Remember Florida!


Down and Dirty:

By Jake Tapper.

Little, Brown and Company.

Remember those 37 wonderful post-election days last year, with the whole country riveted by the mess in Florida? The endless jokes about hanging and pregnant chads. Those James Baker press conferences, where President Bush-the-elder’s former right-hand hatchet man righteously intoned that the election was being “stolen” (stolen!). Every night, the cable gods–MSNBC’s and CNN’s political hosts, all inside-the-Beltway hacks like Chris Matthews–barely hiding their smirking disdain for Al Gore while analyzing every rumor, spin, and hint of candidate weakness. Live reports of “breaking” news from Tallahassee, Palm Beach, Miami, etc., etc., etc. God, what a nightmare! It was so horrible, why would anyone want to relive it?

Well, if you believe the maxim that those who forget history are condemned to re-live it (no, not Florida again!) then Jake Tapper’s new, almost-instant, insider’s take on the sad 2000 post-election campaign tale isn’t a bad place to start remembering. It’s lively, well written, and with chapter titles like “Palm Beach County is a Pat Buchanan stronghold,” “That limp-dicked motherfucker,” and “We’re fucked!,” supplies a hip, you-are-there, wry perspective where almost no one gets away with the normal political spin.

Surprisingly, though, this detailed reliving of the Florida horror show contains fewer revelations than a single Bush-the-younger presidential press conference. Much of this is familiar ground to those political junkies among us who couldn’t turn off their TVs last November and December.

So why read Tapper’s book? Well, there is one very big possible “smoking gun” here, some fascinating “what ifs,” lots of local color, and a litany of evidence of just how lazy (or biased) the mainstream press was during the entire sordid affair.

The smoking gun revolves around military absentee ballots sent in from overseas. Note here that George W. Bush’s winning margin, at the time that the United States Supreme Court stopped the counting, was 154 votes. Remember that number.

And remember the dispute over absentee ballots, most of which were assumed to be overseas military Bush supporters. Well, it seems that the Monday after the election, only 446 overseas military ballots had reached the various county election boards. By Thursday, that number had climbed to 2,575. The next day it was up to 3,733. Florida Democrats were suspicious, especially considering the relative speed of normal military mail. That’s 3,287 absentee ballots sent in from overseas sailors, airmen, soldiers, and Marines that turned up in Florida a week or more after the election. Or 3,133 more votes than W’s winning margin. Are you with me here?

According to Tapper, the Bush absentee ballot team, run by Warren Tompkins, conference-called Republican-political operatives across Florida three or four days after the election. Tompkins, it turns out, was the master mind behind the scorched earth, dirty-tricks-to-beat-all-dirty-tricks South Carolina primary campaign against John McCain (that wonderful contest in which Bush surrogates claimed that McCain had given VD to his wife and fathered a child with an African-American woman). During the conference call, he and his people reportedly discussed having operatives abroad and near military bases contact (using voter registration ID numbers specifying party registration and race) and encourage military personnel who hadn’t sent in their absentee ballots by Election Day to do so. Late. Send them in and the Bush team would argue the late postmarks later.

None of the sources that Tapper names would return calls on this matter. Several news organizations are now pursuing leads. Maybe it’ll lead nowhere. But remember that while things like the design of the butterfly ballots are just the product of stupidity, voter fraud is illegal. And folks high up the food chain in presidential campaigns don’t usually discuss voter fraud as an option. People go to jail for this.

The biggest Tapper “what if” is the speech Al Gore never made. The weekend after the election, Gore was prepared to go on nationwide television and offer Bush a trade: Forsake challenging the many reported irregularities (butterfly ballots, African-Americans kept from the polls, flawed lists of supposed “felons” that also kept numbers of legally registered voters from the polls, registrars allowing local GOP officials to correct misinformation on their people’s absentee ballots, etc.). In return, both sides would agree to a statewide hand recount. Seize the high ground early, allow a process that would end the dispute quickly, and whoever wins, wins.

But Lieberman and a majority of Gore’s hired campaign guns talked him out of it, arguing they needed to keep all their options in play. Big mistake. Huge mistake. Thus, for a month, they asked for recounts in just four heavily Democratic counties, sounding as partisan as Bush’s people. And by the time Gore came around to calling for a statewide recount (even that was just recounting ballots that had been counted as “no votes” statewide, ignoring the even larger number of supposed “overvotes”), it was the last minute, it smacked of desperation, and the Supreme Court was getting ready to hold a little election of its own.

