Be Careful What You Wish For

It's a fantasy to believe a Gore presidency would have looked nothing like the Bush presidency. 

Al Gore and Tipper Gore

In the end, it might not have mattered much which man was in the White House

I used to play a guilty-pleasure game with a fellow leftist, in which we asked ourselves which American election would have been best decided "the other way." The most appalling unintended conclusion we reached was that Nixon really ought to have beaten Kennedy in 1960. After all, there'd be a sporting chance that the proven anticommunist Nixon would not have felt such a strong need to prove himself at the Bay of Pigs, or in Indochina. We would have also been spared much mushy "Camelot" sentimentality. Kennedy could have got the treatment for Addison's disease that he so clearly needed, instead of getting by on drug cocktails furnished by "Dr. Feelgood." Conceivably, a Richard Nixon who did not darkly believe that the Kennedy clan had paid to help steal the vote would be a Richard Nixon with fewer demons. And, at the very worst, Tricky Dicky would have been a retired politician by the end of January 1969. My friend and I looked at each other with a sudden access of horror, and then went back to hating Nixon and all his works all over again.

So the business of remolding history nearer to the heart's desire is a very vertiginous one. And you have to decide what price you are prepared to pay for what you want. To take what you might call a macro-example: how best to stop the rise of Adolf Hitler? The only way to make absolutely certain is to let the British and French lose the First World War, or at least to make a deal with Germany by 1916 (in which case you would never have had to hear about a communist seizure of power in Moscow, either). To offer a more recent and less epochal instance: if you want Barack Obama in the Oval Office, be glad that you didn't vote to send Sen. John Kerry there last time. 

What you can't do is change only one thing, or have it both ways at once. In his Intruder in the Dust William Faulkner describes the fantasy of every white Southern boy: that somehow the fatal order for Pickett to charge Little Round Top at Gettysburg was countermanded at the last moment. Without that self-inflicted calamity, so the faithful believe, the Confederacy would have been within a short march of Washington. But the sheer fact is that the South could never have outgunned or outproduced the Union, and the cause of slavery was doomed even in the medium run. I once read a very clever "what if?" essay by the historian Christopher Hollis, who argued that if the British had not so cruelly shot the Irish rebel leadership--Connolly, Pearse, and the other firebrands--after the Easter Rising of 1916, Ireland might have become pacified. He completely forgot to mention that if these popular leaders had not been executed, they would have still been alive!

With some of this in mind, what of the millennial election? Picture, if you will, that hairbreadth contest being decided the other way. The Republicans at once become entitled to claim that an incumbent vice president who couldn't carry his own state, or any other Southern one, after eight years in office, shouldn't get the benefit of a technical "tie." Whoever has "won," there is a good case for saying that Gore has not. Then picture the rancid resentment about the withdrawal of his election-night concession, the judge-shopping in Florida, and all the rest of it. Nixon's rage about Cook County in Illinois in 1960 is replicated, but on a more than personal scale. At the very least this means that the new president is confronted with a very malcontent Republican wing of Congress. The Kyoto treaty has already failed to attain the ratification of the Senate (or to be fair, even to get close to doing so), but now it's well and truly toast. Nor would I wager much of my own money on any Supreme Court nominees that the White House cares to advance. 

This is relatively small-change partisan stuff, perhaps (unless you think that Al Gore would somehow have found a way to preempt it all), but the Qaeda death squads are already well inside the territory of the United States, and on September 11 they pull off their devastatingly simple plan. The president is not at a school in Florida. Let's say he's at a groundbreaking for some establishment that is going to make solar panels. It makes little difference: the Secret Service still takes over and spirits him away, with the result that he looks weak and frightened on the very day he most needs to look tough. Now, you have to picture the pressure from the already infuriated right. The new president has already backed his predecessor's Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, putting many extraordinary powers in the hands of our police and security agencies. He's made many a harsh speech on the subject of Middle Eastern terrorism. He and his vice president from Connecticut have between them the most solid history of pro-Israel voting in the whole United States Senate. It is not a time to look wimpish. The mind begins--does it not?--to boggle. It's even possible to doubt that Afghanistan would have gone uninvaded, or that suspected terrorists would be tried in courts in downtown Manhattan. Might well not have happened . . . 

Gore does have an overwhelming trump card to play against the Republican drumbeaters. In all the 2000 presidential debates with his now-defeated Texan rival, he has stuck up for the use of American troops in nation-building overseas, and deflected Bush's critical questions about the Clinton-Gore administration's use of "secret evidence" in terrorism trials. (This is worth looking up, by the way.) Moreover, and since breaking ranks to vote for the Desert Storm operation in 1991, he has often said in public that the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq will have to go sooner or later, and perhaps sooner. He is associated with those in the Senate who passed the Iraq Liberation Act, making this objective into official American policy. With a deftly calculated counterstroke, ably supported by fighting speeches from his vice president, Gore preempts and defangs the hawks and seizes the high ground of "America versus the terrorists." This high ground also happens to constitute the long-cherished "middle ground." The president's principal point--that terrorists will find no refuge and that states that even look at us the wrong way will be on the receiving end of retaliation--swiftly becomes baptized as "the Gore doctrine." As a well-known advocate and friend of the United Nations, the chief executive has little difficulty in reminding the world body of its long and shameful record of unenforced resolutions in the matter of Mesopotamia.

Now I look back to the naughty game I used to play with my old comrade, and review what I have just written, and I can't for the life of me see the element of "what if?" in any of the above. 

Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair.

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