Is the next presidency going to be legitimate?
This question now hovers over George W. Bush. Made possible by a
bare majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, his triumph is lawful -- but many
Americans see it as illegitimate. Bush can look forward to wielding
enormous legal power. But his moral authority is another matter.
While eagerly claiming the title of president-elect, Bush faces a
huge "legitimacy gap." Its magnitude and duration remain to be seen. For
much of America, his Inauguration Day seems likely to ring hollow.
Right now, this crisis of legitimacy is somewhat befuddling for
large numbers of reporters and commentators. Some political journalists are
indicating a sense of disorientation. And it's by no means certain how
quickly or fully they'll revert to the usual media reverence for an
In addition to notable events in Florida and transparently
partisan actions by the federal Supreme Court, a key underlying fact is
that Bush placed second in the nationwide popular vote. Across the country,
Al Gore received about 330,000 more votes than Bush did. For the first time
since 1888, the candidate who received the most votes for president has lost.
Even if nothing untoward had happened in Florida, the spectacle of
the runner-up winning the presidency should have -- and probably would have
-- appreciably tarnished the luster of a Bush victory. But other
anti-democratic dynamics have been extreme. And we're left to assess the
convergence of realpolitik forces that enabled Bush to win Florida's 25
electoral votes and the White House.
Of all the phrases that came to routinely fall from the lips and
computers of journalists during the past weeks, none drips with more
infuriating irony than "equal protection" -- a mantra incessantly repeated
by the Bush legal team and embraced by the nation's High Court.
An unrelenting propaganda barrage promoted very circumscribed
notions of what "equal protection" means. Soon, we were pushed through the
It was Humpty Dumpty who proclaimed scornfully, "When I use a
word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less." As
far as Mr. Dumpty was concerned, Alice had no cause for complaint. "The
question is," he said, "which is to be master -- that's all."
Equal protection. Most of the Supreme Court waxed righteous,
declaring that not all votes had been treated alike. The troubled justices
seemed unconcerned that -- on a much larger scale -- not all voters had
been treated alike.
Equal protection. But not for people who faced a butterfly ballot.
Equal protection. But not for thousands of African-American
citizens improperly purged from Florida's voting rolls.
Equal protection. But not for black Floridians who encountered
hostile questions from police as they neared polling stations.
Equal protection. But not for citizens in low-income precincts who
had no choice but to use antiquated punch-card voting machines -- prone to
malfunction -- while voters in more affluent areas of the state were much
more likely to use modern optical-scanner devices.
After the fact, newspapers including The Washington Post and The
Miami Herald did some fine stories documenting that racial and economic
inequities prevented many thousands of Gore votes from being tallied.
Several prominent syndicated columnists, such as Bob Herbert and Arianna
Huffington, explained that in Florida on Nov. 7, racism carried the
Equal protection? Overall, journalists customarily encourage us to
internalize a narrow version of the concept -- as preferred by those with
the most power to define it.
A dozen years ago, speaking of George W. Bush's father, fellow
Texan Jim Hightower commented: "He is a man who was born on third base and
thinks he hit a triple." Today, George the Second exudes his own sense of
entitlement. And his wooing of the White House press corps has begun.
Backers will do all they can to instill an aura of legitimacy for
the new regime. Meanwhile, most journalists are inclined to be deferential
toward the nation's highest office and the man in it. And we can expect a
lot of congressional Democrats to polish their patriotic images by
genuflecting toward President George W. Bush on a regular basis. Only
pressure from the grassroots, fueled by tenacious memory and independent
thought, can deny the incoming Bush administration the national sense of
legitimacy that it craves.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of
Highly Deceptive Media."