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Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election (review)

by Brian Flemming Sunday, Apr. 13, 2003 at 6:45 PM
vagrant@slumdance.com

Review of "Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election," a documentary currently playing in and around L.A.

Ah, the subject every Republican in America wishes would just go away, dammit! Well, sorry--not gonna happen for a very long time.

Two and a half years later, the basic facts of this historic event are still mind-boggling: The day after the election, out of millions of votes in Florida, George W. Bush is separated from Al Gore by a tiny margin of .03%. A recount is certain. A fair recount is crucial. But in control of the state election machinery are two of the most powerful Republicans in the state: Bush's brother, who is both the state governor and the chairman of the Bush election campaign, and the Secretary of State, who is the co-chair of that campaign. The governor recuses himself from official involvement in the election controversy--yet his staff "quits" their jobs in droves to work directly for George W. Bush. The Secretary of State, claiming impartiality, makes one decision after another that just happens to go her candidate's way.

The contradictions displayed by the two political camps over the 36-day battle were amusing when they weren't sickening. Gore demands that the state "count all the votes"--but, oddly, he only asks for recounts in a handful of Democratic-leaning counties. George W. Bush, who as governor had signed a Texas law that held up manual recounts as the highest standard for accuracy, now argues against manual recounts as if they were designed by the devil himself. And this right-wing federalist, committed to the Republican ideology of "states' rights," and possessed of the disdain of federal lawsuits that ideology demands, files the first lawsuit in federal court--and ultimately depends on judicial activism by the highest federal court in the land to install him in the White House.

Their political tactics were through the looking glass. Gore did not encourage Democratic activists from around the nation to take to the streets in Florida and raise a stink about Bush's "stealing" the election--a TV spectacle that might have made the nation so uneasy that everyone would have just shaken their heads and said, "Forget it, just count every vote again with one standard and let's get this over with." On the other hand, Freeper Republicans flocked to the state, and political operatives even staged a mini-riot that shut down one recount--a clear incidence of criminal behavior influencing a government function. Hey, that's our tactic, you frickin' Freepers!

Still, there's no getting around the central fact: The Republicans stole the election. Al Gore tried to steal it, but they beat him. If only Al Gore had actually demanded a principled recount--manually count all the votes in the state--from the first day, he likely would have gotten it, and it is almost certain from the research done since that he would have won that particular kind of recount.

And there's no getting around another disturbing fact. It isn't talked about much in the press, but the election was really decided by the Florida Republican political machine before it occurred. As Greg Palast writes in Harper's:

    In November the U.S. media, lost in patriotic reverie, dressed up the Florida recount as a victory for President Bush. But however one reads the ballots, Bush's win would certainly have been jeopardized had not some Floridians been barred from casting ballots at all. Between May 1999 and Election Day 2000, two Florida secretaries of state--Sandra Mortham and Katherine Harris, both protegees of Governor Jeb Bush--ordered 57,700 "ex-felons," who are prohibited from voting by state law, to be removed from voter rolls. (In the thirty-five states where former felons can vote, roughly 90 percent vote Democratic.) A portion of the list, which was compiled for Florida by DBT Online, can be seen for the first time here; DBT, a company now owned by ChoicePoint of Atlanta, was paid .3 million for its work, replacing a firm that charged ,700 per year for the same service. If the hope was that DBT would enable Florida to exclude more voters, then the state appears to have spent its money wisely.


As shown in an early segment of "Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election," a concise and gripping 48-minute documentary, Jeb Bush's operatives specifically ordered DBT to use loose standards, even though the company said it would certainly result in "false positives"--that is, disenfranchisement of voters who truly possess the right to vote. Civil-rights groups and others have sinced raised hell about this scandal, but Jeb Bush managed to put off dealing with it until it was too late to fix before his reelection campaign in 2002. A company that analyzed the data has determined that 95 percent of those 57,000 voters were placed on the purge list in error, often simply because they had a similar name to a felon. The loose standards insisted upon by Jeb Bush's operatives meant that, for example, a man legally named "Johnny Jackson Jr." was purged from the registration list because the database found a felon legally named "John Fitzgerald Jackson" in Texas--of course, the race, black, did match.

If a typical portion of those disenfranchised voters had cast their votes, the Gore-Lieberman ticket would have won by a relative landslide: perhaps 22,000 votes. (Ya think those Republicans who became so enamored of "equal protection" when it rationalized the Supreme Court appointment of Bush are at all concerned about this? Hmm...haven't heard them mention it lately. I'm sure it weighs on them heavily, though.)

