Does the End Justify the Means?

More than the presidency is at stake in Florida. In the beginning there was Robert Bork, a superbly qualified appellate judge, nominated in 1987 by President Reagan to the U.S. Supreme Court. When hearings were held before Sen. Joseph Biden's Judiciary Committee, liberal Democrats commenced the scorched earth, win-at-all-costs, end-justifies-the-means tactics that they are still using in Florida today. They intentionally misrepresented Judge Bork's record, smeared him as a bigot and waged a national political campaign against him. Judge Bork was voted down 58-42, and the term to bork became a part of William Safire's Political Dictionary: "to attack viciously a candidate or appointee, especially by misrepresentation in the media."

Four years later came Clarence Thomas, a man who had been vetted by five FBI and Senate investigations. The liberals' tactic was the same: misrepresent his record, trash the man, find a witness to recant her former praise and paint him as hostile to our values and a danger to the nation. The "high-tech lynching" almost worked; Judge Thomas was confirmed by a slender 52-48 margin.

Then came the Clinton-Gore administration, rich in the practice of achieving an end regardless of the means. Billy Dale, head of Travel Office, dares stand up to the improper firings of the White House travel staff; he is trashed in the media, the FBI is used to harass him, and he is prosecuted by the Clinton Justice Department. Mr. Dale is acquitted by a jury in record time, but the mission is accomplished: The travel office is staffed by Clinton people. Nine hundred FBI files of Republicans illegally turn up in the White House (one such file had been enough to warrant a Nixon impeachment count). A simple misunderstanding, the Clinton lawyers said.

Vice President Al Gore makes campaign fundraising calls from the White House in violation of federal law. In a press conference likely emblematic of a Gore administration, he reiterates again and again that there is "no controlling legal authority" covering his case. Mr. Gore raises $60,000 in illegal contributions at a Buddhist temple and says it too was only a misunderstanding, solid evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

President Clinton defends himself in a deposition by arguing that there are differing interpretations of what the meaning of "is" is. The president lies to us and under oath; a federal court finds that he gave "false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process." His wife blames the whole mess on a "vast right-wing conspiracy." The embarrassing White House e-mails that will tell us whether Mr. Gore and Mr. Clinton are lying have been erased, or are missing, or just can't be found.

The result of all this dissembling, obfuscation and lying is that the law becomes what you can get away with. Smear the opposition; eradicate the evidence; turn on your own if you must; attack the opposition as biased and partisan, and argue every point to the bitter end regardless of the consequence to anyone but yourself. The end justifies the means.

But America cannot be an honest and ethical society without consequences for dishonest and unethical actions. Which brings us to Florida and the presidential election of 2000. It will either go down as another victory for end-justifies-the-means politics, or as the moment when truth and consequences are reintroduced to American politics and policy.

The initial Palm Beach County results look suspiciously as if the Bush vote has been suppressed. According to CNN, Rep. Bill McCollum, the unsuccessful Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, ran 207,000 votes behind George W. Bush in Florida. In fact, Mr. McCollum received more votes than Mr. Bush in only four of Florida's 67 counties (even running behind in his home county, Seminole). Three of those four were Republican counties, and the fourth was Palm Beach. A very conservative Republican, vilified as a House manager in the impeachment of Mr. Clinton, manages to run 1,600 votes ahead of Mr. Bush in a liberal and heavily Democratic county? Go figure.

After the vice president lost the initial election count in Florida he promptly failed the first test of a potential presidency by adopting Bork-Thomas-Clinton scorched earth policies to seek a victorious end regardless of the means.

Florida's elected secretary of state, Katherine Harris, follows statutory law requiring vote totals to be certified by 5 p.m. Nov. 14. She is smeared by Gore staff as a "commissar" and a "hack." Overseas military ballots are attacked one by one, following a five-page Gore campaign memorandum on how to do it. Successive recounts are demanded in selected counties, and the counting rules are changed as the recount progresses, but they still don't produce enough Gore ballots. The rules change again for yet another recount; dimpled ballots begin to be counted for Mr. Gore if the other offices on the ballot have been voted for Democrats, but not for Bush if they were cast for Republicans.

Bush votes with punched chads clumsily taped back in are found in Broward County. The Democratic election commissioners examine 105 such ballots and, according to the Associated Press, decide the voters attempted to correct a mistaken vote by taping the chad back in. They award Mr. Gore 88 votes and Mr. Bush seven.

Meanwhile in Dade County, election officials attempt (unsuccessfully) to move the ballot counting procedures to a private room and exclude the media.

Gore operatives begin to compile dossiers on Republican electors in other states, likely looking for embarrassing revelations the disclosure of which might persuade them to see reason, and switch their vote to Mr. Gore.

The Florida Supreme Court hands down an opinion based upon a concept more compatible with Soviet ideology than Anglo-American jurisprudence: "The will of the people, not a hyper-technical reliance on statutory provisions, should be our guiding principle." The court extends the recount deadline--there have been multiple recounts now--but on Thanksgiving Day Mr. Gore, anticipating still not enough votes to win, reverses his earlier stance and says he won't abide by the count. He then heads back to court to convince judges to manipulate the dimples and chads in his favor.

The national television media are struck dumb throughout. Their vast resources turn a blind eye to the manipulation of an election. No "60 Minutes," "20/20" or objectiveanalysis journalism; no incredulous Ed Bradley or solemn Dan Rather discussing the Scotch-taping of chads. Their silence encourages the view that the end justifies the means.

Surely it is time to draw the line, to stand upon principle and the rule of law. There is no need to apologize for an honest count in Florida any more than Republican House members should apologize for impeaching President Clinton or Marcia Clark for prosecuting O.J. Simpson. It is time to reject firmly the miasma of the Florida Supreme Court that some ethereal "will of the people" should replace legislatively enacted statutes as the law of the land.

A lot is at stake here. A presidency, yes, but more important is history's indelible lesson that in a civil society the end cannot justify the means. We have taken the wrong fork in the road with Bork and Thomas and Clinton and Gore. We should not tread a single step further. If we do not correct our mistake now, when? And if not in a presidential election, where?

Mr. du Pont, a former governor of Delaware, is policy chairman of the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis. His column will appear Wednesdays.

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