January 12, 2001
Emperor Commodus & President W
By Robert Parry
The national pundits are acting as if Jan. 20 will be just another Inauguration of a new president, a celebration of that miracle of American democracy when power is passed peacefully from one leader to another based on the will of the electorate.
As the date approaches, Washington pundits are growing more and more irritated over any discordant comment suggesting that something else is afoot.
On Wednesday, nearly the entire cast of TV pundits – the likes of Chris Matthews and Sally Quinn – derided President Clinton for his strange notion, expressed during a speech in Chicago, that Vice President Al Gore got more votes nationally than George W. Bush and that “the only way they [the Republicans] could win the election was to stop the voting in Florida.”
This comment was beyond the pale for pundit after pundit who heaped ridicule on Clinton for his bad taste and his bad manners.
In the month since Bush claimed victory, it’s apparently become impolite to note the facts: that the incoming president did lose the popular vote and seized power via an unprecedented act of judicial fiat by five conservative partisans on the U.S. Supreme Court. [For more on the self-interest behind that decision, see Supreme Ambitions.]
Yet, even as the national media elite shoves these unpleasant facts into a memory hole, some Americans might still recall that Clinton has a point.
Gore did get more votes nationally – indeed, more than a half million more votes than Bush – and on Dec. 9, the five conservative Supreme Court justices did grant Bush’s urgent request to stop the counting of votes in Florida, a count that the same five justices made sure, three days later, was never resumed.
The stated reason for the halt in the vote count on Dec. 9 was to protect Bush from the "irreparable harm" to his legitimacy that would result if the vote count continued and demonstrated what was growing increasingly obvious for all the world to see: that Bush had actually lost Florida and thus the presidency.
But this post-election chronology has quickly disappeared from America’s pundit shows. Like many of their colleagues, Matthews and Quinn just couldn’t get over Clinton’s bad form in bringing all this old news back up again. [For a story on Quinn's longstanding animosity toward Clinton, see Clinton vs. the Establishment.]
The predicament got worse a day later when Bush was asked about Clinton's comments. In effect, the soon-to-be-president was being challenged to justify the undemocratic circumstances that surrounded his peculiar election victory.
Faced with that question at a news conference on Thursday, Bush did not even try to defend his own legitimacy. Instead, he became what might be called snippy.
Bush declared simply that Clinton “can say what he wants to say, but January the 20th, I’ll be honored to be sworn in as president.”
Bush’s failure to defend the tactics behind his election underscored another open secret that has been making the rounds of official Washington over the past several weeks.
At holiday parties, Republican political operatives boasted freely about their success in snaring the White House. A common refrain, told in a joking style, was: “We stole the election fair and square.”
This high-level Republican bragging is, of course, in marked contrast to what the Republican rank-and-file are expected to believe. For the followers of Rush Limbaugh and the conservative media, the message is still that Al Gore and Joe Lieberman were the ones trying to steal the election by “inventing” votes.
In the weeks after the Nov. 7 election, this propaganda theme whipped the GOP foot soldiers into a near frenzy, helping to create a climate of crisis that added to the rationale behind the five conservative justices settling the election in Bush’s favor.
But high-ranking Republicans now acknowledge, at least privately, that many legitimate votes favoring Gore were tossed aside in Florida to preserve Bush’s tiny victory margin.
So, the theme of Gore as "Sore Loserman" has been replaced by a new theme: that the country must rally behind the new president and that the Democrats must gracefully accept their defeat.
But Bush’s unresponsive response to Clinton’s jibe should make clear that even the beneficiary of this stolen election knows that he will be taking the powers of the presidency legitimately won by another man.
The stubborn memories of this bitter election also will leave many Americans with a sick feeling that this U.S. Presidential Inauguration will not be like the others.
For some Americans, this cherished moment of popular self-government might become more reminiscent now of the triumphal welcoming parade in Rome that greeted the young emperor Commodus in the movie, “Gladiator.”
Surrounded by pomp and circumstance and hailed by the high and mighty, George W. Bush will be “honored” on Jan. 20 as he is sworn in as the 43rd president of the United States.
Robert Parry is the author of Lost History, a book that examines the effects of propaganda on American politics and history during the Cold War.