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Primping for the presidency

(TIME.com) -- George W. Bush surprised more than a few pundits Sunday night by making what amounted to a 19-day-old acceptance speech after Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris certified his 537-vote victory in Florida. But look at his choices in this post-election Mr. President pageant: spend the next five days as a lowly candidate or make them work for you as a putative president-elect intent on beginning the delicate work of reuniting a divided nation.

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For Bush, it was a no-brainer.

"All of us in this election fought for our views. Now we must live up to our principles. We must show our commitment to the common good, which is bigger than any person or any party. We cannot change yesterday, but we share a responsibility for tomorrow," Bush said.

It's a tricky posture. Monday, the Bush camp was denied the use of the official White House transition office, and was forced to make noises about opening one of their own. Word has it that Colin Powell, the presumptive secretary of state, thought that it was too early for his name to be added to the transition list that now includes Cheney as head of the transition and Andy Card as chief of staff. But like the upcoming Supreme Court hearing that Bush asked for and is now pretending to have forgotten, a premature acceptance speech presented much to gain and little to lose.

Bush didn't get many performance points. The speech's best lines were deflated by choppy pacing, and it seemed written on his face that he needed a larger-print Teleprompter. But the message was forward-looking and above all conciliatory, outlining bipartisan ground on education, health care and Social Security. But Bush's job was to whet the public appetite for the next administration -- his -- and politely offer Gore a clear road out of town.

The offer had the three key elements of gracious victory. Empathy: "Until Florida's votes were certified, the vice president was working to represent the interests of those who supported him." A tip of the cap to the vanquished: "This has been a hard-fought election, a healthy contest for American democracy." And the payoff: "The vice president's lawyers have indicated he will challenge the certified election results. I respectfully ask him to reconsider."

Gore had already turned Bush down in advance in Sunday's New York Times, in the form of a thoroughly planted article titled "Gore Is Said to Harbor Unshakeable Conviction That He Has Won the Election." John M. Broder's survey of Gore's "associates" included such lines as "Mr. Gore is frustrated, even embarrassed, they say, by the legal maneuvering he has set in motion in this quest to prove he won the balloting in Florida." (We know how he feels.) That was the appetizer for the Sunday shows; Gore will serve the main course Monday night at 8:55 p.m. EST.

It shouldn't be an impossible sell. Few of this pageant's judges -- the wide and semi-passionate center of the electorate -- believe that either Gore or Bush is trying to "steal" the election. Most are sympathetic to the idea of manual recounts, and those who followed the story over Thanksgiving weekend probably have some sense that the manual recount in Palm Beach, at least, did not get a fair shake. (Certainly a smirking Katherine Harris did Bush no p.r. favors by getting needlessly stingy with a legally flexible 5 p.m. deadline.)

And Gore wasn't waiting until dark -- Monday afternoon, he set up an ostentatiously televised conference call with Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle (on camera) giving the party blessing to Gore and Lieberman (disembodied voices). The spin flew so fast, it could have been an psychic-friends infomercial. Gephardt and Daschle followed up with a press conference.

But in his speech, Bush nailed Gore's problem right on the head: "Time runs short, and we have a lot of work to do." We also have Christmas shopping to do, and we want a president one of these days. Bush, in his quest to speed up the clock, is in perfect position as a candidate who ran as "a uniter, not a divider" -- and it sure looks like we could use some of that, even if we have to swallow some nagging questions to do it.

Gore, who ran as a fighter, has at least another week while the courts chew on this mess. The trick is to avoid looking like little more than a nagging question himself.

Copyright © 2000 Time Inc.


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Monday, November 27, 2000


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