Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Perspective: Recounting the 2000 recount

The year 2000 was a centennial year, a millennial year and a presidential election year. Intense curiosity and anxiety greeted the arrival of the Y2K and the new millennium. Prepare for apocalyptic wrack and ruin, warned millenarians.

But the zaniness welcoming the new millennium seemed tame compared to the reality of 2000. In spasms of sensationalism and scandal, Florida lurched onto the front pages.

On Thanksgiving Day 1999, 12 Cubans drowned when their "freedom boat" capsized. The lone survivor on the perilous journey was 5-year-old Elián González. His mother died on the journey.

Offered refuge at his uncle's home in Miami, Elián become a pawn between critics who insisted he be repatriated to his family in Cuba and sympathizers who reasoned that his mother risked death so her son could revel in freedom. Amid court challenges, political grandstanding and angry crowds, federal agents seized Elián in April 2000, determined to reunite the boy with his Cuban father.

Energized and furious, comparing Immigration and Naturalization Service agents to jackbooted Nazis, Miami Cubans vowed vengeance in November. The columnist Carl Hiaasen imagined the poetic justice if "the presidential election shakes down to a single vote — an overseas ballot from Havana bearing the childlike signature of one E. Gonzalez."

A minor battlefield in 1865, Florida became a major battleground in 2000. Candidates and commentators understood that winning Florida was tantamount to victory.

Democratic candidate Al Gore chose U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate, with an eye toward Florida. At a rally in Tamarac, the candidates "used their best Yiddish," observed the New York Times. One aging voter, "a lady with silver hair and red lipstick, told America's first Jewish vice presidential candidate that kissing his hand was like kissing the Torah."

The Republican Party nominated Texas Gov. George W. Bush as standard-bearer. His younger brother, John Ellis Bush — Jeb! — served as governor of Florida. Not since the Rockefeller brothers, Nelson and Winthrop, governed New York and Arkansas had one family presided over two different states — and they did not have a father who had served as president. In his inimitable Texas delivery, CBS anchor Dan Rather opined, "You can bet that Gov. Bush will be madder than a rained-on rooster" if Jeb fails his big brother.

Swiftly and decisively, Florida's Grand Old Party had become a dominant political force. As late as 1980, Democrats held a 2-1 advantage over Republicans; both U.S. senators and the governor were Democrats. The death of Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1998 symbolized the changing of the guard, the end of a golden age when giants such as LeRoy Collins and Reubin Askew stalked the Capitol.

It was Chiles who foiled Jeb Bush's first quest for office in 1994. Just when it appeared the challenger might win the governorship, "Walkin' Lawton" debated Jeb one final time. Bristling with indignation, Chiles stared at his brash 41-year-old opponent and predicted, "The old he-coon walks just before the light of day." Chiles pulled out the victory, aided by some questionable last-minute telephone calls.

By 2000, red was the new blue. The revolution was complete: The GOP commanded Tallahassee, ruling both houses of the Florida Legislature and the executive branch. Jeb Bush had won the governorship in 1998, defeating a Democratic icon, Buddy MacKay. Once-promising Democratic stars, such as St. Petersburg's Peter Rudy Wallace, had quit politics, while a rising star such as then-Republican Charlie Crist was about to become commissioner of education.

Still, Democrats expressed high hopes for winning Florida's 25 electoral votes in 2000. After all, the party benefited from a whopping 380,000 edge in registered voters. The Cold War over, Gore pledged to invest the peace savings in Medicare and Social Security "lockboxes."

Bush and Gore crisscrossed Florida more than 30 times. The ticket was crowded. Other presidential candidates included Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan, who headed the Green and Reform parties. Nader and Buchanan supporters came largely from the liberal and conservative ranks who, like their 19th-century predecessors, preferred burning down the barn to supporting the lesser of two evils.

The big show, Bush vs. Gore, was as entertaining as it was serious. For those overwhelmed by campaign fatigue, Darrell Hammond and Will Ferrell caricatured the ponderous Gore and the bumbling Bush on Saturday Night Live.

As computers and polling became more sophisticated, election nights had become anticlimactic. Until Bush vs. Gore. Then the longest day, Nov. 7, became the longest night and led to the most melodramatic election month in American history. As the computer models crashed, NBC reporter Tim Russert was reduced to writing the name "Florida" on a whiteboard. "Get out your slates," he announced.

Early in the evening, several networks heralded that Al Gore had taken Florida. To the consternation and befuddlement of Republicans, the proclamation came as Floridians were still voting in the Central Time Zone west of the Apalachicola River. "Oh, waiter," CNN's Jeff Greenfield sighed, "One order of crow." CBS' Dan Rather called the race in Florida "hot enough to peel house paint." Shifting to New Age aphorisms, Rather described the race "as tight as a Botox smile."

The networks then projected that Bush had won a tight race, the candidates separated by only a thousand votes. Gore graciously called Bush to concede the race. But alerted that key Democratic-heavy precincts in Broward and Palm Beach counties had yet to be counted, Gore revoked his concession. In an awkward conversation, Bush explained that Jeb confirmed the vote count indicating a Republican victory. Gore replied tersely, "Your little brother is not the ultimate authority on this!" The contest officially went into overtime.

