Of Bush, the Harris Rumor and James Baker’s Junta

The world will little note, nor long remember, this petty crime. It was accomplished in a small county under cover of darkness-or at least beneath the cloak of confusion that the clash over votes in the larger counties afforded.

You might have overlooked it; references to it were buried in the midst of a long piece on a jump page in the Saturday, Nov. 25 New York Times . It involved a decision by the election board of Nassau County, “a Republican enclave in Florida’s northeast corner.” With no legal notice, the Republican election board head threw out the results of the legally mandated machine re-count. There were no hand-count or hanging-chad issues here; this was the automatic re-count every Florida county was required to perform the day after the election because of the closeness of the vote.

The legally mandated re-count had slightly increased Al Gore’s totals. The county board’s decision to discard the re-count and certify the original count, The Times reported, “cost Mr. Gore 52 votes.” Not much, but enough-if included with other re-count totals in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade that were also excluded-to give Mr. Gore a nine-vote lead, his lawyers claimed.

And why this sudden last-minute decision to ignore the re-count total? “Ms. [Shirley] King [the Republican election-board head] acted on advice from Ms. [Katherine] Harris, the secretary of state who was also co-chairwoman of the Bush campaign in Florida …. [Ms. Harris] advised Ms. King she could certify either count….”

Hey, why not? Nobody’s looking. You go, girl! It’s just a few votes. If it feels good, do it. Does anyone doubt that if the county board had wanted to add votes for Al Gore, Ms. Harris would have laughed at a last- minute switch?

Well, at the last minute, some Democrat in the sleepy burg woke up and protested this little emblematic act of pure theft, and it’s likely to be included in the lawsuit contesting the Florida election along with Miami-Dade County’s aborted recount. But the Gore challenge is likely to fail or run out of time, and it doesn’t seem likely that those votes will ever be restored or the theft punished.

The late Lars-Erik Nelson characterized the post-election tactics used by Ms. Harris and the Bush campaign in Florida as “a mugging.” When you consider the massive pre-election fraud in Seminole County-in which Republican registrars altered thousands of absentee-ballot applications in order to qualify G.O.P. voters and disqualify Democrats-you could call it a Republican wilding . If you want to know the truth, I blame the Bush campaign for the death of Nelson, one of the best journalists in America, someone who deserves a posthumous Pulitzer not just for his powerful, skeptical reporting on the Wen Ho Lee case, but for his consistently brilliant and iconoclastic commentary over the course of a career.

Nelson saw what was going on in Florida early on, and he didn’t see it with any equanimity: One of his colleagues at the Daily News called him on the day of his death, the afternoon of the televised Florida Supreme Court argument, and recalled Nelson crying out, “I can’t believe they said that!” over some outrageous assertion by the lawyers for Ms. Harris and Mr. Bush.

A few hours later, he was found in front of his television set, dead of a stroke. No one will convince me it was unrelated. I know the experience of watching developments in Florida-and I would venture to guess that no one in America has devoted (or wasted) more hours to nonstop “all re-count all the time” TV than I have-has frequently driven my blood pressure to dangerous, if not yet stroke-like, levels.

Yes, I’ve become a partisan-not out of any admiration for that patronizing robot Al Gore, but because of the infuriating arrogance and self-righteousness of the Bush-Baker-Harris operation. Their smarmy piety about “the rule of law” until the law rules against them. Their willingness to use the Big Lie (“I have exercised due discretion”; “The votes have been counted and re-counted and re-counted again,” when in fact the issue in dispute are the tens of thousands of votes that demonstrably inadequate machines failed to register). And, as the Nassau County episode demonstrates, their willingness to countenance outright theft.

But again, it probably won’t matter, the Nassau County theft. The decks are stacked against a Gore lawsuit to contest the election. The Democratic Party mediocrities who don the spurious mantle of “statesmen” will come out of the woodwork this week to urge “closure” on Mr. Gore and Mr. Boies. Senator Bob (“Profile in Courage”) Torricelli was the first out of the box and into the tank. They’ll all be eager to get the approbation of the edit-page pundits, who are ever ready to stand up for national niceness and bring-us-together platitudes. Too many statesmen and their pundit lackeys and nannies will urge Mr. Gore to drop the fight, will urge us all to ignore the thefts, the putsch-like behavior of the Republican mob that terrified the Miami-Dade re-count officials into fleeing from their responsibility (no matter how they’ve changed their story now to deny their cowardice). As Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt pointed out the day after Katherine Harris’ certification, we will eventually know the truth about the 9,000-plus undercounted Miami votes. Florida’s Freedom of Information Act will sooner or later make those ballots available for inspection-probably after it’s too late to prevent the inauguration of the wrong man. But the pundits say, “Time to pack it in and forget it all.” Just when it’s getting good; just when we’re seeing the true snarling face of the illegitimate Bush Presidency. I say pursue the facts, pursue the truth to the bitter end.

