Entries from November 2000

Gore Removes Doubts About Bush’s Legitimacy

David Frum November 30th, 2000 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Could
it all be for the best? Could Al Gore’s sorehead tactics actually be helping
the country rather than hurting it?

Maybe.
Consider this: While George W. Bush is now the certified winner of Florida’s 25
electoral votes, he won those votes by the narrowest of margins. And of course,
he lost the popular vote in the country as a whole. So you’d expect him to be
vulnerable to all kinds of doubts about the validity of his win and the
legitimacy of his administration from the slight plurality of the country that
did not vote for him.

But
that would be to reckon without Gore. From the very first day of the recount,
Gore and his surrogates have behaved petulantly, even destructively. It began
when Gore campaign chairman William Daley announced on Wednesday Nov. 8 that
Gore ought to be recognized as the real winner of the election because more
people had voted for him than any other candidate — the Constitution be
damned.

Daley’s
statement appalled most of the country, as well it might, and he quickly
disappeared from our television screens. But the "win at any cost"
plan he revealed that day has been followed ever since: Gore supporters wrote
articles demanding that pro-Gore counties be allowed to revote to give their
man a bigger total – again in violation of the Constitution, which
mandates that the whole country vote for president on the same day. They
demanded that 19,000 Palm Beach ballots that had been double-punched be counted
for Gore because Gore was (they were sure) the man those voters really wanted.
Finally, the campaign argued that Democratic canvassers be unleashed on
Democratic-leaning counties to see whether unpunched ballots could be
scrutinized for some mark that might be construed as a vote for Gore.

The
idea of manually examining ballots for marks too small to be read by machines
is not in itself unreasonable. Mechanical devices like Palm Beach County’s
voting machines do make mistakes. But it also should be said that the Gore
campaign settled on this claim only after others had been advanced and
rejected. First Gore decided he was entitled to an extra thousand or so votes;
it was only second that he began to argue that it was the defects of Palm
Beach’s voting machines that gave him a right to them.

And
even if dimpled ballots are entitled to some consideration, the particular way
that Gore wanted them to be considered was a scandal. In Broward County,
Democratic canvassers racked up more than 400 votes by changing counting
standards twice. After a Gore-friendly Florida Supreme Court voided the state’s
recount deadline and substituted a deadline it made up, the Democratic canvassers
in Palm Beach took Thanksgiving off, missed the deadline — and then demanded a
second extension.

For
all Gore’s fine words about democracy and fair counting, his motive was from
the start nakedly and crassly self-interested. That nakedness and crassness
were displayed to the whole country Monday, in the lawsuits that Gore’s
attorneys filed all over the state, demanding that his vote total be inflated
by the results of carefully selected counts in selected precincts in selected
counties. And it’s that nakedness and crassness that seems now to be offending
the whole country. A CNN/USA Today poll shows that 60 percent of Americans now
believe that Gore should concede.

Sixty
percent is a landslide in an American election. If Bush could have won 60
percent of the vote on Nov. 7, he’d have won by 500 electoral votes to 38. He
missed his 60 percent then, but thanks to Gore, he’s got it now. Gore is
uniting the country – against him. The doubts that used to hang over
Bush’s mandate have been banished by Gore himself: by proving himself so
conspicuously unworthy of the office he sought, Gore has convinced a large
majority of Americans that George W. Bush is indeed the legitimate
president-elect.

History As It Wasn’t

David Frum November 27th, 2000 at 12:00 am Comments Off

>Virtual
History. Alternatives and Counterfactuals

>edited
by Niall Ferguson; Basic, 560 pp., $30

>What
If? The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been

edited
by Robert Cowley; Putnam, 395 pp., $27.95

Many
years ago, my father-in-law bumped into an old Korean War buddy in a Hong Kong
street. The friend, now a general, offered to fly him back to North America on
a military plane. Wanting to buy more souvenirs, my father-in-law declined. So
they exchanged addresses and promised to get in touch when they returned home.
That evening, the general’s plane vanished over the Pacific.

