It was the first real test of George W. Bush's character, the first chance to see what kind of stuff he would bring to the toughest job in the world.
And sadly, he flunked it.
Vice President Al Gore's offer to resolve the election gridlock by letting the people of Florida decide the outcome, without the divisive prospect of endless lawsuits, represented the last best chance for the two men, and the nation, to extricate themselves not just from gridlock but from gathering cynicism, from a dark, pessimistic vision of what politics and civic life are and what they might be. By rejecting Gore's offer, Gov. Bush allowed base realpolitik to triumph over the higher angels of our nature -- and poisoned the whole process in a way it had not been poisoned before.
His rejection was no surprise, but it still came as an almost visceral blow. Until tonight, this movie still felt like it might have a Frank Capra feel-good ending. Now it's strictly on the double-crossing road to film noir.
Bush was following his hardball political instincts -- reject, reject, reject. Assume that everything the enemy does is a trick, a P.R. move, a fraud, a Trojan horse. If he's offering it, it must be bad. It's the way politicians think, the way the Palestinians and the Israelis think, the way couples in bad divorces think, the way journalists -- who as a profession are heavy on cheap skepticism masquerading as wisdom -- think. Just turn on MSNBC or CNN for a nauseating dosage of pundits who, drunk on their worldly-wise skepticism, can't see that this is not a game, that in the end nothing less than the principle of democracy is at stake here.
Of course Gore's offer wasn't devoid of self-interest. But the point is that it wasn't entirely self-interested. It was also the right thing to do. What Gore did was to ask both camps to abandon indefensible positions. In Gore's case, that was the threat of lawsuits against the butterfly ballot, lawsuits that are ultimately groundless; in Bush's, his opposition to block hand recounts on a variety of specious grounds.
Gore's was a genuine offer in which each side would give something up (unlike the transparently self-serving one made by James Baker), because Gore had no way of knowing if he would emerge victorious after a hand recount and receipt of all absentee ballots. In effect, he was saying to Bush, "Enough already. Get rid of the lawyers. You, me and the people, baby. Roll 'em."
If Bush had accepted Gore's offer, he would have conferred legitimacy upon the victor, whoever he might be. Seen by half the population as a lightweight, and by some significant percentage of people -- fairly or not -- as an unscrupulous lightweight to boot, he would have enhanced his own stature immeasurably.
He would have been able to gracefully abandon his ridiculous, self-contradictory, morally and intellectually indefensible opposition to hand recounts -- an opposition that impugns not just the integrity of his opponent, in a way that belies his high-toned claim to be a "uniter, not a divider," but the integrity of the men and women who are counting the ballots. (His "arguments," if one can dignify mere assertions with that word, that hand recounts are "less accurate" than machine ones, or are unfair because no uniform standards are used, are so pathetically weak that it is tiresome even to respond to them. Suffice it to say that there is not a shred of evidence that hand recounts are less accurate than machine ones -- which is why Bush signed a Texas bill stating that they are preferable to machine counts -- and that the issue of standards in recounting could easily be resolved.)
He would have avoided a protracted and divisive legal struggle that, in all likelihood, he will lose anyway. (Despite the best efforts of the ever-serviceable Ms. Harris, it is almost inconceivable that any court will simply hand the presidency to Bush because of bureaucratic vote certification deadlines. That would be a recipe for voter outrage unseen since the days of "His Fraudulency" Rutherford B. Hayes.)
And all this simply to make absolutely sure that he didn't give his opponent even a few more legitimate votes -- when there is a strong probability that Bush will end up the legitimate winner anyway (winner only of the Electoral College vote, to be sure, but those are the antediluvian rules we're playing under).
One can only assume that Bush doesn't really expect, or even want, the election to be over on Saturday. Would he really want to be president knowing that slightly over half the entire voting population will always and irrevocably regard him as a cheat? (Alas, Bush's rejection of Gore's offer -- and implicit endorsement of the brutally cynical idea that the recounts are biased -- probably condemns Gore, should he prove the victor, to be so regarded by some significant portion of the other 49.9 percent.) Would he want to go down in history as the president who was so afraid of losing an election he was leading by the laughable sum of 300 votes that he denounced the instruments of democracy itself? If the hand recounts are allowed in the end, as they probably will be, it will actually save Bush from this ignominious fate -- win or lose.
But it will not erase the stain that his unwise and mean-spirited refusal of a fair and generous offer will leave on his legacy. History gave Bush a chance to rise above what many people expected of him, to show himself a true statesman, not just a calculating political hack. It is no cause for rejoicing on anyone's part that on this occasion he was not equal to the task.
The classic book of photos from the exhibition "The Family of Man" deals with birth, death, love, children, work, music and other universal human themes. Toward the end of the book, there are a few pages on the theme of democracy. Above four small black-and-white photographs of people voting in various countries appear the words "Behold this and always love it! It is very sacred, and you must treat it as such."
American democracy will live on. It is bigger and stronger than either of these imperfect men, bigger and stronger than the dismaying situation we currently find ourselves in. But based on his performance Wednesday night, George W. Bush will not be numbered among those who revered it when it mattered most -- when it counted.