Times Cries Eke! Buries Al Gore

Times Cries Eke! Buries Al Gore

Florida revisited: Schadenfreude amid the carnage of the democratic process.


The late Murray Kempton once noted that although the New York Times likes to pose as being above the battle, this position has never stopped the Times, once the battle's fought, from sneaking onto the field and shooting the wounded. November 12, krauthammers at the ready, Times persons swept through the electoral swamps of Florida, shooting those survivors who questioned "President" Bush's alleged plurality.

In the old Soviet Union, various Russian friends were often surprisingly well informed about the world despite the fact that their view of it was largely shaped by their New York Times, Pravda. When asked how do you find out what's really going on, they would give secret smiles: "You must know how to read Pravda." Now the USSR is gone and we are on our own, trying to sort out our Pravda's often contradictory mendacities, on such lurid view a few weeks ago in an edition that contained three or four not exactly synoptic tales of the findings of a "ballot review conducted for a consortium of news organizations." Apparently, 175,010 ballots from throughout Florida were examined. As always, when the Times's dread sharpshooters are slithering across a bloody no-man's land, one must first deconstruct the headline for clues. "Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote." So much for those conspiracy theorists who dared attack the Court's interference in the election when the Court was, simply, as always, anticipating the will of the majority of those people that the Court has, from the very first admiralty suits of the original Republic to now, cherished–property owners. Wall Street Journal headline: "In Election Review, Bush Wins Without Supreme Court Help." Conspiracy? No. They all think alike.

The story: Paragraph one: "A comprehensive review of the uncounted Florida ballots from last year's presidential election reveals that George W. Bush would have won even if the United States Supreme Court had allowed the statewide manual recount of the votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered to go forward." That's pretty plain. State was always for Bush. No point in wading any farther into the joint prose of sharpshooters Ford Fessenden and John Broder (the second name suggests that the hereditary principle is at work not only at the presidential level but even at the humblest journalistic one–but since John M. is not related to David M., was he, like a pope, obliged to change his name from…whatever?).

Paragraph two: "Contrary to what many partisans of former Vice President Al Gore have charged…" Note "partisan." Ugly word. Do anything to win. We know about them. Bushites compassionate. Dumb maybe but real nice. Sincere. "…close examination of the ballots" found that Mr. Bush would have won if the Florida court's order to recount had not been reversed by the Supreme Court. This is bald, bold. True? Keep reading the Times.

Paragraph three: Gist: Even if Gore had got his four-county hand count, which the Supreme Court denied him, Bush would have kept his lead. Get that, sore losers? Real Americans hate a sore loser. You may stop reading this story now because…

Paragraph four: The Times's two scouts step on a landmine. Watch two scouts explode. "But the consortium, looking at a broader group of rejected ballots than those covered in the court decisions…found that Mr. Gore might have won if the courts had ordered a full statewide recount of all the rejected ballots…. The findings indicate that Mr. Gore might have eked out a victory…." Only someone truly slimy "ekes." A real man wins big with a 5-to-4 vote. "…if he had pursued in court a course like the one he publicly advocated when he called on the state to 'count all the votes.'" So after paragraph three's firm Bush wins without Supreme Court, the Times, on further evidence, finds Gore "eking" out a victory. What next?

Paragraphs five and six: "In addition, the review found statistical support for the complaints of many voters, particularly elderly Democrats in Palm Beach County," that the ballot was so confusing that "more than 113,000 voters cast ballots for two or more presidential candidates. Of those, 75,000 chose Mr. Gore and a minor candidate; 29,000 chose Mr. Bush and a minor candidate." Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, no fan of the inept lower orders, went on record: The butterfly ballot certainly seemed clear to her. But the Times story has now gone off the rails, and I suspect that at this point good Howell Raines, the new executive editor, must have realized that his gunmen were shooting themselves in the feet. So this sentence was added to…clarify? annul? any suggestion that the ballot design was deliberately flawed, leaving the bewildered consortium to conclude that since "there was no clear indication of what the voters intended, those numbers were not included in the consortium's final tabulations." So here we are in paragraph five of what paragraph one told us was "a comprehensive review," only to learn that a significant number of ballots were not counted because the voter, confused by the design of the ballot, voted for both Gore and the Vegetarian candidate! So there is, we are assured, no way of knowing which of the two was wanted. No way? Surely the fact that Gore's name was listed first suggests that he was the voter's choice, unless, maddened by a surfeit of broccoli, his name was so placed as a tease.

As these paragraphs unfurl, the newspaper of cracked record begins to resemble one of Robert Benchley's hilarious movie shorts of yesteryear, The Treasurer's Report.

Paragraph seven: recklessly concedes that "the most thorough examination of Florida's uncounted ballots provides ammunition for both sides…but it also provides support for the result: a Bush victory by the tiniest of margins." No, Howell, it doesn't, as this fabulous story makes clear.

