A Nation of Laws: a Recounting of a Recount
By Jared Crum '11
Was it all a dream?”

As the opening images of his film “Fahrenheit 9/11” flashed across the screen, this was Michael Moore’s expression of disbelief. The images were fireworks, because the occasion seemed a happy one. Al Gore rallied celebrities and supporters at a “Florida Victory” event on Election Eve 2000. Spirits were high. One of the most divisive and caustic campaigns in recent memory was surely coming to an end.

The following month proved everyone wrong. Journalist Roger Simon called the recount battle that followed a “national unwanted civics lesson.” For 36 days, motions were filed, results contested, ballots counted and uncounted, favors were called in, careers made and unmade and supreme courts petitioned. From this maelstrom, a president emerged.

It’s little wonder the chaotic swirl of cameras and lawyers that enveloped south Florida felt like a dream to some. This was America — things like this happened in banana republics, not the citrus state. But the 2000 recount saga — 10 years ago this month — was in some ways very American, and reminds us of both the legacies we’d rather leave behind and the more perfect union we aspire to.

For the people directly involved, the drama was certainly significant. For several, the recount provided only temporary success. Bush booster and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris was later elected to Congress, but unceremoniously defeated in 2006. Bush recount leader James Baker got stuck heading the Iraq Study Group. Joe Lieberman was made a household name only to be subsequently driven from his party. The whole experience literally gave Dick Cheney a heart attack (his fourth).

Others fared better. Al Gore, despite losing, had an enviable decade, taking home a Nobel Peace Prize and an Oscar. Gore advisers Chris Lehane and Ron Klain went on to great success in the private sector. In 2009, Klain returned to the Office of the Vice President.

Others buried the hatchet. Republican Ted Olson and Democrat David Boies argued opposite sides of Bush v. Gore before the U.S. Supreme Court. But recently, they successfully teamed up to defeat California’s Proposition 8 in federal court. And what of those nine robed deciders? Three are now retired, and one (Chief Justice Rehnquist) passed away.

The recount, however, holds much broader significance, too. Our democracy’s dysfunctional aspects were evoked as the dark and lingering legacy of Jim Crow voter intimidation reared its ugly head. Voters in black precincts encountered roadblocks and menacing questions at the polls. And we were reminded of continuing structural discrimination: in Florida, felons lose the franchise forever. The ACLU estimates this law means one in three African-American men in Florida can’t vote.

We were also reminded of simple lessons. In politics, the cunning often prevail. Gore recount leader Warren Christopher, journalist Simon wrote, was a lawyer who happened to be a politician. Bush leader James Baker was a politician who happened to be a lawyer. Baker won.

But the lessons go beyond simple partisan politics. As we were reminded of a past we’d rather forget, we were reminded of the political system we seek.

Our democracy is a fragile thing, and Election 2000 showed it. It works when people play by the rules, respect common principles and obey the law over their own self-interest. The whole experiment can come apart when civility breaks down and laws are disrespected. When the stakes are highest, the players must be most scrupulous. In 2000, not every player was, and the disorder ended in a way palatable to no one.

Paradoxically, the disgraceful Bush v. Gore ruling was a beacon of hope. We were still, after all, a nation of laws, not men. When the chips were down, the parties obeyed the ruling of the high court. In other countries, tanks would be in the streets, and flimsy court opinions would bow to the power of the gun barrel. Not in America. In America, the losers lose, the winners win, and everyone goes home. The pressure to conform to democratic mores, and laws, is thankfully strong.

Let the recount odyssey be an admonition to the future. In our day, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann calls for the people to be “armed and dangerous” for their rights. Sarah Palin urges people to “reload.” Sharron Angle mused about “second amendment remedies” for “tyrannical” government. But participants in our elections must obey rules, not guns. Participants must accept the final results, or risk tragedy. The discontented of today should follow the example of Mr. Gore, who said in his concession:

“Other disputes have dragged on for weeks before reaching resolution. And each time, both the victor and the vanquished have accepted the result peacefully and in a spirit of reconciliation. So let it be with us.”

A decade ago, America proved itself a nation of laws. A decade from now, let’s ensure that tradition endures.

Issue 09, Submitted 2010-11-17 00:22:18