Recount Flashbacks

By Saira Anees

May 22, 2008 2:08pm

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Florida recount lately.

Long before Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, went down to the Sunshine state yesterday where she invoked that tumultuous battle from eight years ago.

(Watch her HERE or read about it from ABC News’ Eloise Harper HERE.)

Many of the themes from that contest have been repeating themselves in this Democratic contest.

We have the notion of a popular vote victory versus delegates (or electoral votes, in the case of Vice President Al Gore).

There are debates about which side is more ruthless, more willing to say and do anything to win.

We have accusations of one side trying to "steal" the political crown from the other, and long conference calls where reporters sit on the other end wondering how the political operatives can keep a straight face as they contradict statements they made just a day or two before.
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A few weeks ago, at a screening for the new "Recount" movie, which will air on Sunday on HBO, a Republican who was involved in the 2000 struggle on then-Gov. George W. Bush’s side likened Clinton’s strategy — her new delegate math, popular vote argument, push for Michigan and Florida to be seated, etc., etc. — to the way he thought Gore’s team tried to "change the rules in the middle of the game" during the Florida recount.

As author of a book about the Florida recount I was asked to consult with the producers and writer of the HBO "Recount" movie, which meant that I read some early drafts of Danny Strong’s script and watched an early cut of the film, offering my suggestions to Strong and the production team, including the splendid Paula Weinstein.

The film is not perfect, but it’s very entertaining in my (clearly compromised) opinion. And given Hollywood’s generally liberal leanings, it was fairly balanced.

Which is not to say it was balanced. While the Republicans are treated fairly in the film, any movie has to have an emotional center, and in this case they chose Ron Klain, the head of the Gore team.

That decision, perhaps understandable given the dramatic arc of the Gore-Klain relationship, does tilt the film to the left emotionally, if not intellectually. Film, of course, is a highly visceral medium, so some viewers may get caught up in the "count every vote" rhetoric with the score swelling beneath it and not be as impacted by the fact that the film points out, several times, that the Gore team never actually tried to count every vote, but rather attempted to pick off four Democratic-leaning counties.

There are other editorial decisions I disagree with but generally I agree with Bush lawyer Ben Ginsberg, portrayed by Bob Balaban in the film, who gave it a generally positive review, writing in US News & World Report: "Republicans won the recount. Democrats won the movie. This should not surprise us. That said, HBO’s two-hour Recount does a terrific job of accurately capturing the tension both sides felt during those wrenching 36 days and conveying how rapidly and unpredictably developments came at us. It is an exciting story that will rekindle memories none of us who were there or were following at home will soon forget. Recount marshals these events into a well-done, well-acted, and entertaining movie."

The performances are very engaging — Kevin Spacey as Klain, Tom Wilkinson as James Baker, Laura Dern as Katherine Harris — and the casting was excellent.

(I made one casting suggestion during the production process. For a scene where Joe Lieberman’s voice can be heard on a conference call, I recommended that the producers get the guy who played the dad on "Alf," since he and Lieberman have the same voice. Alas, it was not to be.)

The movie has already experienced some controversy, with former Secretary of State Warren Christopher objecting to his being portrayed as rather effete and weak.

That part of the script Strong based on another book, and the idea that Christopher was weak right out of the box does not square with my reporting. In fact, for my book I had contemporaneous notes taken at that first meeting Christopher had with the Democratic lawyers in Florida, indicating that contrary to the other book, Christopher was interested in pursuing lawsuits on both the state and federal level, and was quite intrigued by the butterfly ballot problem.

However — this is a movie. There were two U.S. Supreme Court cases in reality; only one in the movie. I share the general view that Christopher was not the best match for Baker, and he like many Democrats was ill-suited for the task. Which by the way may not be a criticism of his character. That was some nasty business down there.

Watch the film Sunday and let me know what you think. I predict most of you, if you’re political junkies, will enjoy it. No matter what you think happened down there eight years ago.
- jpt

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