December 13, 2000
A historial analysis of the significance of this presidential race.
RAY SUAREZ: We get that longer view from "NewsHour" regulars, presidential historians, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Michael Beschloss; and journalist and author Haynes Johnson; joining them tonight is Richard Norton Smith, presidential biographer and historian. Well, a five-four vote in the Supreme Court settles the whole game; 36 days of state Supreme Court deliberations on television; emotional demonstrations on the street; people holding ballots up to the light. Maybe the specifics are different, but Michael, have we ever been in a situation like this before?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: We never had. And I have been grouping for some frame of reference for the last five weeks. You know, usually you can go back and say here is a situation which a president has done this or in which the country has been in this kind of crisis, and there is just no frame for this. And you've seen that also I think in Bush and Gore. Governor Bush and Vice President Gore when they have spoken in public, it has had this slightly artificial, surreal aspect. They haven't quite known what to say themselves.
You know, usually politicians look to past speeches in history for some guidance, and that is one reason why I think that there has been this sort of odd feeling both on the part of the candidates and perhaps on the part of all of us not knowing exactly sort of what we are going through and how you are supposed to react. And I think one thing that I've been a little bit distressed by -- by both Governor Bush and Vice President Gore is that in this case, they haven't just sort of said this is a horrible agony that I'm going through. and it's something that the nation is going through. Instead you have the Vice President saying I'm fine and I'm optimistic and I'm sleeping like a baby and Governor Bush giving these very carefully structured speeches. And one thing I think we've missed is that sense of a leader talking to us, leveling with us and saying this is something I'm going through too.
RAY SUAREZ: Doris, uncharted territory?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Without question. I think if we look back 100 years from now on this election, it seems to me the most important point to understand it was the moment when democracy found our own electoral system in some disrepair. You know, if you look at the history of the 20th century, in some ways it's the triumph of democracy abroad over fascism and communism and also the expansion of democracy at home with women's suffrage and civil rights. And, yet, what this election revealed was when you have an incredibly close election, we didn't have the machinery ready to count the votes accurately.
We didn't have a process that could do the manual we recounts. We have a lot of machines in the poorer precincts that aren't working correctly. So I think in some ways if both candidates were able to realize they both were hurt by the system, but we are strong enough to be able to repair that system now. And, in fact, the constitutional system worked. Even if the electoral system, Roosevelt used to say a nation is like a body, it needs to be clad, housed and fed. I think to some extent our electoral system needs that kind of clothing right now, but we can make it work.
The constitutional system provided finality. Everybody tried to act the best they could in this whole circumstance, but I think that's the reason it is uncharted because we haven't look at our democratic system. It's not only the failure of the machines, I think if we look more carefully; it's the failure of enough people to vote. Think of what would have happened if more out of five out of ten people had voted. Maybe it wouldn't have been -- if it had been nine out of ten -- as close as it was. And we have got the campaign finance to deal with. So I think we need to take a hard look at ourself after this is over.
RAY SUAREZ: Haynes, what do you think?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I agree with that, absolutely. The system is in disarray right now. We've all talked before -- the last time we were with you. This was a great civics lesson. We learned about how it's working. That's true. Troops aren't in the streets and tanks aren't rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue, but if you look at where we are, every element of the political system has been tarnished and diminished, including the courts. We have a political system, Congress, the state courts, the legislatures and the rest and the press, so all of these things are coming out of it. The question is not so much that that happened, what do we do about it and I think that is the real challenge for this new administration that is about to come in to Washington. Are they going to reform the way we vote and reform the way so that people have a sense of fairness in the whole prospect of our electoral democracy? That could be done, but it's not going to be an easy thing. And it's really going to be rebuilding that kind of sense that there is faith that you can count upon it, it works.
RAY SUAREZ: Richard, should we be careful not to exaggerate the seriousness of the national predicament?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I that's is a good question, Ray. I went back last night. I was looking at Sandburg's Lincoln thinking about a time when not only presidential legitimacy was called into question but the very survival of the republic. And in 1862, Lincoln delivered a famous message to Congress, and he said, the occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. And I think those words are still applicable to what we are going through now. Sure we have got problems, but as Doris said they are problems of the machinery, literally of the machinery -- how we cast and how we count votes in this country. There is the election that is the closest parallel to what we are going through is 1876; and during the four-month interregnum that took place there was talk of civil war. One night while the Hayeses were dining a bullet was fired through the dining room window. I mean, that was an election that literally threatened to tear this country apart over issues of reconstruction, the nature of states' rights, the relation of the individuals to the government. The next president for all the challenges that he faces, remember -- will also get to argue about Congress about how to divvy up a 4 to 6 trillion dollar surplus.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, let's get some other historical insights on what presidents have done at times of deep division in the country. Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Part of that is they have to draw on their own experience. I keep thinking of Lyndon Johnson in 1963 after an assassination -- the assassination of John Kennedy -- and Jackie Kennedy said to him, Lyndon, what a horrible way for to you come in. And he was in a situation where people knew this was done in his home state. They didn't know him very well, and because largely he had been in Washington for 30 years, and served in Congress, did almost everything right. You know, I've studied it so closely. He almost didn't put a foot wrong -- what he said, whom he met with -- members of Congress he spoke to, every public gesture, so that within a very short period of time, the assassination of John Kennedy, as traumatic as it was, was not something that sort of lived in our political system. We didn't draw darker conclusions at the time. The same was true of Gerald Ford for many of the same reasons. He had been in Congress three decades. He knew exactly what to do after Richard Nixon resigned when people were saying things largely about him as the person who had been chosen by the disgraced ex-president, and once again, very quickly, he made it sort of a non-issue. So if Governor Bush - President-elect Bush, beginning tonight, can show that same presence of mind, sort of the tone perfect sense of how to behave, he can do that as well, but that remains to be seen.