Who
doesn’t have a story like this? Who has never wondered about how our lives and
the lives of those we love would have been altered had we made another choice
than the one we did? Footfalls echo in the memory, > as T. S. Eliot wrote in "Burnt Norton," Down
the passage which we did not take, / Towards the door we never opened. >

But
though it’s natural to speculate about the paths we personally did not choose,
historians have warned for decades that it is futile and misleading to engage
in such speculation about humanity as a whole. "Cleopatra’s nose: Had it
been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed," Blaise
Pascal mused — and ever since, the idea that something as contingent as one
woman’s beauty might be responsible for the rise and fall of kingdoms has been
damned by the historical profession as the "fallacy of Cleopatra’s
nose."

Historians
have objected to Pascal’s proposition for two opposite reasons: some because
they believe that the shortening of Cleopatra’s nose would have changed too
little to make a difference; others because they believe that it would have
changed too much for the human mind to reckon with.

Those
who disparage the effect of the nose-change think that historical developments
are vast, virtually irresistible tides, channeled within bounds that no
individual can alter. Suppose Cleopatra had been less seductive, and that as a
result Mark Antony rather than Octavian had emerged the dictator of Rome. How
could that make a difference? To succeed, Antony would have had to govern more
or less as Octavian did; had he failed to do so, his regime would have swiftly
collapsed, as the three military dictatorships before Octavian’s collapsed. In
other words, had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter, the names on the busts in the
Capitoline museum might well have been altered. But the face of the world? Hardly
a jot. According to this deterministic objection, historical counterfactuals
are useless because they fail to take account of how little difference any
single human being can make.

The
other theory, by contrast, complains that Cleopatra’s nose counterfactuals are
useless because they fail to reckon with how much normal'> difference a single human being can make. Ray Bradbury has a famous
science-fiction story in which a character travels back in time to the age of
the dinosaurs, accidentally steps on a single butterfly, and returns to the
present — only to discover the world entirely changed. It’s ridiculous, goes
this theory, to ask how Mark Antony’s empire would have differed from
Octavian’s. Alter one fact of history and all of history is put up for grabs,
in such a radical way that we here in North America could easily be pondering
in Chinese what-if scenarios about our Han dynasty ancestors.

The
Italian historian and philosopher Benedetto Croce delivered an especially
eloquent expression of this point of view, which is disapprovingly quoted in
Niall Ferguson’s introduction to Virtual History: Alternatives and
Counterfactuals, a recent collection of
essays on the topic. The Cleopatra’s nose problem, Croce complained,
"arbitrarily divides the course of history into necessary facts and
accidental facts." A supposedly accidental fact is then

mentally
eliminated in order to espy how the first would have developed along its own
lines if it had not been disturbed by the second. This is a game which all of
us in moments of distraction or idleness indulge in, when we muse on the way
our life might have turned out if we had not met a certain person, . . .
cheerfully treating ourselves, in these meditations, as though we were the
necessary and stable element, it simply not occurring to us . . . to provide
for the transformation of this self of ours which is, at the moment of
thinking, what it is, with all its experiences and regrets and fancies, just
because we did meet that person.

And
yet despite all these wise admonitions, people continue to engage in just the
sort of speculation Croce and others condemn. They use it as a teaching device,
to jolt people out of the complacent assumption that events had to happen as
they did: The British historian Conrad Russell has a marvelous essay about how,
if the wind had not abruptly shifted in 1688, the Glorious Revolution would
have failed and a Catholic king would have been preserved on the English
throne. At still other times it serves a moral purpose, prodding us to appreciate
the importance of individuals in history: What if the car that struck Winston
Churchill when he looked the wrong way before crossing Fifth Avenue in 1931 had
killed him? Alexis de Tocqueville warned that because men in democratic
societies feel themselves to be small and weak, they are dangerously tempted by
explanations of historical events that stress inevitability. Alternative
history at its best can encourage us to appreciate the daunting contingency of
history — and the supreme importance for good or ill of individual moral
choice.

