whitehouse instead of Bush, they could have rallied around him this election year, and shown that this is what they really wanted. And why not? Al Gore got more popular votes than George Bush. You could not say this about Adlai Stevenson in his first attempt against Eisenhower, and yet the Democrats were quite happy to back him a second time; and in the case of William Jennings Bryan, they were deliriously happy to see him run, and lose, three different times. So what accounts for their complete disaffection for a proven vote-getter such as Al Gore?

It is because Gore in the last election committed the worst of all political sins; he waffled. He was willing to retract his concession, and to challenge the result of an American election -- he was willing to throw our nation into a month of turmoil and uncertainty; he was willing to urge the Democratic faithful to assault the legitimacy of an elected President. But, when the chips came down, and when the Supreme Court declared enough of such foolishness, Gore meekly submitted, and tried to play off his weakness as the wisdom of a statesman.

But here again you encounter the same painful character flaw -- the refusal to face the consequences of his own actions. For just as he refused to see anything ethically binding in the concession he made to George Bush, so he refused to see what lay at the end of the road he started down when he began to contest an American election, refused to see how the first step would inevitably force him to make a second, and a third, until, at some point, the entire nation would have been embroiled in a crisis of legitimacy, with both sides at each other's throat. What, after all, would have happened if the Supreme Court had been too timid to bring the controversy to a halt? Who, if not the Supreme Court, could have carried the moral authority to make the general consensus of the American people accept one particular outcome rather than another? If it had gone to Congress, it could not have stayed there long, for a thousand different technical points would have been disputed by the two contending sides, and each of these points would have needed a decision by a court -- and no court would have been acceptable to either side short of the Supreme Court. The process, if the Supreme Court had continued to refuse to act decisively to stop it, would have had no end, since any end could only come about when both sides accepted a common criterion for deciding the election -- which is what both sides would have refused to agree to, precisely because such a criterion, by its very nature, was bound in advance to favor one side more than the other.

From the very beginning Gore should have seen what he was plunging his nation into -- it was a toss up between chaos, an election decided by a court fiat, or else one decided by the flip of a coin. But, somehow, he didn't see this; and when reality called his bluff in the form of a crushing Supreme Court decision, he disgusted those followers of his who were ready to man the barricades by his absurd attempt to concede in a statesman-like manner a second time, the final proof, if any was needed, of his complete failure to understand the ethical implications of his own actions.

When I look back on all of this, I sincerely wish I had never known that Al Gore was capable of such conduct. I sincerely wish that the vote I cast for him had been a vote for the man I thought he was; and I am reminded of those extraordinarily unpleasant moments in our life when we catch a dear friend or an admired mentor doing something downright shameful, and we close our eyes or look away, and hope against hope that we didn't really see what we know we saw.

Yet, as we all have learned by bitter experience, there is often a providence in such painful moments. They cost us emotionally, and yet they warn us and often make us wiser.

For all the Democrats' rhetorical hoopla about the 2000 Election, they, too, were warned and became a bit wiser. At least, wise enough to steer clear of Al Gore in 2004. Even if, in their eyes, he did win the last election, none wanted to take the chance on his winning the next one as well.


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