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Before honor comes humility, Proverbs says, and last week seemed designed to bring everyone to their knees

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The judges were humbled, at war with one another over whose vision of justice would prevail. The lawyers were as well, when they were reduced to citing rulings against them in one case to help them win another. The commentariat that had confidently scripted a coda to this long chorale were practically speechless by Saturday night. Even the Constitution itself seemed more like tissue than stone, as people peered through its text to find the meaning they sought.

As for the candidates, they were looking elsewhere for comfort. After the Florida Supreme Court threw them a lifeline, Joe and Hadassah Lieberman arrived at the Vice President's mansion Friday night bearing wine, a salt shaker, a wineglass and a cloth that is a family heirloom. Tipper had already set out candles, and the two couples slipped away for a private moment of prayer and reflection, later celebrating the Jewish Sabbath, and savoring rebirth, for however long it lasted.

George W. Bush went ahead that night with a party at the governor's mansion for his administrative staff and his security detail. But he had watched the Florida ruling on television, found it absurd and wanted to get away. He woke up early Saturday, called communications director Karen Hughes around 6:30 and asked, "Have we won yet?" Aides briefed him on the state of play, and he shot off some e-mails before heading out. "I'll be at the ranch," he said to his aides. "Let me know what happens." Then he drove to Crawford, where he goes to clear his head, and the land around the new house, and not think about lawyers.

All day long, he didn't act like a man who had just been shot. His lead had dropped to 193 votes--yet he didn't watch the hand counts start back up on TV; he wasn't constantly on the phone needling aides for updates throughout the morning. He took a long walk. But by midafternoon he was driving his Chevy Suburban around the 1,600-acre ranch when campaign chairman Don Evans called with word of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to shut the recounts down. "Great news," said Bush. "Fantastic." The original decision to petition the Supremes three weeks ago had been his; some advisers warned that he might not want them involved, but he had felt their judgment was crucial to the legitimacy of any final outcome. Now it looked as if the Justices might yet save him. Afterward, he played fetch with his dog Spot and then chopped down some cedar. He left it to his lieutenants to wage the war.

With each court ruling in Bush's favor, beginning with a stunning double win on Monday, his allies built their hopes not only of victory but of clarity, that he could start naming a team and setting a tone. The Governor's mansion was decked with holly, and in public Bush sounded increasingly gracious. He felt Gore's pain, he said; he unveiled a transition slogan--"Bringing America Together"; his team took care to drop names of Democrats he might name to a Cabinet, what programs had the best chance of passage through bipartisan seas.

Through a week of melting hopes, Gore was a block of ice. "I'm not going to speculate on what the outcome might be," Gore said on Tuesday, though people thought they already knew it. He watched every argument, tracked every brief, read all the Florida papers and phoned the editors, pressing his case. All around him, Democrats were growing resigned; even close aides "just want it to be over," said one, and their verbs began to shift to the past tense. One reason his speechwriter had not drafted a concession speech was his own superstition that it was bad luck: write it, and he'll have to give it. True believers were increasingly isolated. "It's a small, closeted group," cracked one at midweek. "We meet in the basement, do our rituals and sing songs."

On Friday, Democrats who had begun to line up behind the Gore cortege actually heard a heartbeat when the Florida Supreme Court sent the counters back to work. Now it looked as if Gore's intricate legal case might be reducible to four words: "I got more votes." Party headquarters was suddenly flooded with calls from Democrats, entire congressional staffs, offering to jet down to Florida to help oversee the recount. "I was back in business," said campaign manager Donna Brazile. That night was the "first time I slept without a Zantac" since the election.

But the reprieve was short-lived. As happy as Friday night was, Team Gore had known there was a good chance the U.S. Supreme Court wasn't done with this. The morning conference call was no carol sing; it was going to take a lot of work to get the recount machinery going again. And the Republican soldiers, lawyers and politicians alike, were loaded for bear: "This judicial aggression must not stand," said majority whip Tom DeLay.

What are you so frightened of, the Gore camp challenged--that a full recount would reveal what we have argued all along? That Gore won not only the national popular vote but the Florida vote as well? That Jeb Bush is not a controlling legal authority after all? That all those Cabinet tryouts were a little premature? What we are frightened of, the Republicans countered, is a system in which deadlines come and go at the whim of a partisan court, in which fallible vote counters are asked to read minds, in which statutes and procedures and timetables and traditions for electing a President are subject to "interpretation" and the law loses its meaning. They cited the dark warnings of Florida's own Chief Justice, Charles Wells, that the decision "propels this country and this state into an unprecedented and unnecessary constitutional crisis."

But for all the threats and fears, the Constitution is not a delicate artifact. It sits in a helium-filled case over at the National Archives in one of those soundproof, heatproof and humidity-controlled reliquaries designed to protect its every word and wrinkle. Every once in a while, we get to take the Constitution out for a spin.

And when we do, we learn again that it wasn't built for speed--it was built to last, for the ages of ages. So in a time of severe impatience, it is teaching us, among other things, to be steadfast. The Founders, astride an age of enlightenment and revolution, did not want power transferred quickly or easily or often. They knew much more about taking power by force than we ever will--and the risks of anarchy that go with it. By comparison, what's going on here is almost an innocent minuet. It doesn't happen very often, and it isn't fun to watch, but we now have all three legs of our government out on the dance floor, all twirling around the same question: Who picks our Presidents, anyway? The Executive, the courts or the Legislative Branch? Or the people, however we count them?

We're about to find out, once and for all. It just requires more patience, and less pride, than our politics is accustomed to. --Reported by James Carney and John F. Dickerson/Austin and Michael Duffy, Tamala M. Edwards and Karen Tumulty/Washington


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Cover Date: December 18, 2000

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