This
point is effectively made by the best of the essays anthologized in Ferguson’s
book, Mark Almond’s "1989 Without Gorbachev." With bitter irony,
Almond argues that we do indeed owe the end of the Cold War to Mikhail
Gorbachev. "After generations of dullard apparatchiks had safely guided
the Soviet Union to super-power status, it was the bright-eyed Gorbachev who
grabbed the steering wheel and headed straight for the rocks." Repression
could still have worked in the mid-1980s, and would have found no lack of
apologists in the West.

Gorbachev’s
perestroika, by contrast, wrecked the stagnating Soviet economy while his
glasnost discredited his regime. "Gorbachev’s belief that a relaxation in
international tensions was in the Soviet Union’s interest was profoundly
misplaced. Only the ‘two camps’ division of the world provided the kind of
global scenario in which such a strange animal as the Soviet economy could
function." Had Gorbachev only held on a little longer, he would have
discovered that ideological help was on its way.

The
long march through the institutions of post-1960s pacifism and fellow traveling
combined with nuclear panic was just about to reach its goal. It was only the
surprising and total collapse of Communism . . . which brought much of the
Western intelligentsia to admit that the Right had been correct. . . . Had the
Wall stayed up, much of the Western elite would have remained oblivious to
Communism’s failings, moral as much as material, for at least another
generation.

But
alternative history is seldom at its best. More often it turns into
heavy-handed academic drollery — like the 1932 collection If It Had
Happened Otherwise, in which (among other
heavy-handed drolleries) Benjamin Disraeli becomes grand vizier to a
rejuvenated Muslim kingdom in Spain. Or else into ponderously detailed
constructions of imaginary societies — science-fiction without the robots and
deathrays — as in Robert Sobel’s
For Want of a Nail, > a prolonged counter-history of a world in which
American independence was snuffed out at the battle of Saratoga in 1777.

And
of course, sometimes it back-fires altogether. Reading through many
counterfactual histories, one tends to find reinforced one’s Tocquevillian
feelings of inevitability. In Robert Cowley’s What If? The World’s Foremost
Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, normal'> another recent anthology of hypothetical history, Alistair Horne
considers how history might have been altered had Napoleon halted his career of
conquest after the Peace of Tilsit in 1807. But to suppose that Napoleon could
have somehow quit the roulette table while he still held all his winnings is to
endow him with a personality entirely different from the one he actually had –
and such an unnapoleonic Napoleon would never have adventured the first
profitable spin. And even if Napoleon could have gotten a grip on his egotism
and refrained from starting further wars himself, his empire was so ruthless,
exploitative, and menacing that sooner or later the Russians, Austrians, and
British would have resumed the war against him.

As
for the old chestnut about Napoleon winning at Waterloo, not even Horne can
bring himself to believe it. "There were vast fresh forces of Russians,
Austrians, and Germans already moving toward France. A second battle, or
perhaps several battles, would probably have followed." And behind these
battles would have been the strangulating power of the Royal Navy and the
superior financial resources of a Britain already embarked upon its industrial
revolution.

It
could be said that alternative history performs as great a service when it
shows that a result was inescapable as when it shows that things might have
turned out otherwise. One of the most sensible essays gathered in these
anthologies is Theodore F. Cook’s in What If?, normal'> which convincingly argues that the likeliest result of a Japanese
victory at the battle of Midway would have been not an Axis victory, but a
prolongation of the war and the devastation of the Japanese Home Islands by
atomic bombs. Another is Alvin Jackson’s in
Virtual History, > which concludes that Anglo-Irish relations would
have followed the same tragic course in the twentieth century whether or not
the British Liberals had been able to push through the plan for Home Rule for
Ireland. "Ireland under Home Rule might well have proved to be not so much
Britain’s settled, democratic partner as her Yugoslavia."

But
what is no service to anyone is the kind of wish-fantasy that predominates in
both books. Eminent historian that he is, Stephen Sears is kidding himself to
imagine in What If? that a Union victory
at First Bull Run would have knocked the Confederacy out of the war before it
began. In
Virtual History, Niall
Ferguson repeats the assertion (made in greater scope in his 1999 book
The
Pity of War) that British neutrality in
1914 would have brought us something very like the European Union eight decades
ahead of schedule while preserving England as a great power — a hypothesis
that more closely resembles the daydreams of Civil War re-enactors than the
realities of the early twentieth century.