Nitpicking? Sure, if there were similar stories on the Republican side.But no groups of traditionally right-leaning voters were purged from the lists. In fact, the Republicans successfully intimidated Gore into allowing (generally conservative-leaning) military ballots that were clearly illegal--even ballots postmarked after the election. Even ballots in which the person wasn't even registered in the county. No--the stories all go in one direction: Disenfranchisement of the (mostly black) left, special treatment for the right. But that's politics. Jeb Bush had a mandate to "deliver the state," and he did. Even if he had to spend million of Florida's money to remove legally registered black voters from the rolls.

* * *

I had a lot of fun writing the above. I never tire of telling this story--in conversation, on message boards, anywhere, anytime. The Stolen Florida Election is a favorite liberal myth, and for good reason. It is a meaningful story, and the heroes and villains are clear: There really isn't any doubt that our adversaries used dishonest and even hateful tactics to undermine democracy and ensure their victory. Villainy happens, and it happened here. A good myth needs high stakes: as we're seeing on TV, the stakes here were literally life and death.

I'm not the least bit ashamed of my compulsion to tell and re-tell this story. We liberals need to tell this story to ourselves, and we're not nearly done with the re-telling. A story isn't over just because it's been told. African-Americans know the story of Rosa Parks--but they still tell it over and over. Because it matters. Because it's never over. The story is teaching you, and you can never safely forget its lessons.

Naturally, we learn lessons from the Stolen Florida Election myth: Be vigilant. Work harder. Show up. Never imagine there is a moral line your adversary won't cross--never, ever trust in his good faith.

And probably most of all: You have to want it as bad as they do. A common analysis of the Florida defeat is that Gore brought a knife to a gunfight. Or, maybe, a Bible to knife fight. He was worried about propriety. He put old William Christopher in the ring with the vicious and amoral James Baker. Gore should have known it was a rigged fight, and that Bush controlled the ref. So he should have done what he said he was gonna do at the DNC: "fight for you." He should have fought hard and, if necessary, fought dirty.

But it's not just Gore. We should have been there, too. I wasn't in Florida. The day the Iraq adventure started for real, one feeling among many I had was a crushing guilt that I didn't go to Florida in November 2000. Why didn't I add my body and voice to the effort? Why didn't a million of us do that? Why? Answer: Because we didn't want it bad enough. We coasted through Clinton--the other side seethed. They wanted it bad.

Well, now I do, too. That's really why I tell this myth over and over. To remind me. We're paying the price now--U.S. history is paying the price now, world history is paying the price, real Iraqi people are paying the price--for letting this myth have the ending it did.

Never again.

That's what's so useful about "Unprecedented." After the screening this morning here in L.A. (it is only screening mornings here for the next few weekends), the filmmakers, Richard Ray Pérez and Joan Sekler, did a Q&A that turned into a political rally of sorts. Pérez and Sekler are performing a vital function in the liberal community--they are re-telling one of our favorite stories, keeping us motivated, and, most of all, keeping us focussed (on elections rather than, oh, impeachment, or public vomiting). At the Q&A Pérez and Sekler encouraged the audience to buy a copy and screen it for groups. They know what they've got, they know we're not getting it anywhere else, and they know what it can do.

There's nothing wrong with telling this myth to ourselves. A comparison is often made between the Democrats' "Bush-hating" and the right-wingers' conspiracy theories about the Vince Foster suicide and the Clintons' ordering murders for hire and such. But those stories were just plain made up. They were fantasies designed to give people a reason to hate the Clintons, the same way that the black-men-are-raping-our-daughters fantasy helped Southern racists feel good about lynching.

This isn't the same thing. This story is real. It happened. The myth I tell is based on the facts, and the most important fact of it is that there was a close race and we didn't win. That's what the myth is about. That's not hatred. It's keeping your eyes on the prize.

Rosa Parks really was convicted of a crime for sitting down on a bus. Gays really did rise up against bigoted police at Stonewall. George W. Bush really did steal the 2000 Presidential Election.

It's a good myth. It's a myth rooted in fact and, even better, truth. It's a myth that matters.

And, Republicans, I've got some bad news for you: We're not going to stop telling it.


Movie website


L.A. schedule of screenings

This review also posted at:

Blogcritics.org

and

L.A. War Blog
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