How that language looks now: The following question may have currency in the coming year.
Back in November 2000, was Candidate Gore the lesser of two evils?
For ourselves, we’re inclined to think that the statement was basically foolish. That said, many people were making the statement at the time. In October 2000, that included Michael Moore, whose later film about health care we very much admired:
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS (10/14/00): Speakers assailed Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore as ideologically similar candidates in the pocket of corporate America.Was Candidate Gore the lesser of two evils? If he had gone to the White House, would we “still have ended up with evil?”
They said the two have similar views on trade, foreign policy and the war on drugs.
Mr. Moore, a filmmaker, urged the crowd not to worry that voting for Mr. Nader might help Mr. Bush by taking votes from Mr. Gore.
"The lesser of two evils, you still end up with evil," Mr. Moore said. "You don't make a decision because of fear: you make it on your hopes, your dreams, your aspirations.”
However a person chose to vote, we think those statements tilted a bit toward the foolish side. That said, the views expressed were widespread at the time.
Moore was speaking on behalf of Ralph Nader, someone else whose work we admire. Nader had repeated the “lesser of two evils” theme all through the fall of 2000. On Election Day, the New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse reported on one of his final rallies:
GREENHOUSE (11/7/00): Mr. Nader continued his day with an evening appearance at Boston University, before a crowd estimated at 4,000 supporters. At the rally, he criticized those who would vote for Mr. Gore as the lesser of two evils, saying: "If they keep settling for the lesser of two evils, at the end of the day, there's still evil.”According to Nader, a President Gore would have been “evil.” Looking back from this perspective, do you think that claim made sense?
Many voters seemed to accept this basic premise in the final months of the campaign. Also in the New York Times, Michael Cooper reported a late rally in Iowa:
COOPER (10/29/00): The students and others who packed a hall at the University of Iowa on Friday night to hear Ralph Nader, the Green Party's presidential candidate, justify his campaign simply did not want to hear any more about the possibility that they would throw the election to Gov. George W. Bush. They were so upset at being confronted with the evil of two lesser candidates, they said, that they refused to vote again for the lesser of two evils.Damn kids! That said, Rep. Fallon also seemed to have bought the premise. (In what way was Gore “to the right of Bill Clinton?” We can’t say we’re real sure.)
"This year the choice is between George W. Bush and a Democrat who is to the right of Bill Clinton," complained Ed Fallon, a Democratic state representative who introduced Mr. Nader. "I don't begrudge my friends and constituents who plan to vote for Al Gore. I understand their fear of George W. Bush. But voting against somebody isn't enough anymore. If I had three hands maybe I could hold my nose, my gut and my mouth and vote for Al Gore. But in good conscience, I can't, I won't, and you shouldn't either.”
Finally, a bit of clarity! One week earlier, a Boston voter had told the Times’ James Dao what was so “evil” about Gore:
DAO (10/23/00): In follow-up interviews yesterday, many poll respondents expressed misgivings even about candidates they intend to support.Why was Gore “the lesser of two evils,” and therefore still evil? According to Ryan, he wasn’t sufficiently warm. That meant he was “evil.”
"This is a tough vote this time," said John Ryan, 61, a high school teacher from Beverly, Mass. "The parties have stuck these two candidates in our faces and you have to take the lesser of two evils."
Although Mr. Ryan is a Democrat who plans to vote for Mr. Gore, he groused: "Gore looks like somebody molded out of clay. He's not warm or genuine. Bush might be a friendlier guy and easier to be with, but he either runs out of thoughts or runs out of ways to express them when he's asked a question."
There’s a lot more where these news reports come from. Many voters had bought the basic premise, including some who voted for Gore: as “the lesser of two evils,” Candidate Gore was “evil.”
(From the “everybody goes crazy” file, Tavis Smiley was quoted saying this on Rivera Live in mid-October: “As far as I am concerned, Bush, in Texas, is nothing more than a serial killer. But we can’t expect that much more out of Gore.”)
Last week, we saw a similar premise floating around in comments to a column by Frank Bruni. We thought Bruni’s column was poorly reasoned. But the “lesser of two evils” thinking struck us as dangerous.
Needless to say, every citizen gets to decide how to cast his or her vote. That said, we think it might be a good idea to consider the premises built into the “lesser of two evils” line.
When voters called Candidate Gore “the lesser of two evils,” they were making several related statements. They were saying that Gore was “evil” in and of himself.
Beyond that, they were saying they wouldn’t vote for someone who was “evil,” even if they thought the other candidate was more evil.
We tend to think that’s shaky thinking. We also think it may betray a hint of self-indulgence, depending on the candidates who are under discussion.
Among the major parties, next year’s election won’t provide a choice between Candidate Bush and Candidate Gore. In our view, though, it isn’t too soon to start considering the logic of “lesser of two evils” thinking.
We’ll return to this theme in the next few days. After reading the comments to Bruni’s column, it seemed to us that the time has come to think again about where this logic can take us.
Full disclosure: The future Candidate Nader attended our one-man show, Material World, at the D.C. Improv in October 1994. Needless to say, the future Candidate Gore came twice!
After the show, we sat and chatted with Candidate Nader, who we admire. If memory serves, he had the time of his life!