Al Gore, Self-Made Statesman

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Gore will address the nation tonight

At 9 p.m. ET on Day 36, Al Gore is going to try to live up to our rosiest expectations of him, and bow out like a good politician, not a good lawyer.

The politician was the part of him we liked least during the campaign — the changes of clothes and changes of heart, the pandering and the polling and the maneuvering. And the blood lust, by which George W. Bush's many failings somehow began to look like Al Gore's fault.

Then we met Gore's lawyers, led by the imperturbably brilliant David Boies, who was heroic for a lawyer but made lousy company for a would-be statesman. And Gore, his cause completely wrapped up in theirs, made few successful attempts to distinguish himself from his legal lieutenants and their try-anything battle plan, which even a non-president must sometimes do for appearances' sake.

There was his refusal to join the absentee-ballot lawsuits in Seminole and Martin counties, but Gore closed that gap himself last Tuesday, when he was roaming the airwaves in search of political cover for some route around Judge Sauls.

There was his first major hollow political offer, back in November, for a statewide hand recount, and the constant and often eloquent calls to "count all the votes." He must hope we will remember those for their principle rather than their application, because neither was a request his lawyers ever bothered to make before a court. (By Monday's oral arguments, the mantra and its disconnect had even become a joke to Justice Souter. And to Boies.)

There was one good moment — Gore's Nov. 22 afterthought forswearing the support of any Bush electors should his legal effort run out of courts and time. From this non-election's first Tuesday night to its last, Gore has claimed to have only rightful victory on his mind, but that was a prescient bit of pre-statesmanship that will be to his credit tonight.

Gore and his lawyers tried everything. They blessed the canvassing boards that found many Gore votes and sued the ones that found few. They charmed the Florida Supreme Court into delaying certification and conjuring a protest phase, then argued when they lost it that it had meant nothing. De novo. With every defeat, start fresh and never mind the ironies. That's the rule of law.

And after a cacophonous United States Supreme Court eked out an epitaph for Gore, that Florida law gave Gore neither the time nor the infrastructure for a statewide hand count that met the constitutional requirements of a statewide presidential election, some of his lawyers still saw daylight. The 12th was a false deadline, and since the Rehnquist Five had in the name of judicial propriety returned the case for retooling, there was still a chance for a Hail Mary back in Tallahassee.

And that's where Gore and his lawyers finally parted company. The man who wouldn't think about quitting ceased Tuesday night to think about litigating. He went to bed having consulted only Tipper, and let what little post-SCOTUS suspense there was percolate until morning. If you wanted closure when midnight struck and the "safe harbor" Rehnquist chose was a dry bed, it was possible to think the lowest of Gore. Would he call the U.S. Supreme Court "no controlling legal authority," and make one last end run?

No. Wednesday morning he sent out the word that the recount shop was closed, and made it known that 9 p.m. was concession time — and the speech would not only be easy on the ears but, at 10 minutes, easy on the attention span too. Gore, of course, is writing it himself.

This is an opportunity for Restraint. Explain why you fought, not why you should have won it. Why it's over now, why your supporters should call Bush their president, and why the country must call it an election and move on. Add a little humanity, a few flags and plenty of honey, and America will gush gratitude, at least until you're gone.

After five weeks of Rashomonic court cases, shrinking candidates and disappearing dignity, the bar could hardly be lower. Gore and his lawyers helped lower it. And if his 10-minute farewell to the battle for the White House his the right notes, he can be the guy to raise it a little on his way out.

Let Bush try to clear it.