So let’s linger for a moment on that little operation in Nassau County, on this ugly new evidence of extralegal intervention by Katherine Harris. Some will say the story’s moved on beyond her. Some might say that the more urgent, egregious issue-the one that sealed the Big Steal-was the mob intimidation of the Miami-Dade counting board. The ignorant army whipped to a frenzy by the demagoguery of the pinstriped thug, James Baker, and the Austin pinhead in chief, the mob that invaded the Miami re-count site and engaged in the kind of threatening behavior that may well have changed American history by denying Gore the legally mandated hand re-count there. The first Presidential election to be won by a mob, a mob we’ve now learned (from the Nov. 27 Wall Street Journal ) was bought and paid for (and put up in Hiltons) by G.O.P. House whip Tom DeLay.

(One of the most sickening examples of the Big Lie tactics employed by the Bush campaign and their camp followers is the utterly irrelevant comparison of the Miami-Dade invasion to Jesse Jackson’s street demonstrations in Palm Beach. The Jackson dem-onstrators did not invade, break the windows and pound violently on the doors of re-count officials; they didn’t surround and harass an official legal observer from the other side, or punch and kick people in the vicinity of the count, as the Miami mob did.)

So yes, the story has moved on from Katherine Harris-although she briefly returned to center stage on Nov. 26 to deny the Palm Beach election board a chance to include their marathon count in the total, and then staged her junta-like Sunday-night certification spectacle after taking a few last shots at the Florida Supreme Court (and signing off with a fervent “God bless America”).

Let’s linger a bit more on Ms. Harris, because it’s clear she’s been busy as a bee backstage , helping to engineer the clandestine operation in Nassau County and smuggling the apparently illicit acceptance of absentee-ballot Bush votes in several scattered counties into the final count.

I’ve felt from the beginning that the ridicule of Ms. Harris’ appearance was sexist, ageist and looks-ist. And perhaps a new phenomenon-makeup-ist. Mascara Marx-ism: the belief, most explicitly articulated in a catty makeup analysis in the Washington Post Style section, that bad makeup decisions are a sure sign of bad politics. As if a failure to be styled by Kevin Aucoin disqualifies one from being taken seriously (when often the opposite is true).

If the makeup matter is a red herring- and I believe it is-the question of Ms. Harris’ naked partisanship and its source is not. Because it has been so excessive and self-destructive, and did so much damage initially to her own cause, it has given rise to some wild theories to explain it. That’s the only way to explain what I’ll call “The Rumor.” The Rumor is also worth examining (or at least mentioning) as an index of the way America is still divided into two nations: Media and Media Consumers. Almost everyone in the media I know has heard The Rumor, and yet only one paragraph about it has appeared in print.

It’s an index as well of the partisanship of rumorology. Think of all the rumors about Hillary and Bill the right-wing press has rushed into print without corroboration, up to and including murder .

It’s interesting: If it were a rumor about Hillary, you know Matt Drudge would have rushed into print with it. He would have justified it by saying that people at The Times are buzzing about The Rumor but refusing to print it because they’re all liberals. Well, people at The Times are buzzing about the Harris Rumor, and I suspect Matt Drudge himself knows about it. I wonder, why his sudden attack of reticence? Could it be because she’s a Republican?

Personally, I think reporting on rumors and the agendas behind them can be a legitimate subject of journalism, or at least of cultural history. The kind of rumors that fly about in times of national crisis, true or not, are often valuable clues to deeper currents in the national psyche. Someday after someone else prints The Rumor, I may have more to say on the matter. For the moment, I will merely quote one paragraph from a New York Times story on Katherine Harris which, a source at The Times told me, was an oblique and laundered reference to The Rumor-and part of a paragraph from the New York Post.

