President-elect Bush’s Great Opportunity
By C. Peter Magrath
President-elect Bush has a marvelous opportunity to confound his critics and truly unify the nation — in a way precisely opposite to the actions of Rutherford B. Hayes, who gained the presidency in the disputed election of 1876.
Consider first the striking parallels between the 1876 election in which Hayes became president as a consequence of a 185- to -184 Electoral College defeat of Samuel Tilden, and the contested election of 2000 in which George W. Bush will become president by prevailing in the Electoral College over Al Gore by a vote of 271 to 267. Not only did the Electoral College loser win the popular vote by approximately 300,000 in each of these two elections, but in both cases the ultimate outcome was dictated by actions of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Early in 1877, the 8-7 decision in favor of the Hayes electors — reached by the Electoral Commission that Congress had cobbled together — was based on the swing vote of one of the five Supreme Court justices serving on the Commission. In 2000, it was in effect a 5-4 Supreme Court vote that ultimately ratified the Bush electors.
Obviously, there are profound differences between the United States today and in 1876, but there also are similarities that present a great opportunity for George W. Bush. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the nation was still suffering from the wounds of the Civil War. Partisan differences were even more bitter than today, and the nation remained split over the issue of providing justice and equity to the recently freed slaves.
Unfortunately, the commitment of the Republicans to racial equality and justice was fast disappearing, while the Democrats were pro-(White) Southern. And there were real concerns as to whether a Hayes presidency could promote some kind of national unity and reconciliation.
In a sense that happened, but at great cost. The price extracted by the Democratic supporters of Tilden for backing off and accepting the Electoral Commission judgments was the Compromise of 1877, in which it was understood that the remaining Union forces would be removed from the South and that Reconstruction and solid protection of Black voting rights would end. Although nominally the Republicans still supported voting and other rights for the newly freed slaves, their commitment was a pale shadow of what it had been only a few years earlier. The result? Hayes united the country geographically while splitting it on racial lines. Although Hayes was a credible, if not outstanding president, and the Supreme Court suffered no serious damage from its members’ decisive participation in the 1876 election, the nation is still living with the effects of the Compromise of 1877.
In the year 2000, there is a centrist political stability in the United States with one glaring exception — the continuing inequities and underrepresentation of our minorities, especially the African American and Hispanic populations. Far too many of these individuals are excluded from the fruits of American prosperity in this new millennium. Moreover, for reasons we can debate endlessly, millions of African Americans feel that their votes and their legitimate desire for a Gore presidency have been trashed by cynical political and legal maneuvering. And one fact is indisputable — Bush received only about 8 percent of the Black vote, the lowest such margin for a Republican presidential contender since Barry Goldwater received about 4 percent in 1964.
This represents a deep and painful — and potentially destructive — rent in the American fabric. And it is also President-elect Bush’s great opportunity, to in effect repair the damage left over from 1877 and unite the country both geographically and racially. Bush has an opportunity to promote national unity and racial progress in at least two ways critically important to the well being of the American republic.
First, now that Bush has made some notable appointments at the cabinet level — including the estimable Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, and as Secretary of Education, Roderick Paige — he can turn his attention to filling subcabinet positions with individuals who not only symbolically but also substantively support diversity and strive for racial equity. He also can name other African American and Hispanic appointees to fill a wide variety of key positions in the federal bureaucracy — especially those that will directly, and we hope positively, impact the quality and diversity of higher education. Second, Bush, playing off one of the key themes discussed by both sides during the presidential campaign, can truly invest not only rhetoric but significant resources in improving and strengthening American education at all levels, from kindergarten through the university. This is clearly one of the keys to providing all individuals with equal rights to participate fully in American society.
If our new president moves quickly to indicate that his presidency will work for racial justice and inclusiveness and for the support and improvement of education, the ultimate outcomes of the Contested Election of 2000 will be incomparably better than the compromises and outcomes that flowed from the Disputed Election of 1876. And then the real winner would truly be the American people.
— C. Peter Magrath is the president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. He is the author of a
biography of Supreme Court Chief Justice
Morrison R. Waite, whose court played a major role in the 1876 presidential election.
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