"THIS IS A SOLEMN and most momentous occasion," President Reagan began his first inaugural address 20 years ago next January, "and yet, in the history of our Nation, it is a commonplace occurrence. The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place as it has for almost two centuries and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle."
A bit less eloquently but with the authenticity of experience, Robert Pastor of Emory University, a veteran foreign elections monitor, told the New York Times this week, "What I remember most is people in all these countries asking me at some critical point, 'How do you do it in America? Why are there no problems there?' "
There are problems now.
For the first time since Reconstruction, the losing candidate in a presidential election has undertaken to change the outcome by any means necessary. When the election night tally in Florida showed Al Gore narrowly losing the state and with it the Electoral College, tradition called for him to accept the nation's verdict with grace. But instead of bowing to that verdict, he unleashed a massive campaign to discredit it.
Within hours of his retracted concession, Gore's fixers had the smoke machine going full-blast. Before long there was talk of the "confusing" Palm Beach County ballot and the high Buchanan vote and the 19,000 ballots disqualified for being double-punched. Jesse Jackson lofted claims of racial vote suppression. The NAACP solicited "testimony" on civil rights violations. When a machine recount confirmed Gore's defeat, the Democrats demanded recounts by hand -- but only in counties that had gone Democratic. When the secretary of state invoked the law requiring counties to report their vote totals within a week of the election, the Gore spokesmen angrily likened her to a Soviet commissar.
Meanwhile the Gore high command has given its approval to lawsuits filed by disgruntled voters. It refuses to say if it would accept the results of the hand recounts as final if they left George W. Bush still in the lead. Nothing, it seems, will be accepted by Team Gore save an official count that gives Florida's 25 Electoral College votes to the vice president.
And all the while, aides to Gore intone that it is "the will of the people" that he be the next president since he received a plurality of the aggregate vote. This is eyewash, of course; the one thing the election proved is that "the will of the people" is split right down the middle. On Election Day, the difference between Bush and Gore came to less than two-10ths of 1 percent of the vote. In any case, under the Constitution the popular vote tally is of no significance in naming a president. Only the Electoral College result matters.
But the constant reptition will have its effect. If Bush becomes president, a large swath of the public will believe that he won the job on a technicality. His tenure will be tainted from the start. Likewise Gore. If he wins this fight, many Americans will regard him as a fraud, a man who lost the election, then vote-rigged his way into the White House.
But the danger in Gore's assault goes much deeper. It threatens to undermine the marvel that Reagan celebrated at his inauguration -- the American legacy of accepting without challenge the transfer of government power from one political party to another. We take it for granted that the commander-in-chief of the mightiest army on earth, the leader of the world's foremost power, will step aside without protest when it is time for his successor to be sworn in -- even if his successor is a bitter political foe.
It happened for the first time in US history on March 4, 1801, when President John Adams, a Federalist, was replaced by Republican Thomas Jefferson. The election campaign had been poisonous; each side had viciously attacked the other, and many Federalists were enraged at the thought of losing the White House. Some of them schemed to block Jefferson's inauguration. When word got out, Jefferson's supporters prepared to mobilize state militias and force the Federalists to yield.
In the end, the inauguration proceeded without incident. Adams left the White House. Jefferson uttered his famous call for reconciliation: "Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. . . . We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists." And for 200 years, this has been the American way: We struggle furiously for control of the executive branch, but on Election Day the fury ends. The loser congratulates the victor, and the nation unites in support of its president-elect.
This tradition has been a linchpin of presidential authority and of our political stability. In breaking with it, Gore has undercut the legitimacy of the office he craves, and done his nation a grave disservice. The United States will endure and so will the presidency. But both are diminished now. Whether he becomes president or not, Albert Gore Jr. has left his mark on
Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist.