Senator John Kerry
Admittedly, it is not quite as much of an achievement as being elected President of the United States. Still, John Kerry has pulled off an unprecedented Ethics Scoreboard hat trick of being named in all three special categories during 2004: Ethics Dunce, Trivial Liar, and now, Ethics Hero.
And an Ethics Hero he is. Kerry’s unselfish decision to concede the election on November 3 and his graceful and inspiring words while doing so were gifts to his nation and fellow Americans. There is no question that bitter-enders among Kerry’s staff and supporters would have liked the Senator to approve of a prolonged fishing expedition, beginning with the provisional ballots in Ohio and perhaps continuing with claims of voter fraud and intimidation, voting machine malfunctions, and demand for recounts in several states. Certainly hoards of lawyers were poised and primed for the mission, and the Democrats had the perfect alibi in place, courtesy of the 2000 Florida controversy: they had pledged that “every vote would be counted,” and thus could have conceivably justified stretching out the election while their hired guns looked for something on which to hang a protest or a lawsuit. This would have undoubtedly built on the cynicism nurtured by the Florida fiasco and further undermined citizen faith in our institutions, but “win at any cost” has been the theme of this campaign. There were plenty of Democrats willing to risk the damage if there was a wisp of a chance that they could rescue victory from the maw of defeat.
Candidate Kerry would have none of it. As important as it was, he said, to have “every vote count,” it was far more important to have the leader of the free world chosen by ballots rather than lawyers. And so he effectively ended the election, going out with a desperately-needed call for unity and an end to partisan rancor. The glory of the American system has always been exemplified by the tradition of gentle and orderly transitions of power after national elections. Close elections, such as those in 1960, 1968, and 1976, have threatened to weaken this tradition, but until the 2000 Florida vote count ended up in the courts, the losing candidate and his party always accepted the verdict of the voting booths without argument. In 2004, there was a real question in the minds of many whether the country was about to establish a new and disturbing tradition of elections drawn out by accusations and legal challenges, and until the moment that Kerry began his speech, the answer to that question was in doubt.
It could not have been easy for Kerry. However one feels about any presidential candidate, enduring the rigors of the long (in Kerry’s case, incredibly long) campaign requires a level of commitment, public spiritedness, intensity and sacrifice that most of us can hardly imagine. To go through all of this and lose must be the bitterest of pills to swallow (all right, second most bitter: Al Gore got the bitterest pill imaginable), and the temptation to postpone the final act has to be powerful. Ethical conduct often requires the acceptance of pain, and this is what Kerry’s act required. What he did he did for all of us, proving, as if there was ever any doubt, that he is a noble American, a patriot, and a good man. Nothing he did during the campaign was as important as his manner of leaving it. America owes him its thanks, and the Ethics Scoreboard owes him this salute as November’s Ethics Hero.