HONG KONG — It was with a sense of sickening dread that one heard, not the result of the U.S. presidential election, but the news that at least 50 high-powered (and highly priced) lawyers were hastening to the state of Florida on behalf of the Democratic Party, quickly followed by a similar squad representing the Republicans.

A brisk Florida recount was imperative. But it was most unlikely the lawyers, once unleashed, would stop at that.

Sure enough, numerous complaints about the electoral process hastily surfaced, and equally numerous court cases have as quickly been filed. Already, the litigation in prospect could serve to keep those 100 lawyers busy for months, especially if it were to involve appeals as far as the Supreme Court.

So the threat arises that the result of the presidential election will be held in abeyance way past Jan. 20, 2001, when the 43rd president is due to be sworn in. The U.S. obviously faces a clear and present danger: the undue politicization of the legal process, plus the excessive legalization of the political process. Excessive litigiousness risks delegitimizing the next government of the world’s most powerful nation.

Traditionally, the deep political divisions in a normal democracy fade away after Election Day, once the results are all in. But discord can only multiply if, instead, those political divisions continue to fester, amid unending questioning of the election result itself.

So does history offer any solace, any comfort that American democracy will not be swamped in a deluge of litigation? any hope that sanity will soon prevail over excessive partisanship?

In fact, history itself has been sadly subjected to the partisanship, with some American commentators lauding what Richard Nixon did in 1960 and others decrying it. They have argued (once again) whether what Nixon did was patriotic or self-serving, while ignoring what he said.

In 1960, amid clear (and later compelling) evidence of widespread voter fraud, Nixon came under intense pressure to open the same Pandora’s box of legal questioning and political partisanship that has been opened in 2000.

On election eve, a Kennedy victory was widely assumed. But all night long his early lead of well over a million votes was steadily reduced to under half a million. Kennedy led in the Electoral College count, but even that appeared vulnerable.

Although Nixon did not know the full details at the time, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (ironically, the father of Al Gore’s campaign manager) was holding back the count in Cook County until the rest of Illinois voted, so he would know how many votes he had to produce in order to get Illinois into Kennedy’s column. In Cook County, the dead often voted.

Similarly, in Lyndon Johnson’s Texas, several precincts had many more voters than were actually registered. If Texas and Illinois could be subtracted from Kennedy’s Electoral College count — well, anything was possible.

In these murky circumstances, Nixon refrained from making the traditional concession speech even though he was being pressed by the pro-Kennedy media to do just that. He merely went on TV to admit that “if the present voting trends continue,” Kennedy would be the next president.

The next morning, the voting margins had narrowed, the stories of fraud had multiplied. Nixon came under renewed pressure from the Republican senator from Illinois, Everett Dirksen, to demand a recount of the total vote and to not make a concession statement. Crucially, Dirksen reminded Nixon that once he conceded, “voting records would be destroyed or otherwise disappear, and a recount would become forever impossible.”

Partisan advantage suggested to Nixon that he should take this advice, but he was also aware of the national interest. As he put it much later in his memoirs “We had made a serious mistake in not having taken precautions against such a situation, but it was too late now.

“A (full) presidential recount would require up to half a year, during which time the legitimacy of Kennedy’s election would be in question. The effect could be devastating to America’s foreign relations. I could not subject the country to such a situation.

“And what if I demanded a recount and it turned out that despite the voter fraud Kennedy had still won? Charges of ‘sore loser’ would follow me through history and remove any possibility of a future political career. After considering these and many other factors, I made my decision and sent Kennedy a telegram conceding the election.”

In an earlier book, “Six Crises,” written closer to the event, Nixon indicated what some of those “other factors” were. His words have a strong bearing on the present crisis, as the Florida recount spawns numerous court cases and the Republicans threaten to call for recounts in other states (New Mexico, Wisconsin, Iowa, Oregon) where the margins are very small.

“If I were to demand a recount,” Nixon wrote, “the organization of the new Administration and the orderly transfer of responsibility from the old to the new might be delayed for months.

“The situation within the entire Federal Government would be chaotic. Those in the old Administration would not know how to act — or with what clear powers and responsibilities — and those being appointed to positions in the new Administration would have the same difficulty making any plans.

“The bitterness that would be engendered by such a maneuver would have incalculable and lasting damage throughout the country.

“And finally I could think of no worse example for nations abroad, especially those who were trying to put free electoral procedures into effect, than that of the United States wrangling over the results of our presidential election and even suggesting that the presidency itself could be stolen by thievery at the ballot box.

“It is difficult enough to get defeated candidates in some of the newly independent countries to abide by the verdict of the electorate. If we could not continue to set a good example in this respect in the United States I could see that there would be open season for shooting at the validity of free elections throughout the world.”

It is seldom that history speaks with such a clear and compelling voice. Nixon warns of the dangers that face Gore and George W. Bush if they persist too long on their present course. But those 100, or more, high-priced lawyers in Florida are still happily opening Pandora’s box.

Now that this incredibly close election has ended in this unsatisfactory way, Gore and Bush will have to demonstrate a greater degree of statesmanship after the election than they have demonstrated during it.

Before it is too late, either Gore or Bush must act on the assumption that “magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom” — even if it means forsaking the ambition to be president of the United States.

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