November 17, 2000
Presidential historians offer analysis of this year's election.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We get those closing observations from NewsHour regulars, presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and journalist and author Haynes Johnson, plus Joan Hoff, a visiting Professor of History at the College of William and Mary.
Joan Hoff, I was struck by what the student just said. There is no compromise anymore. You either hate Gore, or you hate Bush. There is an historical precedent that can give us some perspective on this or this is unique?
JOAN HOFF: Well, there really isn't in terms of the close elections where you have the possibility of one candidate winning the electoral college and the other winning the popular vote, because in 1824, 1876, 1888, there was bitterness, but each of those situations were unique to their time period. And consequently, the bitterness then is not the kind of bitterness we're seeing now. I don't think the country went into this election very bitter. I think they were moderately divided. That's why we ended up in a tie. But I think there is a polarization setting in at the moment, and that I think that is being driven by both parties, by agitation in Florida, by litigation down in Florida. And so the bitterness is being created now. Granted, there was lingering bitterness over impeachment; there were divisive issues on very specific issues going into the election but nothing like the polarization I think you just heard those students express because of this lingering lack of a President-elect. This hasn't gone to Congress, and there hasn't been a declaration of a President-elect. We are in this state of limbo with the recounting of the votes not knowing whether they will be counted.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Haynes Johnson, do you agree with that, that that's why there's this lingering bitterness, and also, is this unique?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, yes, I agree, but I'd like to say that I don't think this is over. Number one, the country has been extraordinarily patient. No one thinks there is a real sense of crisis except maybe the people... talking heads like us on television. And I think also that the sense in the country is let's let it go forward. There is a problem down the road potentially; there's no question about polarization; there's potentiality for real poison in the atmosphere. But it doesn't have to be that way. And I don't need to be Pollyanna here, but I think, yes, we've had problems in the past this. This country has always rallied together when it faces its own sense of a crisis. And if there is a sense that there is a crisis of the inability to govern, then I think would you see some pulling together. It is also a test of who that person is as President; what ability he brings to that job to reach out. We haven't seen that yet. We are not at the end game yet.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, we're not at the end game. I'll come back to that about reaching out, but what do you think about whether there's some precedent, something in the past that gives us insight into what is happening here?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think the one hopeful thing in the past is that even though we usually look at these 19th century elections that were mess-ups in the electoral college or the popular vote and I don't really think they are a precedent for this because we are so much more involved in this one on a visual basis day-by-day that it's probably more in our hearts than it was - there was more of a Washington thing in those times. But the one precedent that seems to me if we think that this going is going to be illegitimate and not able to govern when he gets in there, I keep thinking Lyndon Johnson, when he came in, a much worse situation. I remember he told me no one will regard me as legitimate; how am I going to govern? I'm a pretender to the throne. My President was shot in my home state and yet four months later he had established control of that government. How? He married the Republicans. He called them up at 6:00 AM, at midnight, noon, 3:00 AM, he called them up. Are you sleeping -- no -- I'm waiting for my President to call me up.
Somehow, if it is in the person, our party identification is not as strong as it was now in the 19th century, so even though Joan is right, we have become these two parties now fighting for Gore or Bush, in fact most of the country doesn't feel strongly identified with one party or the other. So that person has a chance once he gets in there, we forget things pretty quickly. Impeachment seems like the middle ages. Newt Gingrich seems like B.C. somehow. I think we're going to get through this once we get somebody in there. The mantle of the presidency is going to come over that person even though it will be a difficult run.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael Beschloss, the mantle of the presidency will come over that person?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Sure it will. We are not accustomed, Elizabeth, really to sort of thinking of a President as a 47% President or a 49% President or a 61% President. Even as far back as 1841 when John Tyler succeeded to the presidency after the death of William Henry Harrison, there was a question about whether he would be a real President or an acting President. It was his decision to say I'm going to be a real President. Everyone followed that.
But you know the recent example I think really does it is 1974. We sometimes forget how difficult that was for Gerald Ford, coming in after Richard Nixon. Not only was he succeeding a President who had resigned to avoid impeachment and conviction, but he had been chosen by that guy. He had never been elected himself in 1972. Yet by the time he was up for election in 1976, people thought of Gerald Ford as a full President, someone who had not only managed to unify the country but had been able to conduct his presidency with the same kind of power as if he had been elected with 60% of the vote. Just think of one thing. Richard Nixon's second choice for Vice President or his first choice before Ford couldn't get it through the Congress, was John Connolly. Had John Connolly succeeded the job in August of 1974, that would have been the same day that Connolly was indicted for the so-called milk fund scandal of which he was later acquitted. Think how different history would have been. I think Ford probably deserves much more credit than we give him and the reason was because he made it all look so easy.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Joan Hoff, do you look back with the same sense of optimism in thinking that whoever is President will be able to gain legitimacy?
JOAN HOFF: Well, I kind of look forward with optimism, I think. I'm not looking to the past. I think we should have a future perspective on this. I think what the Congress and the President should take into consideration once this is over, is reforming the process whereby these two candidates were produced. That political system, I think, is flawed. And we need to look at it very closely in terms of campaign financing, in terms of front-loaded primaries, in terms of opening up debates, in terms of possibly free television time. There are so many things wrong with the system that's producing the candidates with flaws; that is deficient candidates, which led really to this dead center deadlock. So my optimism is based on a future projection that perhaps Congress, even though it is closely divided and even though there is going to be some lingering suspicion about illegitimacy, regardless of who assumes the presidency, I hope both Congress and the new President come in determined to reform the system so we don't in the future get candidates who fight themselves to this dead center deadlock.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Haynes, that raises question I was going to ask next anyway. Why do you think that happened? Speaking of somebody who knows the past well, knowing that and looking at the situation, why did it happen now in this election this way?
HAYNES JOHNSON: It was bound to happen at some point. It is true, our system, the electoral system has been in danger of collapse for a long time and we now... we need a uniform ballot. It is crazy in the 21st century to have ballots all over the place. We're the most technologically advanced society in the world. We need to have the machinery that is uniform across the country that works, that's fair. We need to reform the process by which we count our ballots. We need to have a closing time uniform across the country. We ought to have a democracy day and have a holiday for elections. But all these things have been built up over the years, and we have been lucky until now and they seem to have all coalesced in one moment. I woke up at 5 o'clock this morning and went out and got my copy of the "Economist." The "Economist" has a wonderful part two -- this creaking United States system - there's Uncle Sam pushing in his ballot with all the machines going clink, change, bong -- and it comes out in the end with it doesn't work. And I think that's the lesson we have to deal with after this is over.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Doris, how do you think the past -- know as you know the past, why has this happened now?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I agree with what Haynes just said. I think it wasn't corruption that brought this about, it wasn't a scandal; it wasn't sex or some of these other things. It was simply that the system itself, the balloting system, the machine system is not equipped to handle such a close election. And ballot reform, you know, in the 19th century was really sexy, it was an exciting thing. People really got excited when the Australian ballot allowing secret ballots first came into play. Before that, they could see how you were voting. The two parties would be out there hawking the red or blue ballots. You could only vote for one party line or the other. Everybody knew what were you doing. You could be fired from your job if you voted for the wrong party. Everybody got together; there were ballot reform leagues. That's the first system... I agree with exactly what Haynes said. You've got to have a uniformed ballot. Maybe everybody should be voting on the same kind of machines or whatever the Internet is going to be so that if there are mistakes they will be random, rather than right now - a punch card system more liable to mistakes than a lever system or whatever it is. But it's important to remember that nobody caused this to happen. It was just that we allowed ourselves to be lulled because it hasn't come up before with this whole set of disparate machinery all over the country, and before we go to a change of the electoral college and we have only the popular vote counting, we better get the ballot thing done first. Can you imagine the mess we'd be in if we were hand counting the entire country right now.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael, nobody caused this to happen - we just allowed ourselves to be lulled?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think that's right. But you know I lover the American system, but there is one thing that I really don't love about it and that is that usually the only time we really decide to think about reforming it is when we've gone through a near disaster. Take the electoral college -- we only began seriously to think seriously about electoral college reform in 1969 after George Wallace threatened to throw the election to the House of Representatives and put Nixon and Humphrey in a position of having to deal with him -- make a deal to get the presidency; same thing when President Carter proposed reform in 1977 after that very close call in '76 when Gerald Ford lost by what would have been only a shift of about 6,000 votes in two states. So I think that's something that is helpful here. Reform could come out of it but it's really going to turn on the sensitivity and statesmanship of the next President in knowing that he is coming in in a very extraordinary situation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you all very much.