May the better statesman win

Recount limbo presents an opportunity for presidential courage -- and landslide victory.

Published November 10, 2000 12:30AM (EST)

When you're running for president, it sure is nice to win. But when you're trying to make history -- when you're trying to actually do something that lives up to the promise embodied in the office -- it sure is nice to have the full faith and support of the American people.

As it looks now, one guy will win. And that one guy, whoever it is, will have neither the faith nor the confidence of the American people. Either George W. Bush or Al Gore will serve out a four-year term without the honeymoon that has been granted virtually every president to precede him. The four years that follow will be a time of sniping, of conspiracy theories, and the deafening cacophony will make it impossible for the new president to build support for his ideas. It's hard to imagine a State of the Union Address that can heal the wounds that are now being opened in South Florida.

There is, however, one step Gore or Bush could -- and should -- take. The minute one of them surges ahead in the vote tally he should call for a revote in Florida.

That's right, the winner in Florida should call for a revote. And if Gore does it after pulling ahead -- should that happen now or after yet another recount -- or if Bush does it now, the candidate who made that choice will win the revote. In a landslide.

Those who suggest that a revote would work to Gore's advantage, that he's stronger in Florida anyway, underestimate the drawing power of courage, especially when it's demonstrated by a potential leader. Voters in Florida and elsewhere would see the act -- by Gore or Bush -- for what it would be: one of the greatest acts of statesmanship in American history. It would reveal a strength of character heretofore unseen in either candidate. It would add a sense of power and wonder to what has been the most boring of campaigns. And, more importantly, it would put that person in position to be a great president. It would give him, finally, the charisma that is required of a great leader. Being rewarded for an act of courage could, well, lead to more acts of courage in the White House. Wouldn't that be nice?

This, of course, presumes that one or both of these men might be more interested in strengthening the nation's democracy or in bringing about great advances in society than adding the ultimate line on their résumé. But, not knowing either of them very well, I'll grant them the assumption.

There is a science to creating momentum, and it involves the willingness, and the wisdom, to grab a particular moment and see it for more than its face value. It is at moments of crisis such as this one that great movements are started. Who knew, when Rosa Parks was arrested, that her solitary action would be the spark that lit a movement? Who knew, when Shell Oil's complicity in the killings of Nigerian activists led to a firestorm of criticism, that new leadership in the company would use the event to transform the company's human rights policies, as they have? The opportunity is not always clearly visible if one focuses only on the current situation.

For the two men poised before the White House, I'll offer this: Don't think simply about gaining the office. Think bigger than the White House. Think about leading.

How we put ourselves in this position is not particularly relevant at this time. We are where we are. And it's at moments like this that great leaders are made.

It's an unfortunate habit in American politics that we so often run campaigns in ways that don't build support for one's own ideas. So rarely are campaigns designed around the notion that one must build a mandate. It's a symptom of a rigid two-party system -- one merely needs to show one is better than the other guy. An alternate situation occurs in a parliamentary democracy, where party leaders need to voice their own views strongly enough to attract members from other parties in the hopes of building a governing coalition. Offering ideas and policies that necessarily have a magnetic pull can make the ultimate leader better at governing.

But we are where we are. The next four years would be vastly different, and better for our country, if Gore or Bush took the steps -- now -- that would help them build support for their ideas later.

The statesman's view is to govern, not win elections. We should remember that even during -- especially during -- an election.

By Kevin J. Sweeney

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