As
they so often do, in fact, these fantasies reveal more about the fantasizer
than they do about the thing fantasized about. Ross Hassig contends in What
If? that an independent Native American
state could have survived in Mexico had Hernando Cortez been captured and
sacrificed by the Aztecs (as he very nearly was) in the climactic battle for
Tenochtitlan in 1521 — a contention that tells us more about the historical
profession’s born-again enthusiasm for Indian culture than about the real-life
prospects for a stone-tool kingdom whose people lacked immunity to European
diseases. Alternative history is the last redoubt of the historical
traditionalist — the sort of historian who still cares about high politics,
wars, and battles — but dreamy multiculturalists are forcing their way into
even this cloistered subgenre. Makes you shudder to think what the rest of the
profession must be like.

Electoral College A Scapegoat For Nation Divided

David Frum November 23rd, 2000 at 12:00 am Comments Off

It’s
often said that the Electoral College survives only because it is so hard to
get rid of, like woodpeckers or the post-40 bulge. With Al Gore the apparent
winner of the popular vote and the apparent loser of the electoral vote,
though, many Democrats are getting serious at last about eliminating the
College — or at least are getting serious about denying the legitimacy of any
president who wins in the College without winning the popular vote as well.

The
Constitution is not a perfect document. But the Electoral College is not one of
its mistakes.

The
United States is hardly alone, after all, in accepting the risk that a chief
executive might win fewer votes than his defeated opponent. Such outcomes occur
all the time in the English-speaking parliamentary democracies: in Britain, as
recently as 1974, when Conservative Party leader Edward Heath outpolled Labor’s
Jim Callaghan, but Callaghan won more seats in the House of Commons.

In some
ways, it’s strange that so much attention should be focused on the allegedly
anti-democratic effects of the Electoral College. The Constitution is studded
with anti-majoritarian features. It’s easily possible, for instance, to win a
majority of the seats in the House of Representatives with a minority of the
votes cast in all House races nationwide. In the Senate, members representing
only a small fraction of the population of the United States can defeat or
delay bills demanded by large majorities. And in the most extreme case, five
justices of the U.S. Supreme Court can thwart the wishes of hundreds of
millions of their fellow citizens.

Compared
with all these other offenses against the principle of majority rule, the
Electoral College seems like awfully small potatoes — especially since it
comes with some important compensating advantages. Many of those are well
known, but two in particular don’t get mentioned enough.

First,
the College promotes national unity by requiring candidates for the presidency
to assemble very broad coalitions. French presidential elections, for instance,
have a bad way of turning into tugs of war between those on the upward side and
the downward side of the median income. The Electoral College complicates such
struggles between have-mores and have-lesses by forcing each side also to
consider regional and state-by-state concerns: the interests of farmers and
fishermen, the values of the towns and countryside, as well as those of the big
cities and suburbs.

Second,
the Electoral College strengthens the president in his dealings with the
Senate. The Senate is in many ways the most crucial house of Congress for a
president: It confirms his Cabinet and holds over him the ultimate power of
removal from office. A president opposed by the Senate can barely even
function. The Electoral College ensures that the president is elected in a way
at least partly analogous with the way that the Senate is elected, thus
increasing the odds that the president and the Senate majority will belong to
the same party.

This
was a very nerve-racking election. It’s wrong to assume that it would have been
less nerve-racking without the Electoral College. Gore’s popular-vote margin
over Bush amounts to about 0.1 percent of the votes cast. Had there been no
Electoral College, his presidency would have been as hampered by that poor
showing as Bush would be by winning the Electoral College without the popular
vote.

So
if the next administration is weak, don’t blame an 18th century voting system;
blame the profound divisions in the country that split the vote for president
almost exactly in half.

Ultimately, Right Will Be The Winner

David Frum November 15th, 2000 at 12:00 am Comments Off

In
the end, George W. Bush will prevail. He will prevail not because of any
outbreak of statesmanship on the part of Al Gore or the Democratic Party — on
the contrary, it is alarming how few Democrats have been willing to say for the
record that the Florida result should be respected even if it goes against them
– but because of the solidity of the American legal and constitutional system.

