December 8, 2000
JIM LEHRER: Now some historical perspective, and to Ray Suarez.
RAY SUAREZ: We get that longer view from NewsHour regulars, presidential historian Michael Beschloss, and journalist and author Haynes Johnson, joining them tonight are presidential biographer and historian Richard Norton Smith, and Roger Wilkins, professor of history at George Mason University. Well, Michael, granted we are still using their instruction manual to the United States. We call it the Constitution, but what would the founders have made of all this?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think the founders oddly enough and it's almost amazing to think about, probably would have like what had they've seen today. You know, in the year 2000, Americans -- we love things to be decided instantly. We want exit polls, want to know on election night who is going to be President. And that was the opposite of what the founders really intended. They wanted the system to be messy; they wanted it to be almost an obstacle course on a big national decision like this because they felt that if you had even a presidential election decided in this very messy zigzag way we have seen over the last few weeks, it draws strengths from all areas of the process, all three branches of government from local, state and federal in certain ways would be happy about that.
They would also like the fact that what we've seen the last month really mirrors the body politic. We Americans are divided by party almost down the middle. You see it in Congress; you see it in the electoral college. You will see it excruciatingly in the state of Florida. And the other thing the founders would love, astounding as it is for to us think about because it is so maddening for us not to have a decision tonight, they'd love the fact that there is enormous conflict here because they felt that if you had an important national decision, the best decision comes out of conflict when people are engaged and it's also the best safeguard against what they worried about most of all, which is dictatorship, decisions handed down from Washington.
RAY SUAREZ: Richard Norton Smith, what do you make of your colleague's analysis?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, I would remind Michael, however, that the founders, after all, wrote a Constitution in secret. They locked the doors to Independence Hall in 1787, kept out the equivalent of Chris Matthews and his ilk.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That was a good idea, Richard?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think that was an excellent idea. I wish we could turn the clock back, Michael. It's fascinating what is going on. You know, every time we think we get out of the historical maze, particularly 1876, I'm sure people are sick of hearing about Rutherford B. Hayes, but, you know, we find ourselves back in the cul de sac. Rutherford Hayes won Florida by 94 votes; his victory was certified by a Republican secretary of state. The Florida state Supreme Court overturned that victory and certified a Democratic victory. Two sets of electors, two sets of returns were sent to Washington. The Republican candidate Hayes suggested let the Supreme Court pick a winner. The Democrats said no, let Congress pick a winner. They controlled one House of Congress. In the end, this now famous electoral commission was put together and it ruled 8-7 party line vote for Hayes the Republican. The action today increases, I think, considerably the odds that we could in fact be back again in that historical maze. There could be two sets of Florida votes and it could wind up in the House of Representatives.
RAY SUAREZ: Roger Wilkins?
ROGER WILKINS: Well, I think this is wonderful. I think this is absolutely wonderful. The founders could not have contemplated 24-hour news cycles and people urging the American people to be tired of it already. Well, I have a 17-year-old daughter who is a senior in high school, and she's watching this avidly. And she's getting a real lesson that even in the brutal power struggle, the system really kind of works. It creeks, it cranks, it's pushed at the sides, but for a change, our litigiousness as a society comes in handy because we do, as a people, ultimately believe in the rule of law, and we do believe in procedures and process. And so I think that any young people who are paying attention are getting a terrific lesson in how strong and resilient their society is. After all, we know that the worst things that have been hurled around here so far are court bashing words that drew a rebuke from Justice Ginsburg when they got up there the last time. But none of us believe that we're going to have mobs in the streets or that there are going to be guns. We all are sure that this is going to end peacefully. Everybody is not going to be happy but we think our system is going to work. I think that's terrific.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Haynes, after the civics lesson is over, is there still enough swirling wind in the system to kind of push things along to change? You know, Richard was just mentioning the Rutherford B. Hayes election; that brought a lot of new law on line in the years after that. Could we see the same thing happening this time?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Sure. But I want to say what Roger and Michael just said was wonderful, because this really has been an example of how our system works and it's messy, it's untidy, it's the clash of ideas. It goes against everything we're supposed to be in this country in the media age, instantaneous decisions. We want to know instantly what happens. And the fact is that that's not the way life works and in this case, we don't know what the ending is going to be. It could be very messy yet to come. I was trying to think after watching the decision today where would you draw from history some great quote that would tell you appropriately to the moment, you know, Churchill, about democracy, and the system, accept all others, or the terrible ifs of history and so forth. The best one I think is our great philosopher of our times, Yogi Berra. And I saw Letterman the other night saying everybody in the whole country has built into the conventional wisdom. Now, it's over -- it's finally - and Letterman was saying -- quoting Yogi Berra --it ain't over until it's over. David Letterman said it's over. Well, everybody in the whole country thought until just a little bit ago it was over - all the concession speeches have been raised, and the fact is it's not over. We don't know how it is going to come out. This could be very, very damaging down the road or it could be exhilarating. So I don't feel dismay. And the country is more patient than the politicians and certainly the conventional wisdom.