Sprinkled throughout are the tidbits of information and local color that must make living in motels, eating bad food, and hanging out near George W.’s publicity brigade almost seem like fun. Such as:

When the Florida court ordered that ballots from Miami-Dade and Palm Beach be transported up to Tallahassee, none other than the designer of the infamous West Palm Beach butterfly ballot drove the yellow ballot-filled Ryder truck from West Palm! The Gore observer who trailed the vans driven from Miami was named Chad! And when the drive north by the truck and vans got the news choppers/O.J. Ford Bronco coverage by networks, an AP reporter dug deep and found the real O.J., now a Florida resident (and perhaps a Florida voter?) who judged the news coverage “boring.”

While a phalanx of Florida Republicans were willing to do battle for George W. and their Governor Jeb, the few Democratic politicians elected statewide in Florida were missing in action. The most prominent of them, Attorney General Butterworth, was so useless that he was affectionately known as “Butterworthless” by the Gore team.

While all the rumors of a Katherine Harris/Jeb Bush love affair were just sleaze spread by someone high up in the Gore operation, Harris was essentially taking commands from the Bush camp. (Did you ever doubt this?) And she herself had a checkered past, including getting herself elected Florida’s secretary of state by tagging her opponent as the beneficiary of illegal contributions from insurance execs, though her own campaign manager was later named as an unindicted co-conspirator by federal prosecutors in the same scam.

The man most responsible for the successful Bush strategy of preparing to go to the Supreme Court all along, was D.C. super-conservative lawyer Ted Olson, recently rewarded with the job of Solicitor General. What I didn’t know was that Olson is the same great guy who successfully represented the four students who sued the University of Texas Law School in the Hopwood case, overturning UT’s affirmative-action policy. This was when he wasn’t helping to ‘run’ the Arkansas Project, the multimillion-dollar investigation into President Clinton’s life funded by a right-wing billionaire.

And then there was the press “coverage.”

Throughout the after-campaign, press and pundits alike repeatedly cited the gracious, noble example of Richard Nixon in 1960, who refused to contest possible voting irregularities in Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago and LBJ’s Texas, and let his razor-thin loss to John F. Kennedy stand for the good of the country. The implication was “Why wasn’t Al Gore as classy?” Turns out, Nixon wasn’t so classy either. The Nixon campaign sent lawyers to all of the disputed places (including one lawyer, Fred Barlit, who would be instrumental in W’s successful defense in Florida 40 years later), laying the groundwork for challenges and lawsuits. They only pulled back in December of 1960 when they figured out that their efforts were not likely to succeed. All of this history could easily have been accessed by reading newspaper articles from back then on microfilm in any library.

Press coverage of the “spontaneous” demonstrations in Florida was, likewise, less than rigorous. As Tapper points out again and again, almost every voter “protest” against the Democratic attempts to “steal” the election (and most of the people holding Sore/Loserman signs in seemingly every TV reporter’s standup shot) were paid Bush campaign staffers or “volunteers” whose day jobs involved working for various Republican officials around the country.

I suppose this ranked with the “coverage” of those constant Republican charges that there were numerous cases of tampering with ballots in the hand recounts that did take place. Tapper found that there were actually no substantiated cases of tampering, not a single one–and many examples of local Republicans who took part in the recount process being pissed off by the charges by Bush surrogates.

Beyond that, Tapper reminds us, over and over, that the Bush spin team continually spit out statements about voting behavior that most first-year political science grad students would know were ludicrous. For the record, it would be very unusual if more people choose not to vote for president, the choice at the top of the ballot, than to not vote for down-ballot, lesser offices. And as for the argument that counting votes by hand is inherently more biased and less accurate than counting by any manner of automation, the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature recently voted to ban punch card ballot machines (goodbye hanging chads) and mandate hand recounts of any election where the margin of victory was less than a quarter of one percent.

And finally, let’s go back to that dispute on military absentee ballots. Remember how the Bush campaign marched out Bob Dole and Norman Schwarzkopf, accusing the Gore campaign of attempting to throw out the ballots of our loyal men and women serving their country overseas? Their accusations stemmed from an internal Gore team memo detailing a strategy for challenging overseas ballots without the necessary postmarks. Turns out, though, that well before the Dems started worrying about military ballots for Bush, the Republicans actually feared that the bulk of Florida’s overseas absentee ballots would be coming from American Jews living in Israel, all gaga over Joe Lieberman and voting for Gore. In a preemptive strike, Tapper recounts that former Florida Secretary of State Jim Smith (a Republican predecessor of Katherine Harris) had held a press conference and demanded that Florida law be followed, with all ballots without proper postmarks (on or before Election Day) and the necessary verification be thrown out. Exactly what the Democratic memo (“leaked” by the Bush campaign) was later creamed over. I suppose one might ask why no one in the press mentioned the fact that the Bushies has actually taken the same position–and in a public press conference.

