As we approach the 10th anniversary of the Bush v. Gore decision—technically December 12—it is interesting to note how much of our current political predicament can be discerned in the events of those days. The Bush-Gore election illustrates three key points about today’s political and media environment:
- Conservatives fight harder and dirtier for what they want than progressives.
- The mainstream media gives conservatives a pass for acting and speaking in their own political interest while criticizing progressives for the same thing.
- Conservative commentators recognize few if any boundaries in their willingness to demonize progressives, with virtually no corollary of any kind among progressives.
How badly did conservatives want to win? Remember Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris? Before the election, she hired a GOP-connected database company to purge the state’s voter rolls of thousands of mostly minority citizens, many of whom it falsely categorized as felons. Republican election officials allowed Republican operatives to doctor absentee-ballot applications in Seminole and Martin counties, while Democrats were not granted the same right.
According to journalist John Lantiqua, “In all, some 200,000 Floridians were either not permitted to vote in the November 7 election on questionable or possibly illegal grounds, or saw their ballots discarded and not counted. A large and disproportionate number were black.”
At the end of August 2002 the state of Florida agreed to settle a voter discrimination lawsuit with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People instead of facing the prospect of attempting to prove that George W. Bush had been allowed to get his vote totals fair and square. Miami-Dade, Broward, Leon, Volusia, and Duval counties settled earlier rather than face trial.
Meanwhile, during the fight over the recount itself the Bush campaign poured $13.8 million into winning the battle according to records the Bush campaign reluctantly and belatedly submitted to the Internal Revenue Service. This was about four times what the Gore campaign spent. (And this was only its “official” count.) Meanwhile, in Washington, Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee helped the Bush campaign obtain private contact information for military voters, violating the tradition of impartiality of the military and directly involving Congress in a partisan hunt for pro-Bush votes.
Just as useful but little remarked on was the army of conservative activists willing, on the spur of the moment, to create what Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot admiringly termed a “bourgeois riot” whenever necessary. IRS documents would later show that these rioters were flown in from out of state on private jets lent to the Bush campaign by supportive corporations including Enron and Halliburton, put up gratis in local hotels, and entertained by Wayne Newton singing “Danke Schoen,” all courtesy of the Republican Party. Many were specifically recruited by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, and given directions from a communications-equipped Winnebago by party operatives keeping abreast of where their services might be best deployed.
Their rioters’ value was no doubt best demonstrated when, on November 22, a Miami-Dade canvassing board attempted at one point to undertake the hand recounts the courts had ordered. With just a few phone calls the Republican street operation produced hundreds of “volunteers” who, once engaged, according to Time, proved to be a “mob scene … screaming … pounding on doors and … [threatening an] alleged physical assault on Democrats … the Republicans marched on the counting room en masse, chanting ‘Three Blind Mice,’ and ‘Fraud, Fraud, Fraud.’ … let it be known that 1,000 local Cuban-American Republicans—[a group to whom violence as an instrument of political intimidation is not exactly unknown]—were on the way."
The mob chased down the chairman of the local Democratic Party because it falsely believed he had tried to steal a ballot. He required a police escort to escape. Another Democratic aide says he was punched and kicked by goons from the mob. Still others were trampled to the floor as the mob tried to break down the doors of the room outside the office of the Miami-Dade supervisor of elections where the votes were being counted.
Longtime GOP operative Roger Stone oversaw phone banks urging activists to storm downtown Miami. The city’s most influential Spanish-language radio station, Radio Mambi, called on the hard-right Cuban-American community to head downtown to demonstrate. As Time noted, “Just two hours after a near riot outside the counting room, the Miami-Dade canvassing board voted to shut down the count.”
No legal charges were ever filed either against the rioters or their political paymasters. The payments were documented in the hundreds of pages of Bush committee records released to the IRS in July 2002 after a lengthy period of resistance and refusal.
How biased (and childish) was the mainstream media coverage? Long before the Supreme Court ended the election the media was already positing a Bush presidency. The panelists on ABC’s “This Week” made at least 27 references to Bush’s future presidency on December 3 and December 10.
Tim Russert did so 19 times, going so far as to refer to Dick Cheney as “vice president.” Russert asked Cheney if he thought Al Gore was being a “sore loser” on December 3, nine days before the Court’s decision. That same week on ABC, Sam Donaldson tried to elicit a concession from Joe Lieberman. Cokie Roberts tried to get one from campaign representative George Mitchell.
As Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman demonstrate in their study, “The Press Effect,” “In the five Sunday shows aired by the three networks, the word concede appeared in twenty-three questions.” The hypothetical conceder was Al Gore in 20 of them. In the others, it was, well, no one.
Another oddity of the media coverage of Florida was its constant warnings about the consequences of testing the patience of a nation alleged to be on the verge of a national nervous breakdown. The Baker-Bush team worked hard to create this crisis atmosphere in the hopes of increasing the pressure on Gore to relent for the good of the country, the markets, and the maintenance of world peace. Constitutional rule in America was frequently claimed to be in peril by one or another pundit or reporter, the longer the count continued.
