One Scene I Wish Had Been in HBO’s “Recount”

By Saira Anees

May 23, 2008 1:28pm

As we blogged about yesterday,  I quite enjoyed HBO’s "Recount" movie, imperfect as it may be. (I was one of several journalists who covered the recount who consulted on the film.)

It’s a movie, not a documentary, so obviously decisions were made that ultimately meant that, as Kevin Spacey said on MSNBC the other day, "the movie is done from the Democratic point of view, because I play Ron Klain who’s Al Gore’s former chief of staff, but then again they were the underdogs and, dramatically, that makes more sense."

That said, many Republicans involved in the process have thought the overall treatment was fair to both sides and it’s dramatically a good yarn.

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Spacey, one of the greatest actors of his generation, got it completely wrong, however, when he told Keith Olbermann on MSNBC that "it does seem that on the one hand the Bush people were trying to stop votes from being counted and the Gore people were just trying to get votes counted."

Ugh. No, no, no. That’s not accurate.

The Gore people were just trying to get GORE votes counted.

And though HBO makes that clear intellectually, the emotional push of the film can distract from that.

Reviewing my book about the Florida shenanigans, there’s one scene that I wish had been in there, one that would have gotten across just how much the Gore team was NOT trying to count every vote.

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Throughout the campaign, Gore lieutenants referred to the circle of higher-ups as "The Matrix," a reference to the 1999 sci-fi thriller about an evil artificial intelligence computer power that runs the world autocratically.

This was not a compliment.

And when it came time to contest the election, the decision by the Matrix — in this case, Gore, Klain, Sen. Joe Lieberman, Bill Daley, Warren Christopher, Michael Whouley, Carter Eskew and Bob Shrum — to not even remotely attempt to attempt a statewide hand recount severely disappointed the Gore lieutenants. It made many of them feel like frauds.

Indeed, the Gore strategy mystified Bush staffers. One of the Bush attorneys, Michael Carvin, wondered how the Gore legal team thought it could secure the presidency based on just some of the 175,000 unread ballots being looked at, from four Democratic counties. It was a strategy so brazen, he was convinced that there had to be more there.

There wasn’t. Gore, at that point, was mired in a pool of self-righteous indignation and hopelessness, and so were his staff members. And it caused some bizarre, not to mention disingenuous, behavior.

The Gore team argued in court that there were unread ballots in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties — while ignoring the same phenomenon in Republican-leaning counties all over the state. Why couldn’t they have asked a judge to examine all of them? There is no answer to this. Practicality is not an argument; all of this was unprecedented, and the Gore team could have certainly asked for a statewide recount during the contest period. What they were asking for — the inclusion of just enough selected votes from selected counties for Gore to win — is certainly no more reasonable.

As I wrote in Salon.com in April 2001, the Florida Supreme Court decision to count the undervotes but not the overvotes in that state was completely nonsensical.

Un-counted votes are un-counted votes. Whether they’re undervotes or overvotes. Whether they’re for Bush, Gore, Nader, or Buchanan.

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Of the four Democratic leaning counties that the Gore team cherry-picked for recounts in the state — Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, and Volusia — only Volusia was a clean success. It was the only one of the four selected counties to complete its hand recount by Nov. 14, the mandated certification date and the only one to have one clean, clear standard in its counting throughout the process.

Volusia County’s canvassing board was run by a retiring, no-nonsense Republican judge, Michael McDermott, who thought that the Republican lawyers sent to the scene were clearly there to stand in the way of the unread votes being counted. So he prevented them from their clear stalling tactic.

Gore lawyer Jack Young, a recount expert, ran the show there for the Democrats, and after the county had completed its reexamination of the Opti-scan ballots (think SAT-style oval fill-ins), Gore had picked up 98 net votes.

That was from both the undervotes and the overvotes. So after the Volusia County canvassing board completed its task, Young called Gore headquarters in Tallahassee, with some suggestions for more recounts.

Here’s the scene I would have added.

FADE IN: VOLUSIA COUNTY GOVERNMENT BUILDING, DAY

In a blindingly bright county building, Gore recount lawyer JACK YOUNG, who has been advocating for a statewide recount from the beginning, calls HQ in Tallahassee on a cell phone. Behind him county workers are packing up, shaking hands, finishing up the orderly process.

JACK YOUNG: So we finished up here. Counted ‘em all. Gore picked up 98 votes.

GORE LAWYER IN TALLAHASSEE: Awesome. (Yelling to colleagues:) That’s 98 for Gore in Volusia!

YOUNG: So listen, I should go to Lake County. There are thousands of undervotes and overvotes there. Then I can hop to Duval County. They got 29,000 undervotes and overvotes combined there. No need to sue anyone or file a formal "protest" or anything like that, I’ll just tell them what we did in Volusia and the county canvassing boards will see the logic.

LAWYER: What in heaven’s name are you talking about?

YOUNG: You guys keep forgetting, I’m a recount expert; I do this for a living. This is my job.

LAWYER: Waitasec. Lake and Duval….Aren’t those Bush counties?

YOUNG: Yes, but as I keep telling you politicos, that’s not the point.

LAWYER: Can you guarantee that Gore will pick up votes there?

YOUNG: No, of course not. But we’re behind. We need to increase the number of possible votes in the pool. This is Recount 101, guys.

LAWYER: Go to Broward County. That’s one of our counties. Supervise the rest of that process.

YOUNG: But, but…

LAWYER: Talk to you later, Jack.

The Lawyer HANGS UP the phone. Meanwhile in Volusia County, Young THROWS HIS CELL PHONE onto the ground, breaking it into a million pieces.

And…SCENE.

- jpt

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