Is the next presidency going to be legitimate?

This question now hovers over George W. Bush. Made possible by a bare majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, his triumph is lawful -- but many Americans see it as illegitimate. Bush can look forward to wielding enormous legal power. But his moral authority is another matter.

While eagerly claiming the title of president-elect, Bush faces a huge "legitimacy gap." Its magnitude and duration remain to be seen. For much of America, his Inauguration Day seems likely to ring hollow.

Right now, this crisis of legitimacy is somewhat befuddling for large numbers of reporters and commentators. Some political journalists are indicating a sense of disorientation. And it's by no means certain how quickly or fully they'll revert to the usual media reverence for an incoming president.

In addition to notable events in Florida and transparently partisan actions by the federal Supreme Court, a key underlying fact is that Bush placed second in the nationwide popular vote. Across the country, Al Gore received about 330,000 more votes than Bush did. For the first time since 1888, the candidate who received the most votes for president has lost.

Even if nothing untoward had happened in Florida, the spectacle of the runner-up winning the presidency should have -- and probably would have -- appreciably tarnished the luster of a Bush victory. But other anti-democratic dynamics have been extreme. And we're left to assess the convergence of realpolitik forces that enabled Bush to win Florida's 25 electoral votes and the White House.

Of all the phrases that came to routinely fall from the lips and computers of journalists during the past weeks, none drips with more infuriating irony than "equal protection" -- a mantra incessantly repeated by the Bush legal team and embraced by the nation's High Court.

An unrelenting propaganda barrage promoted very circumscribed notions of what "equal protection" means. Soon, we were pushed through the media looking-glass.

It was Humpty Dumpty who proclaimed scornfully, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less." As far as Mr. Dumpty was concerned, Alice had no cause for complaint. "The question is," he said, "which is to be master -- that's all."

Equal protection. Most of the Supreme Court waxed righteous, declaring that not all votes had been treated alike. The troubled justices seemed unconcerned that -- on a much larger scale -- not all voters had been treated alike.

Equal protection. But not for people who faced a butterfly ballot.

Equal protection. But not for thousands of African-American citizens improperly purged from Florida's voting rolls.

Equal protection. But not for black Floridians who encountered hostile questions from police as they neared polling stations.

Equal protection. But not for citizens in low-income precincts who had no choice but to use antiquated punch-card voting machines -- prone to malfunction -- while voters in more affluent areas of the state were much more likely to use modern optical-scanner devices.

After the fact, newspapers including The Washington Post and The Miami Herald did some fine stories documenting that racial and economic inequities prevented many thousands of Gore votes from being tallied. Several prominent syndicated columnists, such as Bob Herbert and Arianna Huffington, explained that in Florida on Nov. 7, racism carried the Election Day.

Equal protection? Overall, journalists customarily encourage us to internalize a narrow version of the concept -- as preferred by those with the most power to define it.

A dozen years ago, speaking of George W. Bush's father, fellow Texan Jim Hightower commented: "He is a man who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple." Today, George the Second exudes his own sense of entitlement. And his wooing of the White House press corps has begun.

Backers will do all they can to instill an aura of legitimacy for the new regime. Meanwhile, most journalists are inclined to be deferential toward the nation's highest office and the man in it. And we can expect a lot of congressional Democrats to polish their patriotic images by genuflecting toward President George W. Bush on a regular basis. Only pressure from the grassroots, fueled by tenacious memory and independent thought, can deny the incoming Bush administration the national sense of legitimacy that it craves.

Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.