Medal of Honor
When Al Gore was in Vietnam he never saw much combat. Throughout his presidential campaign, though, he insisted he wanted to “fight” for every American. Well, Wednesday night, in his concession speech, Mr. Gore took a bullet for the country.
The shot was fired at the heart of the nation by the five conservative justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, with their politically inspired ruling that installed George W. Bush as President. The five justices essentially said that it was more important that Florida meet its self-imposed deadline of December 12 for choosing a slate of electors than for the Florida Supreme Court to try to come up with a fair and uniform way to ensure that every possible vote in Florida was counted—and still meet the real federal deadline, for the nationwide Electoral College vote on December 18. The five conservative justices essentially ruled that the sanctity of dates, even meaningless ones, mattered more than the sanctity of votes, even meaningful ones.
The Rehnquist Court now has its legacy: “In calendars we trust.”
You don’t need an inside source to realize that the five conservative justices were acting as the last in a team of Republican Party elders who helped drag Governor Bush across the finish line. You just needed to read the withering dissents of Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Souter, and Stevens, who told the country exactly what their five colleagues were up to—acting without legal principle or logic and thereby inflicting a wound, said Justice Breyer, “that may harm not just the Court, but the nation.”
Or, as the Harvard moral philosopher Michael Sandel put it: “Not only did the Court fail to produce any compelling argument of principle to justify its ruling. But, on top of that, the conservative majority contradicted its long-held insistence on protecting states’ rights against federal interference. That’s why this ruling looks more like partisanship than principle. And that’s why many will conclude that the five conservative justices voted twice for President—once in November and once in December.”
Which brings us back to Mr. Gore and his concession speech. It was the equivalent of taking a bullet for the country, because the rule of law is most reinforced when—even though it may have been imposed wrongly or with bias—the recipient of the judgment accepts it, and the system behind it, as final and legitimate. Only in that way—only when we reaffirm our fidelity to the legal system, even though it rules against us—can the system endure, improve, and learn from its mistakes. And that was exactly what Mr. Gore understood, bowing out with grace because, as he put it, “this is America, and we put country before party.”
If Chinese or Russian spies are looking for the most valuable secret they can steal in Washington, here’s a free tip: Steal Al Gore’s speech. For in a few brief pages it contains the real secret to America’s sauce.
That secret is not Wall Street, and it’s not Silicon Valley, it’s not the Air Force and it’s not the Navy, it’s not the free press and it’s not the free market—it is the enduring rule of law and the institutions that underlie them all, and that allow each to flourish no matter who is in power.
One can only hope that Mr. Bush also understands that the ultimate strength of America and the impact it has on the world does not come from all the military systems he plans to expand (though they too are important), or from Intel’s latest microchip. It comes from this remarkable system of laws and institutions we have inherited—a system, they say, that was designed by geniuses so it could be run by idiots.
Mr. Bush will soon discover that preserving this system is critical not only for America, it is critical for the world. America today is the Michael Jordan of geopolitics. Many envy the institutions and economy that ensure our dominance; others deeply resent us for the same. But all are watching our example—and all understand, at some level, that the stability of the world today rests on the ability of our system and economy to endure.
Al Gore reinforced that system by his graceful concession; Mr. Bush will have to reinforce it by his presidency. Now that the campaign is over and the system has determined the winner, no one should root for his failure. Because, as Al Gore would say, “this is America,” and it’s the only one we’ve got.
December 15, 2000