Old Wounds:
Bringing it all Back Home

The Moscow Times, November 14, 2000

The nation teeters on the brink of constitutional anarchy. The Democratic candidate has narrowly but clearly won the popular vote from an electorate still bitterly divided over the recent impeachment battle, when a rakish, scandal-ridden Southern president was almost ousted by the radical Republicans in control of Congress.

Now confusion reigns over the returns from Florida, where there is credible evidence of vote tampering by the Republican-run state government. The final tally shows the narrowest of margins for the laid-back Republican presidential candidate, the inexperienced governor of one of the country’s largest states. The Democratic candidate, a stiff, inept campaigner known more for his exhausting discussions of policy than his ability to glad-hand the folks, is being urged by his supporters to challenge the results to the bitter end.

The year, of course, is 1876.

For those who believe that history began the day they bought their first copy of Time Magazine (i.e., 99.9 percent of the mainstream media), the electoral morass in America this week comes as a jaw-dropping surprise. But we have been here before. In fact, it’s even fair to say that this is where we came in. For the 1876 election changed American politics in far-reaching ways, whose effects could be seen still playing themselves out in the disputed precincts of Florida on Tuesday.

And, sad to say, the results of the current imbroglio will very likely be the same as in 1876: weeks of anguished uncertainty, rancor, court fights and accusations ending in a backroom political deal to give the presidency to the second-place candidate by a single electoral vote.

The victory of the runner-up Republican, Ohio’s Rutherford B. Hayes (known forever after as “Rutherfraud”), over New York’s Samuel J. Tilden sealed the fate of America’s blacks as second-class citizens. After months of confusion over the returns from Florida and two other Southern states, the radical Republicans in Congress, having failed in 1868 to impeach Tennessee Democrat Andrew Johnson (who, like Bill Clinton, was heavily backed by the newly enfranchised black voters), struck a deal with conservative Democrats. They would end federal efforts to enforce civil rights in the defeated Confederate states and give back local control to the ex-slaveowners in exchange for their support of Hayes.

The deal was done; a special commission was set up to analyze the disputed votes, and, lo and behold, the returns for Hayes were approved. He carried Florida and thus became president by one electoral vote. Black voting rights were then rolled back, hampered or openly abolished as the old Confederates regained control.

Now, 124 years later, the election of runner-up Republican George W. Bush hangs on the outcome of the vote in Florida, where at least 20,000 black votes were thrown out, uncounted, because of alleged ballot “mistakes,” where hundreds of black university students were prevented from voting in Miami, and where armed state police set up “security roadblocks” in some black majority areas, in a bristling show of intimidation: all lingering legacies of that 1876 sweetheart deal. And if Bush’s narrow, tainted lead is upheld – by courts, Congress or “special commission” – he, like Rutherfraud, will have become president by a single electoral vote.

It seems history doesn’t always just repeat; sometimes it positively regurgitates itself.

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