Newsweek ran a cover with a rip in the Constitution and the word “CHAOS” emblazoned on it. U.S. News & World Report ran the same one without the rip. Tim Russert warned, "We could have chaos and a constitutional crisis.” Tom Brokaw followed up on “Today,” warning, “If the Florida recount drags on, the national markets are at risk here. National security is involved.”
“Another week and no more,” R.W. Apple warned Gore on the front page of The New York Times just two days after the election (and more than a month before the case was finally settled). “By next weekend,” he announced, “a group of scholars and senior politicians interviewed this weekend agreed the presidential race of 2000 must be resolved, without recourse to the courts.”
ABC’s “This Week” warned of “turmoil” as CBS’s “Face the Nation” feared a political process “spinning out of control.” Always, the danger was blamed on Gore, who was said by the hosts of both “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press” to be willing to do anything to win. David Broder compared the period unfavorably with that immediately after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The pundits seemed to believe, as ABC’s Cokie Roberts explained, that we were living through "the most partisan time that we have seen in our lives." She professed to be privy to polls “showing that the longer it goes on, the less people have confidence in the accuracy of the count.”
In fact, every single poll taken at the moment of Roberts’ November 19 comments demonstrated that strong majorities of voters preferred an “accurate” count to a “quick” one, by vast majorities. The public also favored manual recounts of disputed counties by these same outsized majorities. As late as November 19, just 10 percent agreed with the assessment that the United States faced a “constitutional crisis.”
Even on the day after the Supreme Court decision that ended the recount, The Washington Post continued to report, “The latest polls taken before the decision … showed continued strong public support for counting Florida ballots as fully and accurately as possible.” Gore’s campaign manager, William M. Daley, said he believed that Gore "should be awarded a victory in Florida and be our next president," something James Baker was saying pretty much every day on Bush’s behalf.
The Washington Post reacted in horror. Its editorial page termed Daley’s remark "a poisonous thing to say in these extraordinary and unsettling circumstances, and Mr. Gore makes a huge mistake if he fails to promptly disown it." In this regard it echoed the furiously pro-Bush Wall Street Journal, whose editorial writers quoted Daley and thundered, “In your ordinary banana republic, this would be recognized as a Gore coup d’état."
The degree of fury directed at Al Gore by conservative and some not-so-conservative pundits for his attempts to contest Bush’s coronation during this period was indeed something to behold. It had no analogy whatsoever on the liberal side, beyond the confines of a few, extremely marginal publications and websites. The bowtied and bespectacled George F. Will seemed to be spoiling for the kind of fight that cannot be won by being the first person in the room to cite Edmund Burke.
On November 12 he insisted, “all that remains to complete the squalor of Gore’s attempted coup d’état is some improvisation by Janet Reno, whose last Florida intervention involved a lawless SWAT team seizing a 6-year-old.” "Gore’s attempted coup," he thundered, his "slow motion larceny," based on "manufactured votes," threatened a "stolen" election.
Will was hardly alone. Gore’s decision to fight for Florida “made the poisonous political atmosphere in Washington even more toxic,” said Fox News’s Tony Snow on November 12, 2000. At The Weekly Standard, the vice president was a “jerk,” who was "self-obsessed, conniving and dangerous”; “certainly divisive and ruthless, and wholly obsessed with achieving his ends"; and “compulsively mendacious.”
The Washington Post’s Michael Kelly, who had been fired as editor of The New Republic over his inability to moderate his hysteria toward the Clinton-Gore team, complained of Gore’s "revolting" campaign as filled with "hacks and political thugs." Comparing Gore’s attempt to get a fair count in Florida to an attack of napalm, he wrote, again in The Washington Post, “If he doesn’t get his way he threatens to delegitimize democracy itself. Got to burn that village down.”
“Even if Gore ultimately loses in Florida,” Kelly wrote, grasping for inappropriate superlative after superlative, “With the help of reasonably sympathetic coverage from a largely Democratic and liberal national press corps, [Gore] has managed to spin his extraordinary, radical, unprecedented behavior as reasonable—and legitimate.”
William Bennett joined in the fun, complaining in The Wall Street Journal that, “The Gore campaign has begun to poison the wellspring of American democracy.” Bennett worried about the “early consequences: street demonstrations, protests,” but failed to notice that these were largely bought and paid for by the party to which he professed his fealty. Bennett, too, declared the process “illegitimate if Al Gore becomes president," and screamed on CNN’s “Capitol Gang,” "If you don’t call the kind of thuggish tactics that the Gore campaign is doing right now for what they are, I think the notion of objectivity in the media is gone."
Again, such statements and sentiments became nearly boilerplate within the conservative punditocracy. When the Florida Supreme Court ruled to allow the recounts to continue, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol bellowed that should Gore gain “office through an act of judicial usurpation. We will not ‘move on.’ Indeed, some of us will work for the next four years to correct this affront to our constitutional order.”
If any of this sounds familiar in a week when Barack Obama admitted to caving in to conservative “hostage-takers,” well, that’s just coincidence, I’m sure.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His newest book, Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, is available for preorder. An expanded version of the arguments found above, together with footnotes for those sources without links, can be found in his book, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News. You can buy it for a penny, alas.