On
Friday, the State of Florida will tally its absentee ballots. It is not utterly
impossible that these ballots will favor Gore, but if history is any guide,
they will more likely add a couple of thousand votes to Bush’s slim plurality
in Florida. From that moment on, Gore’s hopes of winning the presidency depend
on either persuading the courts to reinvent American law — or on frankly
attempting to circumvent and overturn the law.

Here
are his options:

The
first is the one the Gore campaign was pursuing this week: to persuade Florida
election officials to proceed with a hand count of those ballots in four
counties that favored Gore – and nowhere else. The purpose of the
hand count is to search for ballots that the voting machine failed fully to
perforate. Nobody knows how many such ballots there will be, but there are
always some. This weekend’s unofficial test count of precincts in Palm Beach
County, for example, found 33 additional votes for Gore and 14 for Bush.

The
obvious danger to Gore, of course, is that a similar hand count in the state’s
pro-Bush counties might offset any advantage the hand count gives him in Palm
Beach. Fortunately for Gore, the deadline for requesting hand counts already
has tolled in most of Florida’s counties. Unfortunately for him, even a
lopsided hand count probably won’t bring in enough votes to offset Bush’s lead
in the absentee balloting.

That
brings Gore to option two: litigation. Gore probably cannot win without finding
some way to count Palm Beach County’s 3,400 Buchanan votes in his column. In a
bloodcurdlingly candid press conference on Thursday, Gore campaign chairman
William Daley hinted broadly that the campaign was contemplating legal action intended
to convince a court to do precisely that.

But
this legal action almost certainly will fail. American judges often have thrown
out ballots of doubtful validity. Never, however, have they reinterpreted a
ballot cast for one candidate as a vote for somebody else. Nor are the judges
likely to order a revote because of the alleged defectiveness of the Palm Beach
County "butterfly" ballot: Florida case law suggests that when a
ballot is published in advance without any objection to it being registered, courts
won’t countenance complaints about it after the fact.

The
Gore campaign probably knows all that. Which means that at the back of their
minds they are weighing a more sinister option: setting Florida’s vote aside
altogether. The New York Times reported
that some Gore aides were weighing the possibility of tangling Florida so
deeply in litigation that it could certify no electors before the Dec. 18
deadline. Minus Florida’s 25 votes, the Electoral College will have 513
members. Winning the presidency then would require 257 votes – which
Gore, now at 255, will possess if he wins either of the two other undecided
states, Oregon (seven votes) or New Mexico (five votes).

But
this strategy, too, is unpromising. It would shock the conscience of the country
and in any case almost certainly would fail. Federal election law provides that
if a state is unable for some reason to hold a presidential election, its state
legislature may name its electors. And the Republicans hold solid majorities in
both houses of the Florida Legislature.

Which
raises the last and most fateful option of them all: swaying the Electoral
College. As Gore himself has noted, the Democratic ticket won a slender but
real lead in the popular vote on Nov. 7. Some liberal journalists, such as
Jonathan Alter of Newsweek and Mathew
Miller of
Slate, have argued that
Republican electors ought to defer to this majority by casting their votes for
Gore.

As
the first three options fail Gore, expect to hear a rising crescendo of
argument from Democratic partisans on behalf of option four. But in the end, it
too will fail. True, only half the states oblige their electors to vote the way
they have been instructed to vote. But not since 1800 has more than a single
rogue electoral cast an uninstructed vote. And those rare rogue electors have
been uniformly acting on some whim or fancy of their own, and never ever at the
behest of the defeated party.

For
Gore or his surrogates actively to try to suborn electors would violate a
200-year-old understanding of how American democracy should work. It would be a
revolution.

Americans
have no use for revolutions. They crave stability and respect rules. It was
this deeply founded conservatism that saved President Clinton from the
consequences of his lawbreaking in 1999: Americans rightly or wrongly regarded
impeachment as a greater jolt to the political system than even presidential
perjury. And it is this same conservatism that will thwart Gore this year,
assuming that Bush continues to lead in Florida at week’s end.

