November 10, 2000
JIM LEHRER: Now, some perspective on what's going on, beginning with an event last night that, through a coincidence of timing, had more going for it than originally planned. It was a celebration of presidential history and American democracy here in Washington. Ray Suarez reports.
RAY SUAREZ: With the next chief of state still unknown, President Clinton and three former Presidents gathered last night to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the White House. Governor George Bush's father and mother were there, so were former Presidents Carter and Ford, their wives and Ladybird Johnson. President Clinton toasted his predecessors.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Good evening. In the short span of 200 years, those whom the wings of history have brought to this place have shaped not only their own times, but have also left behind a living legacy for our own. In ways both large and small, each and every one of you has cast your light upon this House, and left it and our country brighter for it.
RAY SUAREZ: But afterwards, the focus changed to this year's cliffhanger election and to the next resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I think that all of us should remember that our system will prevail; that our nation is so great, so strong, and the tradition is so embedded in the consciousness of our leaders here, that we will survive this present uncertainty about the outcome of the election.
GEORGE BUSH: Whatever happens this time, my pride and Barbara's pride knows no bounds. Moreover, our democracy will go on as President Carter said, and the new President will become part of the continuum of service that sets our nation and this building apart.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: We know how proud President and Mrs. Bush must be of their son, and rightly so. And we Americans should take great pride in the fact that this contest was fought to a close conclusion. It is not a symbol of the division of our nation, but the vitality of our debate. And it will be resolved in a way consistent with the vitality of our enduring Constitution and laws.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, a longer view of today's election turmoil. We get the perspective of NewsHour regulars, Presidential historian Michael Beschloss, and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight are Richard Epstein, a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago Law School, and Roger Wilkins, professor of history and American culture at George Mason University. Michael Beschloss, let me start with you, since you were one of the honored guests at last night's glittering party at the White House. It must have been pretty surreal on some levels.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: You know, it was surreal, Ray. As you know, I've got two little boys and this was their idea of what it was like to have dinner at the White House, as I described it to them later on. You went in and sitting at this long head table you had these four Presidents, Ford, Carter, Bush and Clinton as will as Lady Bird Johnson, and their wives. They were all there in sort of a freeze; it looked almost like Mt. Rushmore. But the amazing thing is here was a night full of goodwill and unity -- exactly what we've not seen very much of this week. Two things really stand out: Number one, if you can believe it, at one point during the dinner, the marine band was playing "God Bless America" -- everyone got up - all those former Presidents and the current President, and their wives, and began clapping and singing "God Bless America" along with the audience on their feet, which was almost like a scene out of a musical. And the other thing was Gerald Ford, I thought, had the best words of the evening. He was telling about the fact that in other moments of crisis in American history, we have been able to come together and get over it, and he said the words, "the Constitution works." And it just sent a jolt through me because I just remembered that standing in exactly that same place in the East Room in 1974, just after Richard Nixon quit to avoid impeachment and conviction, that's exactly what he said to calm American nerves. He said the Constitution works. This is a government of laws and not of men.
RAY SUAREZ: We saw the formal speeches from the microphone, but apart from the formal times, during the more social times, was the election result sort of the elephant in the room and people were finding other things to talk about purposely, or did that really dominate the evening?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: They were trying but without much success, Ray. You know, this was something that everyone was obsessed by and the interesting thing was that, of the guests there, I would say half of them supported George W. Bush, about half of them supported Al Gore, and not only supported them -- there were a lot of people in that room who might be in a Gore cabinet, might be in a Bush cabinet, so deeply invested in the outcome. So there was a little bit of an uneasy effort to stay away from the elephant in the room. At the same time, the nice thing was that all these characters in the drama were able to get together in a wonderful evening that really, I think, spoke to the best of America.
RAY SUAREZ: Well we'll shift our gaze now from looking over our shoulders at the last 200 years and look forward. Roger Wilkins, what should Americans be thinking about? What would you want them to be looking at to come to some common wisdom about what has just happened?
ROGER WILKINS: Well, you know, I think that there really are only about two people who can get us out of this. Haynes and I were talking before. We were journalists together in Watergate; this is weirder than Watergate, because with Watergate you knew there were steps and you go down the road, you know what is going to happen. Here you don't. These are two campaigns where the people really don't like each other. And, because of that, it seems to me, this is pretty dangerous. You see Jim Baker down there spinning very, very hard for his side, but he's one of the wise men. And what I think has to happen is that somehow both of these candidates have to figure out that this thing is really bigger than either of them and that in some way, they have to put a process together where they assure the country that they will come together at some point in some process and the country will go on. I don't think that this continuation of the campaign by other means is helping anybody.
RAY SUAREZ: Richard Epstein, the same question to you. What would you want to spoke us --focus people's attention on in making some sense of this?
RICHARD EPSTEIN: Well, I think the first thing that I would try to insist upon is the importance of finality with respect to the decisions in question. One of the things that seems to be happening here is that the entire matter escalates. First, it turns out to be what the ballot looks like, then it turns out to be an issue of how it is that people were turned away from the polls -- then it's a question of other forms of invalidation in Palm Beach County, then in New Mexico, then elsewhere. And I would hope that what we could do is get ourselves to the point where we agree that a recount, which takes into account all the imperfections in the previous process and all the uncounted votes, would resolve the thing without further adjudication. I think it is a big mistake under these circumstances to listen to the protestations given individuals in one county and to act as though that the same problems don't exist everywhere else throughout the United States. If we overturn this rock and look at all the maggots underneath it, we'll see them everywhere else as well if we turn over other rocks. The sad truth, and I'll end with this point, is that an election process cannot be engineered to the point where it gets you to .01 percent efficiency. No matter which way the vote comes out, you are not within the confidence of error. The chances are that the guy who had the popular vote and maybe even the electoral vote were wrong and we just have to recognize the imperfections of the system and move on.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, when you talk about turning over other rocks, are you concerned by the spread of these skirmishes to other places in the country, New Mexico, possibly Iowa, Wisconsin?