RAY SUAREZ: All of you briefed eloquently on American patience, but I want to speak up to behalf of those people who do want a resolution to this. Weren't those laws put in place 200 plus years ago for a country where everybody got around on horseback, where votes and electors had to come in from the far reaches of western Pennsylvania and Ohio? Yes, we have these long pauses built into the system. But they were built into the system in a horse and buggy age. Michael.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: They were. And you also had electoral college that was organized for that reason, partly because it took a while to count votes, but also because the founders realized that as time went on and technology sped forward, we'd become more and more of a national country, as sure we have. This is a country where the news -- other things come out of New York and Los Angeles largely, and I think they probably foresaw the fact that in that kind of a society, if you didn't have an electoral college to force people like Al Gore and George W. Bush to go down and campaign in Florida and worry about local Florida issues, if it was done purely on the popular vote, they would be campaigning probably from television studios in New York and Los Angeles.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Next time they will campaign in West Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think that's right. If Al Gore is running, whether for reelection or otherwise -- that's all true, but you know the other thing we're talking about, the fact that this is a history lesson for everyone, for us historians, this is sort of the upside of all of this. I was talking to my young son, six years old. I said a few weeks ago, pay attention to everything that you're seeing because this is something that's never happened before in American history, and you'll tell your grandchildren. He replied by saying, what about Hayes and Tilden? I thought that was a good sign.
RAY SUAREZ: The "Los Angeles Times" said recently that just about the only good thing could you say about this process as it unfolds is that it's taught people their American electoral history. As someone who writes history, Richard, is that a cause for cheer?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It is. I think we are paying a rather high price for public education. Until now I have not been one of those who have tossed around the term "constitutional crisis." It's been largely a media-induced crisis. But I think you should take a look at Chief Justice Wells' dissent. I mean, he actually used that term. And I think he doesn't use it lightly. By the way, coming up with great historical quotes to describe the situation, Yogi Berra is pretty good; Adlai Stevenson is pretty good too. Adlai Stevenson, after 1952 he had the immortal line "a funny thing happened on the way to the White House." The last 31 days, a lot of funny things have happened and no one has gotten to the White House.
RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead Haynes.
HAYNES JOHNSON: I was just going to say - I do think there is a serious thing. We don't know how it is going to come out, the whole country doesn't. This could be a very serious problem for all of us. We all know that and I think the country knows that. So in the most pure sense you can think of, this is the greatest test of the American Democratic system in my view at least since Hayes and Tilden, and that takes you back longer than before I started writing stories on politics.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: On the other hand, you know, we may have problems down the road, but the American people are very calm. The people are watching this. Nobody is distressed. We don't have a... people don't have a sense that there is a paralysis of the government. And it seems to me that that says something that is awfully good about us. I mean, there is a lot wrong with this country. Maybe it's even as wrong as Ralph Nader says it is, but there is a lot good about it, too. And the fact that the Americans really do have faith that this is going to be worked out, the government is going to work -- it's working now; it is going to work -- I think is wonderful.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And testifies to the strength of the system. You wouldn't have this in Paraguay. There really would be tanks rolling. And the other things is that this is not over an issue like slavery or what you do about Adolf Hitler or how to conquer the Russians. This is a difference about a presidential election, two candidates who are pretty close to the center. So as difficult as it is going to be to get this election resolved, if you look at it in the stretch of American history, there has been an enormous amount worse.
RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thanks a lot.