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Good clean cheating and dirty pool

( -- Here in America, we make a firm distinction between good old honest cheating and dirty cheating. Honest cheating is the kind of all-American swindling we're comfortable with: Mayor Richard Daley rustling up dead men's votes for John Kennedy; Lyndon Johnson twisting arms and paying out ready cash to win his first Senate election. That's good old-fashioned cheating, the kind that uses money and muscle.

What Americans seem to regard as dirty cheating is clever, high-paid lawyers going into the courts to try to actually force judges to rule on what's legal and what's not, or even to make a little law themselves. Now, that's not fair. We're comfortable with buying or wrestling votes, or busing in mobs of protesters, but trying to use the courts to get people to abide by statutes, or to clear up murky ones, well, that's dirty pool.

Right now, there is a vague presumption among Americans that Gore is the down-and-dirty cheater and Bush is the honest cheater. Bush is using tactics we all are used to, sabre-rattling press conferences and thuggish spokespeople and vague threats to do something really nasty.

It looks like Gore is the one doing the disputing and Bush is doing the Gary Cooper thing of being strong and silent. In fact, of course, it was Bush who first went to the federal courts and first to the U.S. Supreme Court. For Bush, who has made a mantra of local control, this is like trashing the big bully behind his back and then enlisting his services when you get in a brawl. You'll notice that the Bush campaign called the Florida Supreme Court an "instrument of the Democratic party" when it agreed to let the manual count continue, but were silent about the court's bias when it rejected Gore's emergency appeal to force Miami-Dade to resume its recount.

People vaguely feel Gore is cheating because they vaguely think George Bush has already won. And why shouldn't they think that? Gore did, too. The networks told everyone that "fact" on the morning of November 8, and Gore nearly conceded as a result. I figure that if you voted for Tom Dewey in 1948 and picked up your morning paper saying your guy had won, you probably thought Harry Truman subsequently stole the whole thing.

There's been a general sense that Bush has been "out-lawyered." The implication is that out-lawyering is downright un-American. Issues shouldn't be decided by the craftiest lawyers but on their merits. Hip hip hooray. But I've found that people who lose cases on their merits often complain that they've been "out-lawyered." I'm growing a little weary of the Bush campaign's constant cry that Gore's lawyers changed the rules in the middle of the game. Fine, but if the rules are wrong or don't reflect the will of the voter, don't you want to change them? A foolish consistency remains the hobgoblin of little minds. Especially those on television.

There's a perception out there that lawyers and courts work to subvert the "will of the people." And, of course, sometimes they do. But did lawyers and courts work to thwart the "will of the people" during the elimination of the poll tax or in allowing the integration of Little Rock High School?

And why Americans don't regard the electoral college itself as an example of legal pettifoggery -- dirty cheating, if you will -- by a handful of men in wigs in Philadelphia in 1787, I'll never know.

Copyright © 2000 Time Inc.


Saturday, November 25, 2000


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