In
the end, in fact, this week’s wrangling may perversely strengthen the coming
Bush presidency. Had Gore followed the normal rules of politics and conceded
defeat on Nov. 8, Bush now would be hobbled by the perceived weakness of his
mandate. By acting instead as ungraciously as he has, Gore is with every
passing day demonstrating his unfitness for the high office he sought. By the
time Bush takes the oath of office, it will be Gore himself who will have
convinced them that the system once again worked and that the better man won.

When Drunk Driving Was Cool

David Frum November 6th, 2000 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Don’t let anybody tell you we live in a permissive society. True, radio stations happily broadcast songs that would once have cost them their licenses. But tell an ethnic joke or toss a cola can into a plastics recycling bin and the disapprobation of society falls on you with a force that would have impressed Cotton Mather. And as for alcohol, well, George W. Bush has just received a sharp lesson on how far and fast opinions about that have changed.

On Friday, the “Today” show devoted a segment to an earnest examination of the report that in 1976 Mr. Bush was fined $150 and had his license suspended for driving under the influence of alcohol. “Today” is broadcast by NBC — the same network that signed Dean Martin to one of the most lucrative contracts in the history of television, as host of a variety show held together by the running gag that Martin was too drunk to stand. Martin smoked on the air, too. The show wasn’t cancelled until 1974.

Moral spasms come and go in cycles. In the 19th century, temperance had been regarded as a crusade every bit the equal of abolitionism. Indeed, it was often difficult to tell the two movements apart, since the preachers who led both movements analogized the South’s enslavement of black bodies to alcohol’s enslavement of the drunkard’s soul. Yet by the 1920s, both abolition and temperance had come to seem faintly comical: Up-to-date history books championed the Southern view of the Civil War and Reconstruction, while up-to-date journalism celebrated booze and mocked Prohibition.

For the next half a century, boozing was glamorized by Hollywood and indulged by the authorities. When Frank Sinatra called for “one for the road,” nobody thought he was inviting fans to engage in civil disobedience.

Alas for Mr. Bush, at the time he was following the Chairman of the Board’s advice, America’s mores were shifting radically for the second time in a century. Americans had ceased worrying so much about their souls after World War I; after Vietnam, they began worrying a whole lot more about their bodies.

The federal government took over the job of regulating ladder construction. States adopted compulsory seatbelt and helmet laws. The country was convulsed by food scares. And in 1980, a small group of women in California organized the most effective temperance organization the country had seen since Prohibition’s repeal: Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Within a decade, drunk driving had been transmuted in the American imagination from a foolish indiscretion to a violent crime.

Nobody can dispute that MADD was right. Thanks very largely to that organization, U.S. highway fatalities have declined steadily and sharply. Mr. Bush himself signed legislation stiffening Texas’s drunk-driving laws. He has also become America’s best known teetotaler. Nevertheless, Mr. Bush now finds himself on the wrong side of a grand cultural shift.

All of which would be easier to bear if Al Gore were not at the same time benefiting from a cultural shift in the opposite direction. Back in 1976, pot-smoking was regarded by most voting-age people as a vastly more serious offense than drinking and driving. Lying was even worse — Jimmy Carter won the 1976 election by promising never to do it. Yet in this same election season that has been convulsed at the last minute by Mr. Bush’s DUI incident, the American media have shrugged off reliable information that Al Gore was speaking untruthfully when he acknowledged only occasional marijuana use in the 1970s. In fact, according to one of his closest friends at the time, for a prolonged period after he left the army, Mr. Gore was a heavy and regular toker.

But that, of course, is completely different. After all, many of the same formerly young people who rolled their eyes at Dino still chuckle at the memory of Cheech & Chong, whose pothead comedy “Up in Smoke” was one of the big hits of 1978. Mr. Bush’s problem with the media isn’t that he got stoned in 1976 — it’s that he got stoned in what they regard as the wrong way with the wrong kind of friends: with booze not marijuana, with jocks not hippies. But who knows? That may turn out to be the reason that the rest of the country forgives him.