Column: Gracious, yes, but too late

Al Gore's concession speech - to echo the sentiment of everyone and his cousin - was gracious. Tightly written and expertly delivered, it had moments of humor and moments of warmth and seemed to put the good of the country first and foremost. The problem is that it should have been delivered roughly a month ago. Coming at the time it did, the speech amounted to little more than a tablespoon of refill for the Grand Canyon of mistrust and disunion already dug by Gore's lawyers.

The fact now covered over by weeks of pro-Gore gush on TV and in newspapers is that George W. Bush has been the legitimate victor in Florida at least since the recount triggered by the closeness of the race and the calculation of the absentee vote. Most of the fuss and bother since Election Night has amounted to little more than attempts to dredge up Gore votes by error-certain hand recounts in selected Democratic counties and to circumvent the pre-established rules of the game through endless litigation.

The lower courts in Florida were heroes in all of this, sticking to the rules, but the Florida Supreme Court found ways to say its invention of new law was an interpretation of old law, a transparent exercise in glossing over its usurpation of legislative prerogatives.

The U.S. Supreme Court was forced twice to intervene, and not through an infringement on states' rights, as has been contended by some liberals newly concerned about that issue. The U.S. Constitution is clear about electing presidents in accordance with legislatively determined procedures, and the high court did what it was constitutionally obliged to do in honoring that precept. It may thus have prevented a crisis of the first magnitude, although the Gore team's legal shenanigans and rhetoric about counting every vote had already served to undermine a Bush presidency.

The pro-Gore argument has been that some votes - so-called undervotes - were never counted and that, if they were, he would be president. If there were indeed some sure way of tabulating voter intentions, he may have won, although that is far from certain. The thing to keep in mind is that an attempt to vote is not necessarily the same as actually casting a vote that should be counted, any more than a basketball player's attempt to shoot a basket should automatically count for points. Gore's lawyers wanted misses to be added up, though not all misses - mainly those shot by pro-Gore players.

Bush, in his speech in Texas, was not so smooth as Gore - not intimate enough with the camera and the home viewers, some commentators said - but he began the effort of healing and uniting. One has the sense that Bush's basic honesty, sincerity, solid principles, intelligent judgment about people, readiness to learn and listen, good will and apparent talent for constructive compromise will see him through to those governmental accomplishments most needed in America in the years ahead. His road will not be an easy one, however, and it has been made more difficult by an opponent whose last-minute graciousness scarcely made up for a month of litigious ferocity.



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