For two months, America watched the Great Recount, as the parties lawyered up, enlisting a who's who of attorneys and advisers. Perhaps the most grateful beneficiary of the presidential recount was a Floridian, George Koikos. "What a great country this is, God bless America!" the Greek immigrant exclaimed. Koikos was proprietor of Georgio's, a Tallahassee restaurant that became a favorite hangout of the nation's lawyers in November 2000.

Reminisced Lucy Morgan, the St. Petersburg Times' Tallahassee bureau chief, "In one room you might find former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, the chief negotiator for Vice President Al Gore, sitting at a table filled with Democrats. Across the restaurant would be former Secretary of State James Baker dining with Republican legal teams representing Gov. George W. Bush."

During the recount, Palm Beach emerged as the poster county for dysfunction. The badly designed and infamous "butterfly ballot" flummoxed senior citizens. Twenty-nine thousand ballots were thrown out — fully 4 percent of the votes in Palm Beach County — for reasons ranging from two or more votes for president to dimpled and hanging chads. The unlikely recipient of 3,704 votes was Pat Buchanan. With a straight face, Bush publicist Ari Fleischer tried to explain the anomaly to reporters: "Palm Beach County is a Pat Buchanan stronghold!"

If Palm Beach County officials fumbled on Election Day, Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Pam Iorio received high marks. The New York Times noted that Hillsborough County experienced "remarkably few problems."

Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris stepped into the spotlight. The former Miss Polk Agriculture, the granddaughter of citrus magnate Ben Hill Griffin Jr. and a two-term state senator, Harris was officially responsible for Florida elections. She also co-chaired the George W. Bush election campaign in Florida.

The election catapulted Harris to a tragicomic 15 minutes of fame. "For her role in the election," observed one reporter, "she was skewered as nakedly partisan and parodied on Saturday Night Live as an ambitious harpy caked in enough makeup to embarrass a drag queen." Harris may have been lacerated by the national press, but she was hailed by conservatives as Florida's savior when she certified the victory of Republican George W. Bush in Florida. Harris compared her trial by fire to the biblical Queen Esther, who risked life and limb to save the Jews.

Al Gore received more than a half-million more votes nationally than George W. Bush but lost Florida by a mere 537 votes. Forests of trees have been felled trying to understand the 2000 election.

Questions persist. Why did Gore not ask President Bill Clinton to campaign in his behalf? Clinton, in spite of the Monica Lewinsky episode or because of Congress' ham-fisted impeachment, remained a popular chief executive, having presided over a robust economy.

Some independent investigations charged that democracy was denied to ethnic and racial minorities, as well as individuals (disproportionately black) disenfranchised because they were incorrectly identified as convicted felons. Why did Al Gore choose Joe Lieberman as his running mate? Had he selected Florida's Bob Graham instead, Gore would almost certainly have won Florida and become president.

Like Banquo's ghost, Ralph Nader haunts Democrats. Bush won Florida by only 537 votes. Nader received 97,488 votes. Assuming that most of these votes came at the expense of Al Gore, the cantankerous lawyer played the role of spoiler.

For its role in the 2000 presidential election, Florida reinforced its reputation as a strange place. From the dark documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 to late-night comedians, Americans laughed, cursed and hyperventilated. Gadflies suggested new license plate slogans: "We Put the 'Duh' in Florida," and "Palm Beach County: So Nice, We Let You Vote Twice." New bumper stickers appeared: "Florida: Relax, Retire, Revote," and "Florida: We Just Don't Cheat in Football." And our new state motto: "Florida — Home of Electile Dysfunction."

If there was a mood that pervaded America in 2000, the feeling was optimism, a deep-abiding faith in the future, a realization that our lives were improving, and confidence our children would do even better. Optimism was part of our national character. Daily, more and more Americans were becoming homeowners; weekly, the economy elevated new classes of millionaires. In 2000, when Gallup asked Americans, "Are you satisfied with the way things are going?" a resounding 60 percent responded yes.

One book perfectly fit the nation's mood. In The End of History, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed that liberal capitalist democracy, with its harmonious balance between liberty and equality, had triumphed. The Cold War was over, communism and the Soviet Union thrown into the dustbin of history. Depression and war were events affixed to the previous century. The march toward equality for all was inevitable.

Seven months after taking office, President George W. Bush returned to Florida. Former Gov. and first lady Bob and Mary Jane Martinez drove to Sarasota to join the president and Gov. Jeb Bush for dinner at the Colony Resort on Longboat Key.

As Mary Jane Martinez was leaving, she asked President Bush to sign the menu. He did so and scribbled the date: 9/10/01. The next day, President Bush visited the Emma Booker Elementary School. As he was reading The Pet Goat with students, an aide whispered in the president's ear, "America is under attack." The aide was White House chief of staff Andrew Card.

The Gates of Hell had opened.

Gary R. Mormino is scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council and the recipient of the 2015 Florida Lifetime Achievement award in writing. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.