Paragraph eight: The Times starts to implode. First, a major concession. The consortium of eight news organizations, aided by professional statisticians, found that "under some methods [of recounting–which ones?] Mr. Gore would have emerged the winner; in others, Mr. Bush." Paragraph nine: The Times digs a trap and falls into it. Quotes from the Supreme Court's majority opinion denying Florida a full recount, as ordered by the Florida courts, on the ground that such a recount "using varying standards" (there are no standards other than varying in Florida) threatened "irreparable harm" to Mr. Bush. Yes. He would have been sent home to Crawford. With paragraph ten the Times rationale becomes surreal: "The consortium's study shows that Mr. Bush would have won even if the justices had not stepped in…." Too late, Howell. Too little. Schizophrenia now reigns in Times Square. Paragraphs eleven through thirteen quibble about voting machines. Fourteen repeats how Gore should have demanded a statewide count and how wise the Bushites were to resist. Paragraph fifteen: "In a finding rich with irony" (a vein of metal inaccessible to Times miners), "the results show that even if Mr. Gore succeeded in his effort to force recounts of undervotes in the four Democratic counties…he still would have lost…. a statewide recount could have produced enough votes to tilt the election his way" (a mere tilt? Well, that's one way of putting it) "no matter what standard was chosen to judge voter intent."

Finally, paragraph sixteen: "A New York Times investigation earlier this year showed that 680 of the late-arriving [overseas] ballots did not meet Florida's standards yet were still counted. The vast majority of those flawed ballots were accepted in counties that favored Mr. Bush after an aggressive effort by Bush strategists to pressure officials to accept them." I then got out this earlier story (July 15, 2001). It is somewhat less homogenized than the current account. "In an analysis of the 2,490 [overseas] ballots…the Times found 680 questionable votes," of which "four out of five were accepted in counties carried by Mr. Bush," making him victor by 537 votes. Yet on July 15 the Times felt "all [680 votes] would have been disqualified had the state's election laws been strictly enforced." I suggest that the editors, to show good faith, should have used paragraph sixteen as their lead paragraph: Start with the crime and then unravel it–or deep-six it if that's your plan. Putting it as the coda to a confusing story suggests a desire to obscure, not illuminate, what happened.

In the end, thanks to the acceptance of 680 illegal ballots, Bush "won" by 537 votes, since at least that number were counted, rightly or wrongly, for Bush, otherwise–brace yourselves–why should such obviously illegal ballots be counted at all by his partisans? Put another way, if other magical counters had counted these ballots for Gore that would have taken away 537 votes from Bush's tally and given them to Gore, who would then, despite the Supreme Court's ominous meddling, have become the 43rd President. The Times, having consulted the Delphic oracle and, presumably, a thorough examination of a mad cow's entrails, called in a Harvard "expert" who wisely opined–a word creeping into newspaper jargon on "eke's" shoulders–that there was no way to declare a winner with "mathematical certainty." That man was worth his fee.

November 12 was quite a day at the Times. After the Fessenden/Broder front-page story, there was the Richard Berke story headed "Who Won Florida? The Answer Emerges, but Surely Not the Final Word." I'll say. Where Fessenden/Broder begin with "A comprehensive review" of the ballots, Berke begins on a note of triumph. He changes the article "A" to "The comprehensive review of…" etc. This may be much the same story, but it still sounds a bit thin as it tries to convince us that all is well in a wonderful world because after "the drama of those 36 days last fall, most of the country moved on long ago," marching as to war, one might say. September 11 is referred to as the moment of truth for all patriots, and "many partisan Democrats are loath to question the legitimacy of a president in wartime." The writer mentions President Grover Cleveland's defeat in 1888–won popular vote, lost Electoral College, re-elected four years later. Case not applicable. Cleveland was not robbed of election like Gore. A closer analogy is with New York Governor Samuel Tilden–a Democrat–who won the election of 1876 with a plurality of a quarter-million votes and then was well and truly robbed of the election by the Republican Party, whose troops still occupied parts of the South…. etc. Since the Times refers to its victories, I shall draw the reader's attention to my novel 1876, in which I describe how the election of that year was hijacked and how Tilden went quietly, as did Gore. Tilden was never heard of again.

The most depressing aspect of this whole story is how little interest the people seem to have in the unconstitutional usurpation of a presidential election by a rogue Supreme Court majority. It is also striking how little moved they are by the rights we are so rapidly losing in the never-to-be-won war against never-to-be-defined "terrorism." The current confusions of the New York Times are not so much that paper's usual problems with honest reporting but what looks to be a perfect indifference to the welfare of this Republic, as opposed to corporate cheerleading for the new homeland that November 2000, not September 2001, made possible. Meanwhile, Vice President Cheney, in his "undisclosed" bunker, is no doubt wondering whether or not to postpone the certain-to-be-divisive presidential election of 2004. After all, homeland security comes first.

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