A Year Later, It’s Still a Sham

Exactly one year ago, in the corridors of a county office

building in downtown Miami, a gang

of imported Republican operatives tried to shove history toward George W. Bush.

On the day before Thanksgiving 2000, the event described approvingly by the

gentleman who now oversees the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal

as a “bourgeois riot” stopped the recount of disputed ballots in Florida’s

biggest county. Organized at the behest of former Secretary of State James

Baker by a consultant whose reputation for dirty tricks dates back to the Nixon

era, the “Brooks Brothers mob” embodied the iron will of the Bush campaign to

win.

As we now know, the 10,750

ballots that the G.O.P. goon squad sought to suppress would probably not have

done damage to their cause. So concluded the newspaper consortium that reported

the results of its lengthy, million-dollar examination of all the Florida Presidential ballots. According to their

analysis, a hand recount by the four counties that were the locus of the Gore

campaign’s legal strategy would still have yielded an exceedingly narrow

victory for the Bush-Cheney ticket.

And that is how-amid war in Afghanistan

and overwhelming approval ratings for the Commander in Chief-the media

consortium played their findings. But the National

Opinion Research

Center recount, which proved beyond

any hint of doubt that thousands more Florida

voters intended to elect Al Gore, has meaning only in a context ignored by

those tardy accounting adjustments.

Context is amply provided,

along with clarity and color, by Jeffrey Toobin’s Too Close to Call, a book that deserves study by anyone who

professes to care about American democracy. As Mr. Toobin explains, that nasty

fracas on Thanksgiving eve was only the most violent expression of the Bush

campaign’s thorough manipulation of the post-election process. Striving for

fairness, Mr. Toobin doesn’t hesitate to draw attention to the grievous

shortcomings of the Democratic campaign and its candidate. Mr. Gore comes off

as a sincere but hapless figure, in thrall to the opinions of newspaper editors

who never cared for him.

Yet whenever Mr. Toobin takes his readers inside the back rooms,

it is the ruthless character of modern Republicanism that stands out.

Seizing upon their home-court advantage, the Republicans

controlling the process in the Sunshine

State cheated and lied. As Florida’s

Secretary of State, Katherine Harris was required by law to ensure a full

automatic recount of every ballot in every county, because the margin

separating the candidates was less than one-half of 1 percent. Both Mr. Bush

and Mr. Baker continuously pointed to this statutory recount as proof that all

the votes had been “counted and recounted.”

In fact, as Mr. Toobin reveals, some 1.58 million votes cast in

18 counties were never recounted as the law prescribed-an extraordinary

violation that Ms. Harris and her aides knew but never mentioned, let alone

remedied. If the mandated recount had been completed in a timely and lawful

fashion, Mr. Gore might well have pulled ahead by a few votes in the first

week, changing the entire complexion of the post-election struggle.

“This subterranean story of the automatic recount,” writes Mr.

Toobin, “marked just the first time that Harris’s office performed heroic, if

necessarily unsung, service to the Bush campaign.”

Sworn to uphold the law and conduct a fair election despite her

allegiance to Mr. Bush and his brother Jeb, the Florida

governor, Ms. Harris did the opposite. According to Mr. Toobin, her strings

were pulled by Mac Stipanovich, the sharp corporate lobbyist placed in her

office by the Bush campaign within two days after the election to be her

“minder.” A former Republican staffer and campaign manager, Mr. Stipanovich

personified the formidable forces behind Mr. Bush, which have enjoyed the

spoils of his triumph ever since. Following the 1999 legislative session in Tallahassee,

Mr. Stipanovich told a local reporter, “I got everything. I don’t know what the

poor people got, but the rich people are happy, and I’m ready to go home.”

There is much more in Too

Close to Call that should embarrass Bush partisans, if they were capable of

that healthy emotion. Indeed, there is much here to embarrass all of us, as our

brave brothers and sisters again venture out under arms in the name of

democracy.

We’re apparently beyond such embarrassment now, living in a media

environment where a questionable Presidential election generates about as much

current buzz as the fate of Chandra Levy. The story of the 2000 election

remains as salient today as it was a year ago, however, regardless of what the

conventional idiocy may say. It tells us that our fundamental right to

self-government has been corrupted and still awaits restoration. And it tells

us something we need to remember about a President whose enthusiasm for

government secrecy, military tribunals and other such constitutional affronts

was foreshadowed in his leap to the White House.