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Why We Need Another Recount

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Now that the presidential race is finally under way, a lot of Democrats are giddy with excitement, certain that Barack Obama will demolish John McCain; and those Democrats apparently have every reason to believe that it will happen. On the other hand, there also are some others who aren't quite so sure: others who recall the outcomes of the last two presidential races, both of which resulted in surprising "wins" for yet another dubious far-rightist candidate. Those uneasy types are wondering -- and the Democrats too should be wondering -- if history might yet again repeat itself, despite the rosy way things seem to look right now.

The question is, of course, unpleasant; but it's also necessary. And we might best begin to answer it by taking a close look at Recount, which just ended its first run on HBO (although subscribers can still see it On Demand). For all its strengths, the film is deeply flawed by the same weird denial that has kept the Democrats both in the dark and out of power--and that could keep them there beyond Election Day, regardless of the will of the electorate.

Recount is a gripping movie, tightly structured and fast-paced, and all too credible. Indeed, the movie is so vivid that it hurts, as it returns us to that long, slow nightfall when we all sat watching as Bush/Cheney "won," and there was absolutely nothing we could do about it. (By "we all," I don't mean Democrats -- as a New Yorker, I did not vote for Al Gore -- but we believers in the Constitution, fair elections, and reality.) Many people talk about the movie by uneasily noting that it made them feel exactly as they felt back then: crushed, defeated, powerless -- a sense of helplessness, I've heard some say, that darkens their anticipation of this next election.

Now, some might praise the movie for so strong an evocation of that moment some eight years ago, but I would say that, by inducing that old feeling of paralysis, Recount does more harm than good. Indeed, I liked it less and less the more I thought about it, realizing that it could have left us in a very different frame of mind. If the movie had been braver and more honest, daring to recount the bigger and much darker story of how Team Bush really "won," it would have had the paradoxical effect of leaving us not whimpering in remembered pain but standing up in righteous anger, calling for investigations, prosecutions and-especially-reform. HBO's own Hacking Democracy had something of that positive effect, contributing immensely to the movement against electronic voting; and there is no good reason why this movie too could not have moved us beyond fatalism.

But Recount stays on safer ground. Although the film is often chilling, its conception of the struggle in the Sunshine State is ultimately comforting, and very simple: a giant post-election brawl between the two campaigns, one nasty and one nice as pie. The Bush team won, according to this view, because they were far tougher and more agile than Gore's people, improvising ruthlessly from day to day, until they pulled it off. Thus the GOP did not engage in a conspiracy (there is, in fact, no other word for it), but triumphed sheerly through their fierce -- but surely not illegal -- tactics after the Election.

The filmmakers derived this view from several mainstream books, whose authors served as paid consultants on the project: Jeffrey Toobin's Too Close to Call, Jake Tapper's Down and Dirty, David A. Kaplan's The Accidental President, and Deadlock by David von Drehle and Ellen Nakashima. Written by outsiders (representing, respectively, The New Yorker/CNN, ABC News, Newsweek and The Washington Post), these books largely skim the surface of events, offering little background on the politics of Florida; and--even more important--they stick close to the Establishment consensus that there's no election fraud in the United States. Such, therefore, is the bias of the movie, bends over backwards (as it were) not to indict Team Bush for any crimes.

Hence the movie's over-focus on James Baker, the old cynic who was called in after Election Day to manage the theatrics -- a task he carries out with cold aplomb, and a certain scary charm, thanks to Tom Wilkinson's excellent performance. (Baker, understandably, quite liked Recount.) Meanwhile, Jeb Bush is almost wholly absent from the film, which represents him as a mere by-stander, even though his office ran the massive drive to disenfranchise tens of thousands of Floridians. On the misuse of the felons lists to sideline all those Democratic voters, Jeb worked hand in glove with Katherine Harris -- whom the movie casts as an erratic flake, who needed firm control by Baker's men. Although she was indeed a weirdo, Harris also was a dedicated supervisor of the winning effort to erase those voters from the rolls, but you wouldn't know it from Recount, which groundlessly depicts her as somewhat ambivalent about her mission. (An acolyte of theocratic luminary Francis Schaeffer -- she went to Switzerland to study with him -- Harris seems to have perceived her work against the voters as her Christian duty; and yet the film plays her religiosity for laughs.)

