Guess what: The election's not over yet

And until it is, Bush should stop picking out drapes for the White House.

By David Talbot

Published November 10, 2000 9:23PM (EST)

George W. Bush and his representatives are doing serious harm to his potential presidency by acting as if the election has already been decided in his favor. It has not. The recounting process is still going on in Florida, with two counties now doing another round of tabulation by hand, and legal efforts underway to force a hand count in at least two others. Thousands of overseas ballots from Florida voters also remain to be tallied.

In short, the United States still does not have a president-elect and will not until the final vote has been counted. By acting as if the outcome has already been decided, Bush is thumbing his nose not just at the Democratic Party, but at the democratic system.

This is a time for the man who campaigned as a uniter, not a divider, to be calling for justice and restraint, instead of arrogantly claiming victory and announcing his future Cabinet members. And this is a time for James Baker III, the veteran Bush family retainer who is spearheading the Republican candidate's cause in Florida, to draw on his talents as a statesman, not as a partisan brawler.

If Bush ends up winning the White House, he and his team's hardball strategy during this anxious and uncertain period would assure a hardened resistance to his presidency. Nor would it bode well for his younger brother, Jeb, who faces reelection in Florida in two years.

A Bush presidency would already begin under a cloud of acrimony and suspicion. The nation would be confronted with a new leader who had lost the popular vote to his opponent, and who squeaked by in the antiquated Electoral College by scratching together the slimmest of majorities in a hotly disputed vote in a state governed by his brother. This is a recipe for a failed presidency from Day 1. The only way that the Texas governor can begin to soothe the rampant bitterness from this historically divisive election is by acting as a wise and judicious leader, instead of as a man grasping prematurely for the throne.

A smart first step for Bush would be to magnanimously endorse the lengthy and painstaking recount process. He could also win admiration by publicly heeling the attack dogs in his party, like Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who continued to poison the already rank waters in Washington Thursday by taking an ugly swipe at Senator-elect Hillary Clinton. "I tell you one thing, when this Hillary gets to the Senate -- if she does, maybe lightning will strike and she won't -- she will be one of 100 and we won't let her forget it," Lott said.

Vice President Al Gore, for his part, should not endorse or get involved with any of the legal challenges now being mounted in Florida to the voting process. The confusion that resulted from the ballot design in Palm Beach County, and the many other reported voting irregularities in the state, are admittedly disturbing. But it is up to the people of Florida and their representatives to sort out these problems.

In the meantime, those in Republican circles and in the media who are braying for Gore to concede should shut up or be ignored. Despite the frenzied hand-wringing in the punditocracy about a "nation on hold," the U.S. government can move smoothly along for the next two months under our current president.

During the campaign, Gore promised to fight for the American people and nearly 50 million, a plurality of the electorate, rallied to his call. If Gore were to call it quits before the election process has been completed, he would betray the trust of all those who voted for him.

David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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Al Gore George W. Bush