Last week a spokesman for Al Gore said that as this post-election controversy unfolded we were seeing what kind of president Mr. Gore would be. We have a sinking feeling that he was right, and that the same is true with regard to Mr. Gore's rival. Both Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush are facing a test that neither expected but that tells us plenty about their fitness for the White House. As their post-campaign campaigns escalated this week, neither seemed to be passing the test in a way that could reassure voters.
The test, simply put, is whether the candidates value anything higher than their ambition. Do they only want to win, or do they also have some concern for the legitimacy of the process, the standing of the presidency, their potential impact on history and on America's reputation overseas? If it were the last, you would expect them -- and their proxies -- to avoid inflammatory language. You would expect them to think more than twice before tossing around accusations of electoral fraud or theft. You would expect them to ensnare the courts in this dispute only with great reluctance.
What you have instead is Gore spokesman Chris Lehane referring to Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris as "Commissar Harris" and a "lackey" and a "hack." We waited in vain for Mr. Gore to indicate that he might frown on his people using such language about an official duly elected to statewide office. What you have is Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes accusing the vice president of "ignoring" the law and trying to "overturn" the election. You have the campaigns using phony statesmanship as a tactic and offering phony compromises as public relations.
Both sides claim to respect the law and the right of local officials to enforce it, until there's a decision they don't like. The Bush people, ordinarily great believers in states' rights, went to federal court, and Tuesday night were on their way to federal appeals court, to block local officials from recounting votes. The Democrats, siding with Palm Beach County in one lawsuit against the Florida secretary of state, went to court against the same county to force its officials to count ballots with "dimpled" chads, not just hanging chads. If that kind of case doesn't embarrass the Gore campaign, it's hard to know what would.
We've now seen five judges run from a case that Palm Beach citizens brought; two other judges, while hearing cases brought by the campaigns, nonetheless did their best not to interfere in the process. A federal judge sent the Bush folks packing; a Florida judge disappointed the Gore campaign, at least in part, by refusing to invalidate a 5 p.m. deadline Tuesday for sending vote totals to the state capital. Either decision may yet be modified on appeal. But the politicians nonetheless ought to listen to the underlying message: This is a quandary for the campaigns, not the courts, to solve. The two candidates could yet do so; the country would be grateful.
-- Washington Post
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