From start to finish, Recount tunes out, or plays down, the conspiratorial dimension of the story, and thereby represents as a fiasco what was actually a coup. The movie wrongly claims that ABC first called the race for Bush and Cheney on Election Night -- an honor that belongs to FOX News, where Bush's cousin managed the decision desk, and called it for his kinsman after many phone calls to and from the Brothers Bush and Rupert Murdoch. (At NBC there was a different drama, as "Neutron Jack" Welch -- CEO of GE, the network's parent company -- loitered in the newsroom, pestering the journalists to call it for Bush/Cheney.) While Recount does a good job showing how the e-voting machinery malfunctioned throughout Florida -- getting all jammed up with chads, counting votes as undervotes, etc. -- here too the filmmakers neutralize the story; for Recount fails to note the stunning fact that those machines screwed up because they had been fed with the wrong kind of paper ballots. The top men at Sequoia, the manufacturer of those machines, had been forewarned about that problem, and its likely consequences -- and they did nothing whatsoever to correct it. (Dan Rather broke this story on HDNet almost a year ago.)

In its only reference to the pre-election plot, Recount likewise minimizes the offense. The movie does acknowledge that a lot of Democratic voters had been wrongly stricken from the rolls as felons, or ex-felons -- a stroke of disenfranchisement that sidelined 20,000 citizens, according to the film. In fact, the toll was (at least) 50,000 voters; and, as Lance DeHaven-Smith has noted, such vote suppression was no snafu but a major crime. (In 2004, the felons lists were used again to purge more Democratic voters from the rolls in Florida.) And, speaking of law-breaking, the movie also lands a very light blow on the Supreme Court, by noting only that their intervention was improper, and their argument in Bush v. Gore unclear. Nowhere does the film suggest that Rehnquist, Thomas, O'Connor and Scalia were all driven by a flagrant party bias-clear grounds for their impeachment, as Vincent Bugliosi has so strongly argued, and yet somehow not worth even hinting at in Recount.

However, it is at the very end that Recount cops out most egregiously. The last shot is a great one: a grim Kubrickian view down a long corridor, with floor-to-ceiling shelves on either side, all loaded up with crates of ballots -- ballots that had not been counted at the time. And yet, of course, those ballots were counted eventually, by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, with the help of all the nation's leading media outlets; and what they ultimately found was that, by every standard, Al Gore won. Again: If all the ballots in the state of Florida were counted, Al Gore won -- a fact that goes unmentioned at that final moment, as that great shot fades to black without an epilogue.

That silence is especially perverse, considering the movie's heavy moral emphasis on the importance of our knowing, to a certainty, who won. Indeed, the movie's moral climax has Ron Klain, the story's hero (played beautifully by Kevin Spacey), blurt out his frustration in a hotel bar: "I just want to know who won this election!" That the film itself refuses to supply that information suggests either bad faith or crippling fear, or both.

And such refusal has made cowards of us all. If Recount had just tried, through cinematic means, to tell the truth about that stolen race, showing us what really happened (and what is still happening right now), and calling it by its true name, that movie would have done us all tremendous good, by digging up the buried horrors, dragging them into the light of day, and reassuring us that such enormous crimes will not be tolerated. In short, such a movie would encourage us to stand and fight for our democracy, and not sit back convinced that we've already lost.

UPDATE:

Among those posting comments on this piece are certain members of BushCo's faith-based community, who buy the myth that Bush 'won' Florida despite the overwhelming evidence that he did not -- evidence that most of them don't even mention here, typically deploying insult and derision rather than engaging with the facts.

As nasty as they are, however, I must thank them for their comments, which only reconfirm my argument: The reason why they can thus parrot the Big Lies about Bush/Cheney's 'win' is that the truth about that race has not been adequately publicized, either by the media, the Democratic Party or by Recount.

So here's a bit more evidence, in answer to those comments here insisting that Al Gore did not win Florida. This chart comes from the summary report on the findings of the Media Consortium that finally counted all the votes in Florida (all the votes, that is, that hadn't been pre-empted or destroyed). It was written by Dan Keating of the Washington Post, and is online here.

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Mark Crispin Miller is the author of Fooled Again: The Real Case for Electoral Reform, and, more recently, the editor of Loser Take All: Election Fraud and the Subversion of Democracy, 2000-2008.
This book is a collection of 14 essays on election fraud and vote suppression by a range of experts--including pollster David W. Moore and political scientist Lance DeHaven-Smith, whose essays deal with different aspects of Bush/Cheney's "victory" in Florida. Updates on those essays, dealing with Recount, are now on-line at http://markcrispinmiller.blogspot.com/2008/06/does-recount-do-more-harm-than-good.html