Just to put it in context, I first heard The Rumor when a woman I know called and told me that “everyone at The Times is buzzing about it.” When I spoke to someone at The Times I was told that, yes, in fact everyone was talking about it, and I was referred to the cryptic paragraph in the Monday, Nov. 20 edition of The Times , the third paragraph in a profile of Katherine Harris headlined “A Human Lightning Rod In a Vote-Counting Storm.” A paragraph that read:

“She is reviled by some as Gov. Jeb Bush’s ignorant puppet (actually, far more unflattering terms have been used) and heralded by others as an icon of grace and courage.”

“Far more unflattering terms”? As in Jeb’s ” extremely ignorant puppet”? I’m not going to say any more. I will leave The Rumor-which I’m told is now being investigated by The Washington Post and other newspapers and newsweeklies-buried in those parentheses for now, except to add this item from Neal Travis’ Nov. 22 column in the New York Post : “I hear that some major magazines-and I don’t mean the tabloids-are delving deeply into [The Rumor about] Katherine Harris.”

Perhaps the lesson to be learned here is that those on the right who profess to be horrified by the treatment of Katherine Harris should now rethink and repent their savage treatment of Hillary. The fact that major news outlets may be investigating The Rumor doesn’t mean there’s any truth to it. And I don’t think I would have mentioned The Rumor at all if the news of this most recent, most egregious petty theft in Nassau County hadn’t revealed that, even after the Florida Supreme Court rebuffed her, Ms. Harris has been relentlessly maneuvering for every advantage behind the scenes. Jeb’s “ignorant puppet”? More like Jeb’s ventriloquist; she’s the one pulling the Bush brothers’ strings.

Have I become too much of a partisan? Am I seeing only one side of this amazing story? Have I lost my skeptical Mysterian detachment? I have to admit I’ve found myself in a constant state of outrage ever since the 24-hour period that began with James (“Generalissimo”) Baker’s snarling, sneering midnight press conference, the moment the mask dropped from the Bush campaign (as it did once before, when they savaged John McCain in South Carolina), the moment when this thuggish mouthpiece capped his distorted and dishonest denunciation of the just-announced Flor-ida Supreme Court decision with a threat to abrogate the democratic voting process entirely by a resort to the Republican legislature to overturn any result he didn’t like, electoral or judicial.

Baker’s vicious diatribe against judicial review kicked off a shameful period of demagoguery and mob intimidation that seems to have won the election for George Bush by extralegal means. The Day of the Big Steal.

Baker’s Big Lie-that the Florida Su-preme Court “rewrote the law,” when it was merely trying to reconcile two conflicting laws-was echoed by his pinhead boss in Austin the following day, when George W., looking ever more like a hollow, wooden ventriloquist’s dummy, emerged from his rigorous schedule of workouts and games of fetch with his dog Spot to display his ignorance of the American judicial system. (One of the late-night comics said that George W. turned to playing fetch with Spot “after he lost two out of three to him in Scrabble.”)

The court used “legalistic language,” George W. claimed. Um, excuse me, George W.- courts often use what is known as legal language when they’re interpreting the law. Just because words of more than one syllable confuse you doesn’t mean they were designed to confuse. The “legalistic language” (does anyone believe he actually even tried to read it?) “rewrote the law,” George W. whined-thus delegitimizing the routine work of the judicial system, which is to interpret and reconcile the law.

But it was this poisonous and ignorant demagoguery, I’m convinced, that in the hours following the Florida Supreme Court decision helped whip the equally ignorant Republican mob into storming the Miami-Dade re-count site, frightening the election workers off their job and thereby hijacking the election by force.

I know Representative Jerry Nadler was going way too far when he said this sequence of events had “the whiff of fascism” about it. But the midnight threat of extra-legal means to delegitimize the judicial process by the pinstriped thug, and the ignorant echoing of it by the Austin pinhead, must be held accountable for the “mob action” (Joe Lieberman’s words) that followed and sealed the Big Steal. The mask is off, and beneath the mask I don’t see “fascism”-but I did get a Costa-Gavras vibe. Mr. Baker’s snarling thuggish rage, his poison-ous effort to delegitimize the judicial system, reminded me of Costa-Gavras’ Z , the thriller about the Greek colonels’ coup.

Okay, I agree that’s going too far. This is not Athens under the Greek colonels. It’s far more crummy and second-rate than that. It’s not Z ; it’s not even X or Y . It’s W .