Start Talking About The Donkey In The Room - Before It's Too Late

Posted: November 21, 2000

For many years there has been a famous phrase that derives from the 12-step recovery movement. It refers to a thing that is very big, and obvious, and of crucial importance, that people around it refuse for whatever reason to acknowledge. It's called "the elephant in the living room."

There is an elephant in the living room in the Florida story. Actually, it's a donkey. And actually, there are a number of them.

When the story of the Florida recounts and hand-counts and court decisions is reported on TV and in the newspapers, the journalists uniformly fail to speak of the donkey in the living room. They give great and responsible attention to the Florida story. But with a unity that is perhaps willful, perhaps unconscious, perhaps a peculiar expression of an attempt at fairness, they avoid the donkey.

You know what the donkey is. The donkey is the explicit fear - grounded in fact, in anecdotal evidence, in the affidavits of on-the-ground participants, and in the history of some of the participants - that the Gore-Clinton Democratic Party is trying to steal the election. Not to resolve it - to steal it.

That is, they are not using hand-counting to determine who won, they are using hand-counting to win.

Columnists are writing about it. You can hear vote fraud discussed on the all-argument political shows on TV and radio. But it is not reported as news. And it only counts when it's news. And this is most extraordinary because the Republican fear of fraud - the legitimate fear of it - is the major reason the Bush people don't want more hand counts. They do not trust the counters. This question - the extent of vote fraud in this election, and the fact that the Republicans think it is governing what is happening in Florida - is not the unspoken subtext of the drama. It is the unspoken text.

Republicans are convinced, and for good reason, that Bill Daley, who learned at his father's knee, and Al Gore, who learned at Bill Clinton's, are fraudulently attempting to carry out an anti-democratic strategy that is a classic of vote stealing: Keep counting until you win, and the minute you "win," announce that the American people are tired of waiting for an answer and deserve to know who won.

Could a political party in this great and sophisticated democracy, in this wired democracy in which sooner or later every shadow sees sunlight, steal a prize as big and rich and obvious as the presidency? Yes. Of course. If the history of the past half-century has taught us anything, it's that determined people can do anything. What might stop it? If the media would start leading the news with investigations into the prevalence of vote fraud and the possibility that the presidential election is being stolen.

Here's what animates Clinton-Gore thinking regarding their opponents: hatred pure and simple, a hatred that used to be hidden and now proudly walks forward.

It stands in the living room, too. As does the unstated but implicit message of the hatred: that extraordinary means are understandable when you're trying to save America from the terrible people who would put George W. Bush in the presidency. Really, if Republicans are so bad, it's probably good to steal elections from them, don't you think?

I never thought I would wind up nostalgic for the days when I merely disagreed with Democratic presidents. But whoever doubted the patriotism, the love of country, of John Kennedy or Jimmy Carter? This crew we have now, Gore and Clinton and their operatives, they seem, to my astonishment as an American, to be men who would never put their country's needs before their own if there were even the mildest of conflicts between the two. America is the platform of their ambitions, not the driving purpose of them.

Another donkey in the living room: the sense that Republicans are no match for the Democrats in terms of ferocity, audacity, shrewdness, the killer instinct.

Republicans seem incapable of going down to the level of Gore-Clinton operatives. They think that you cannot really defend something you love with hatred because hatred is by its nature destructive: It scalds and scars and eats away. Republicans seem to be losing the public relations war. The Democrats have David Boies and Bill Daley, each, forgive me, smooth as an enema, in Evelyn Waugh's phrase.

The Republicans have James Baker, who seems irritated and perplexed. Perhaps he is taken aback by how the game has changed, how the Democrats he faces now operate by rules quite different, and much rougher, than the ones they played by 20 years ago.

Now the game for the Gore camp is to win any way you can in Florida, and if you can't win, delay, and in the delay maybe you'll win when the Electoral College comes together, or maybe at the very least even if someone stops you, you'll have ruined the legitimacy of the man who does win, which will make it easier for you as you wait in the wings for the rematch in 2004.

There are a lot of donkeys in the living room in Florida, and maybe the Bush people should start to talk about them. Maybe that will make them news. It can't hurt. It's a circus down there anyway.

Peggy Noonan is a contributing editor of the Wall Street Journal and author of "The Case Against Hillary Clinton."

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