During the nation’s last great political crisis, Republican politicians and pundits repeated a certain phrase over and over again, as if they were droning their guru’s favorite mantra. Whenever anyone thought to question their zeal for impeachment, they would draw themselves up and intone those four righteous words: “the rule of law .”
Just how little that concept actually means to the Grand Old Party’s public philosophers and assorted goons, however, has become painfully obvious over the past few weeks. Among Republican partisans, respect for the rule of law dissolved as soon as the legal tide turned against them in the Florida Supreme Court.
Rather than accept the decision of that state’s highest legal authority to reconcile contradictory statutes in favor of ensuring that every ballot counts, the Bush campaign disparaged the integrity of the seven honorable judges, encouraged obstruction of their orders, and even organized a brief but violent assault on the Miami-Dade County officials who were attempting to comply with the court’s decision.
That lawless incident was the “bourgeois riot” of Nov. 22, incited on the airwaves by Rush Limbaugh and a Cuban-American radio station, and then praised on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal the next day by Paul Gigot (who also regularly appears on the very civilized and genteel PBS Newshour ). According to Mr. Gigot, the white riot that stopped the manual counting of votes in Miami-Dade was sparked by a command to “shut it down” from Representative John Sweeney of upstate New York. In other words, an elected Republican Congressman-who took an oath to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States-unashamedly incited a mob.
What Mr. Gigot omitted from his eyewitness account of that event showed up in the pages of The New York Times , which reported that “several people were trampled, punched or kicked” during a fracas outside the office of the county supervisor of elections that continued until sheriff’s deputies restored order. Republican thugs also assaulted the Democratic county chairman because they mistakenly believed that he had absconded with a single ballot.
Neither George W. Bush, the self-styled President-elect, nor any of his handlers and advisers, had a calming word to say in the wake of the disgrace done in their campaign’s name. And why would they call for calm, when it was they and their allies on Capitol Hill who recruited, transported, fed, housed and directed the invasion of those “idealistic, enthusiastic young Republicans”? Subsequent newspaper reports have established that many members of the roving gang were in fact on the payroll of Republican members of Congress, including at least five dispatched from the office of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay.
Instead of urging their disorderly minions to behave, Mr. Bush and his running mate Dick Cheney reportedly joked about the Dade disruption over the speaker phone at a Thanksgiving dinner in a local hotel, where their G.O.P. posse was celebrating its victory.
The latest revelations about the all-white Republican mob lent a touch of racial irony to CNN commentator Mary Matalin’s charming description of the mostly black and entirely peaceful Miami demonstrators led by Reverend Jesse Jackson as “rent-a-rioters.” Apparently African-Americans who know their place should only raise their voices while singing and dancing at the Republican convention. The “compassionate conservatives” have made sure that tens of thousands of votes cast by citizens of all colors went uncounted as they rammed through a dubious “victory” that thwarts the intentions of the electorate.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush has yet to explain why he signed an election law in Texas that provides for manual re-counting of punch-card ballots, dimpled and otherwise-and why he thinks that law should be observed in his home state but flouted in his brother’s state. Mr. Cheney has some explaining to do, too, about his campaign’s casual flouting of a Constitutional provision that prohibits electors in any state from voting for Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates who reside in the same state. He and Mr. Bush both reside in Texas, although Mr. Cheney attempted to create a fictional domicile for himself in Wyoming, where he hasn’t actually lived for many years.
The rule of law is beautiful, of course, but that’s no reason to let it get in the way.
* * *
The recent death of Lars-Erik Nelson is devastating not only to those of us who were privileged to know him, but to the profession he loved. In an era that rewards gossips and windbags, he stubbornly insisted on old-fashioned journalistic virtues. His columns for the Daily News and his articles for The New York Review of Books offered us his wisdom, generosity, experience and erudition. He was the best practitioner of his craft, and it is hard to believe that he is suddenly gone.