RICHARD EPSTEIN: Sure. And elsewhere in Florida. I mean, people said they were turned away from the polls because they were too long lines. Other people say they were deterred from voting because of the early announcement that Gore had won. I regard all these charges as equally frivolous. They happen in every election, and I think even when the outcome is on the line, you have to stick with the standard principle of finality, which says that unless you can show that there was some degree of fraud associated with the creation of this particular electoral result, then it stands. And the irony, of course, is it was folks trying to help the old people who created the ballot mess. It was certainly not the Bush forces, and so I think in the end what we have to do is to bare our teeth -- grit our teeth, grit, and hope that we can get some healing situations. So, I would try to counsel moderation on both sides. Frankly, I don't know who will win the count in Florida. That's one of the reasons why I'm reasonably confident that this is the appropriate approach.
RAY SUAREZ: Haynes Johnson?
HAYNES JOHNSON: The remarkable thing, watching that lead-in about the White House last night, think about the symbolic fortuitousness of that event. 200 years of the White House, John Adams entered it as the first resident. Here you have, by just happenstance - it happens to be two days after this remarkable election, the four Presidents that we saw sitting there, each of them had gone through a trauma that is almost unimaginable. Three of them were defeated after one term, thrown out of office by... and bitterness, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, George Bush, one-term Presidents. Now the President, Bill Clinton, who is the 41st man ever to occupy... that's all it is, 41 men in 213 years have occupied that position. He was the only elected President impeached. Here they are talking about the system was stronger than that -- that's the lesson the country has to have. And what I think what these political candidates have to take in mind, and I'm sure they will down the road because it can't last too long -- Roger is right -- the thing about the democracy is it's very, very powerful, but very fragile. And the only thing that really counts in this experiment, John Adams said when we became President, he didn't believe it was an experiment. He said no democracy has ever lasted. It always self-destructs and commits suicide. So it was an experiment and the experiment was based on something so elemental you had to have faith and trust in the system. You had to have faith in the electoral system and the ability that your vote really mattered. That's what's at stake now. The danger is the longer this goes on, the less legitimacy it has, and that is what cannot be allowed to stand. I take the example of those four men who knows what it is like to suffer ignominy, and hatred and passion and divisiveness and who stood together last night.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Michael, let me talk to you a little bit about time, because the electoral college doesn't meet until December. The inauguration is in January. It used to be in March for much of the history of the country. Are we ringing the alarm bells too quickly?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, it depends on what happens. I think in a way, Ray, the burden is going to be on the person who is the loser of the final vote in Florida after those absentee ballots come in, which will be ten days after election day, after the 17th of November That is the point where I think the loser is going to have to make the decision whether to escalate to broad scale litigation about irregularities. And if that happens, it is almost like nuclear war. The other side will probably strike back - sue in other states. And then you have got a legal situation that begins to get out of control almost like a general nuclear war, and the chance of a vote by the electors on the 18th of December begins to get very dim and we begin to have the possibility of this election thrown into the House of Representatives in January. So in a way, whoever loses that count on the 17th of November, and there is no way we can know who that is going to be tonight, is going to have to make a very tough decision, which is, is it worth it to pursue this? Do I feel so strongly about this that I'm going to risk possibly dividing the country, throwing a shadow over the next administration, whoever runs it, and also the possibility that there may not be a full-fledged President inaugurated on the 20th of January?
RAY SUAREZ: Richard Epstein, you wanted to jump in?
RICHARD EPSTEIN: Yeah. I think, in effect, one of the things we know about litigation is that there is no such thing as an easy case. I spent my life as a lawyer working on lots of cases that I thought were lead pipe cinches and find out that eight years later and God knows how many trips to the appellate court, that the thing is more murky as ever. You have to understand that the ingenuity that 70 lawyers on each side can bring to this thing simply surpasses the imagination of even the law professors who think that as instant experts on election law they know something or even everything. So I'm just frightened to death about this. And I agree with what Roger said. The key point to remember here is this is not a lock for either Bush or for Gore, and would I love both of them to make pledges today to say that they are not going to go beyond the recount issue to demand a reconsideration, a revote, or anything else. I regard that as so destructive that I am terrified in my sleep.
RAY SUAREZ: Roger Wilkins.
ROGER WILKINS: Well, it's a little terrifying this morning when you see Bob Dole, a very serious American, calling George W. Bush the President-elect. That's outrageous! Now things have been said on the Democratic side. We will take this litigation to its course. Instead of having the wisest men that they can find down there in Florida spinning the American public, they should call those guys back and say, you guys, with whatever wisdom you have working for us with the spirit that we saw in the White House last night, we have for to figure out how to prevent this nuclear war. These guys... One of them is going to is going to lose the White House. One of them may have to give it up. People have lost their lives fighting for this country so these guys ought to get big.
RAY SUAREZ: We have to end it there. Gentlemen, thank you all.