RAY SUAREZ: Richard, maybe you could continue with that Ford example. Some of the things that President Ford did were really symbolic and not very concrete, is that right?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It's true. Well, he understood that at a time like that, symbolism really was substance, and the most important thing you could do at that time was to begin symbolically to dismantle the imperial presidency, a presidency discredited by scandal, a nation torn apart by the Vietnam War. He told me once that August 9, 1974, was the worst day of his life, which you would really never guess because he really didn't a foot wrong that first week. He invited the Congressional Black Caucus to come to the White House. He asked George Meany of the AFL-CIO to come over. He had all the female systems of Congress, 13 in those days where he reiterated his support for the ERA. He even - talk about symbolism - he even told the Marine band to stop playing Hail to the Chief and replace it with the Michigan fight song. He also went to the VFW and proposed a Vietnam clemency board, which actually caused certain wave of resentment from many veterans but was part of this effort that he decided for the outset he never wanted to be president. He was an accidental president. He was unelected president -- but as long or short as his presidency was he was going to try to make it a time of healing.
RAY SUAREZ: Haynes.
HAYNES JOHNSON: I think with my colleagues, what they're talking about, the various examples -- the idea of Richard Nixon -- we talked about that, Dwight Eisenhower -- when he became President of the United States, the last time the Republicans had the White House and the two Houses of Congress, even though we've got a tie now - out of that came eventually a divided government and you had Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn, the head of the Senate and the head of the House, meeting with Dwight Eisenhower every single week. They would go down to the White House on Monday and they would sit around the table and they would literally talk about the agenda that the Congress had to take. Now, that was a very different time. Whether you can do it today in the sort of bitterness that you have had recently in our politics or not, but that was an example that worked and the Congress got things done then. And they all worked together. That is maybe the model that I would hope you could see now.
RAY SUAREZ: Doris, there is a lot of talk about olive branches, about bipartisanship. Has it really worked in the past, especially after a very bitter contest?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think bipartisanship is almost like motherhood right now. Everybody is going to be saying that President Bush should bring into his new cabinet Democrats. And I suspect he might do that. It's not as sees easy as it sounds, however. When Nixon tried to have a cabinet of unity after his election in 1968, he asked Humphrey to go to the UN; Humphrey He refused. He asked Whitney Young to come to HUD, and he refused, and he got finally Moynihan; he wanted Jackson for the Defense Department, so that it's very hard to make that work. And I think the deeper thing, however, even than having a few Democrats in the cabinet, the political culture in Washington is a much deeper poisoned culture I think than it was after Ford, even after Watergate, even after Vietnam I would say because what we have had years of is between Watergate and Vietnam and Bork and the nominations and then the impeachment, we have had one crisis after another where there is not the camaraderie that once was able to sustain Republicans and Democrats.
And it's partly the system that makes that happen. They used to stay around on the weekends and play poker or drink together. So during that time that Haynes mentioned where Lyndon Johnson was in the Democratic Congress, Rayburn and the Republicans would be there on the weekends together. Now they go home to raise funds. The media takes sometimes a negative attack on some of these candidates and plays them up when they talk against each other. It somehow emphasizes dissent - we have point, counter points on all these cable talk shows, and the way we campaign now leaves people's reputations destroyed so it's hard for them to shake a hand afterwards and say, okay, I'm with you.
So I think the most important thing that Mr. Bush will have to do is deeper than just bipartisanship in an abstract way. He has got to start repairing the culture, and that means repairing the language. I think he has to tell Trent Lott you can no longer say things like I hope Hillary Clinton is hit by lightning before she gets here. Think of it what that means in our culture, some comment like that. So I think we have a much more difficult task in a funny way, even though the issues aren't dividing us as deeply in the other times, when they were much more serious; the culture itself has been in disrepair in the these last couple of decades.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, thank you all, good to see you.