This, of course, is water under the press bridge. It was clear that the political press despised Gore (for his personality–or lack thereof–and the sins of Clinton). And if you subscribe to the piranha theory of press coverage, then Gore’s blood was in the Florida water from the moment George W’s cousin, John Ellis, the Fox News Channel’s election decision chief (!), called the state for W on election night. Better press treatment in Florida would probably have been a miracle.

So beyond liking Tapper’s book (while hating having to relive the history itself), what’s this all mean?

Lessons from this horrible campaign and result were lost in the glare of the Florida epic nightmare. Against all the conventional media wisdom (who seemed to totally buy into Karl Rove’s notion that W was on the way to a landslide victory) and an ultimately uninspiring Gore campaign (Couldn’t he mention eight years of peace and prosperity just once in the debates? Couldn’t he let the Big Dog campaign in Arkansas for a whole week to nail down that state’s six electoral votes?), unions, minorities, and core Democrats were motivated and turned out in surprising strength. They ignored the flaws in the candidate and responded to a classic “liberal” campaign (no tax cuts to the rich, no big cuts in government programs, no getting rid of government in regulating the economy and other important matters). Let’s not forget the Democratic wave in the United States Senate contests in which only a freak snowstorm in Montana (and whatever life support systems are hooked up to Strom Thurmond) prevented a Democratic takeover of that body on election night.

Gore’s surprising strength in Florida, long a Republican lock in presidential elections, also indicated that the Census, long term, may be on the side of Democratic (and more progressive) politics. Just look at what’s happening in Texas right now. The landslide victories of Ed Garza and Ray Caballero in recent mayoral elections in San Antonio and El Paso may be just the initial wave of the changing electorate. It’ll be interesting to see what happens if Tony Sanchez actually runs for governor next year. The real story, with future implications, may not be whether a Sanchez-motivated Hispanic turnout elects John Sharp as Lt. Guv, but what surprising folks get elected to school boards in the Panhandle and as state reps in places where there weren’t supposed to be so many Mexican-American voters.

And let’s not forget that Ralph Nader helped elect George W. Bush president. I’m assuming that as Bush fills his administration with industry lobbyists and pro-business advocates and prepares his choices for the Supreme Court vacancies to come, there must be a few hundred of the approximately 97,000 Nader voters in Florida who wish they’d voted differently.

I gave a copy of Tapper’s book to a friend of mine here in Austin, someone who spent the entire 37 days in Florida as an unofficial Gore worker. To protect his identity, let’s call him Deep Democrat. I asked “DD” what he thought. He thought it was pretty good. Thought that Tapper’s judgmental style, skewering everyone, made it a fun read. But he also said that it was easy, in hindsight, to find fault in the Democrats’ efforts in Florida. What they tried to do–especially pushing for recounts in just the most Democratic counties–made sense at the time. It could be done quickly. It seemed doable in a state whose entire power structure was stacked up against them. They did the best they could under the circumstances.

Democratic operative-turned-Bush-opportunist Mark McKinnon, in last month’s Texas Monthly, advised Democrats to get over Florida, that “your time and energy would be better spent thinking about the future agenda of a directionless party rather than wandering around Florida like an old man on the beach with a metal detector, searching for chads.” Funny stuff. But there is a certain wisdom in what he writes. Even if the Dems had kept the election out of the Supreme Court, there was no guarantee of a positive Gore result in the recounts. The consortium of newspapers that examined 176,000 disputed punch card ballots in Florida found that if you only counted ballots with two or more corners of a chad detached, Bush won by 400 votes. If you counted dimpled chads, Gore won by 332. No clear conclusion. To have hoped that Gore would “win” the battle in Florida, given the odds stacked against him, was probably a pipe dream to begin with.

But does that mean that we should forget what happened in Florida? I
don’t think so. And “Remember Florida!” is just fine as
battle slogan–but for fighting the next battle, not wallowing in the last one.

Paul Stekler, whose last film was George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire, teaches filmmaking at the University of Texas, where he’s currently working on a film on the 2002 Texas elections.