Poisonous Rhetoric ShowsBush Is Dividing the Nation

For a politician who promised to unite rather than divide the nation, George W. Bush seems peculiarly contented to watch his cause advanced by some of the ugliest rhetoric since the impeachment crisis. His lawyers freely dispense dubious accusations of criminality, mostly anonymous, against the citizens counting ballots in southern Florida. His surrogates, such as the governor of Montana, brazenly charge the Vice President of the United States with waging “war” on American military personnel. His press secretary presumes to question the fitness of Al Gore to serve as Commander in Chief.

Mr. Bush’s advocates around Capitol Hill and in the mass media are even more irresponsible in their eagerness to inflame. Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole announces that if the Democratic candidate is declared the victor in Florida, Republicans will boycott his inauguration. That sour sentiment is more or less endorsed by House Majority Leader Dick Armey, while his confederate, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, schemes to undo any unsatisfactory result through a semi-Constitutional subterfuge.

The Bush camp in the press, from the Wall Street Journal editorial page to the Washington Times , rants incessantly about “fraud,” “theft” and “vote-rigging.” In the New York Post , editorials and columns warn about a “Gore coup d’état.” They are echoed by somewhat more respectable figures like syndicated columnist George Will, who doesn’t bother to acquaint himself with basic facts before discharging a dose of poisonous ink about an election that “probably will soon be stolen” by Mr. Gore, a man of “moral turpitude.” Cable television, talk radio and the Internet have been, not surprisingly, much worse.

The unwholesome effects of all this exaggeration and agitation were made plain to me the other night, after a TV appearance on which I ventured the radical suggestion that every valid vote ought to be counted. I regularly receive my fair share of nasty mail and messages, of course, but this one went further. An excitable man-who admittedly hadn’t seen the broadcast in question-left a long, quavering, profanity-laced voice mail threatening that blood will be spilled in a looming “civil war.”

That represents an extreme expression of unbalanced rage, but a similar fury is reflected in recent poll numbers. Fully 40 percent of Bush voters have declared that they would not accept Mr. Gore’s election as “legitimate” (in contrast to roughly 25 percent of Gore voters who say they would regard a Bush Presidency with equal suspicion). Set against the undisputed facts of this election, the wretched rhetorical excess of the Republican side seems even more inexcusable. The supporters of Mr. Bush simply have no justification for their seething anger and self-righteousness.

There has been no proof of fraud on either side, in Florida or any other state. There has been no attempt to deprive the Republican candidate of his legal rights, which he is exercising just as vigorously as his Democratic opponent. The manual re-count of discarded ballots is proceeding according to the same standards signed into law by the Texas governor three years ago in his home state. His totals, if they vault him to victory, will include hand-counted ballots in at least six Florida counties.

More importantly, there is no question, according to current numbers, that Mr. Gore received more votes nationally than Mr. Bush-and by a considerably wider margin than the present difference between their Florida totals. In the national popular vote, Mr. Gore leads by just under 250,000, or nearly one-quarter of one percent. That is a tiny amount indeed, except when compared to the fluctuating difference between the two major candidates in Florida. Depending on exactly when the calculation is performed, Mr. Bush leads there by between 600 and 900 votes, or scarcely more than one-hundredth of one percent.

Those statistics may matter little in the Electoral College, but they destroy the Republican canard that the Democrats are plotting to thwart the people’s choice. For Mr. Bush and his supporters to pretend they know the true outcome of this bizarrely close contest is not only ridiculous but obnoxious. The exposure of terrible flaws in the Florida balloting have created permanent doubt regarding who really won those 25 electoral votes. Someone will eventually prevail, but he will assume office without any mantle of moral certainty.

Meanwhile, the candidate who vowed a new spirit of bipartisanship in Washington and a more elevated tone in American politics remains silent and secluded as those values are trashed by his allies, a crowd more worrisome in some ways than the governor himself. As his promises of healing vanish in acrid smoke, it seems more and more to be Mr. Bush who will do anything to win.