Courting controversy

When my spouse started working at the Florida Supreme Court, we never thought bomb and kidnapping threats would be part of the equation

By Chris Lazenbee

Published November 22, 2000 5:42PM (EST)

As I write this, my daughter crawls under my desk, papering the floor with Post-it notes and coloring her face with a blue Sharpie pen, all because of this election craziness. All week I've kept her home from day care. There are kidnapping threats.

Meanwhile, reporters and camera crews and obstreperous demonstrators crawl all over the front steps of the building where my spouse works as a staff attorney for the Florida Supreme Court.

The threats keep coming in, via phone, via fax, via e-mail -- threats against the judges, the staff attorneys, their children. The threats, one security guy says, "are getting weirder."

I ask what that means.

"I don't want to know," my spouse says, hanging up before I can ask anything more, which is probably good for all involved. The ethical bonds of the court prevent employees from saying anything other than "No comment" and "Read the statute yourself." If I asked one more time if there's some kind of spousal exemption, no one could be blamed for crushing my skull with a law dictionary.

Bomb threats and kidnapping threats are probably to be expected in any situation like this. I doubt if anything bad will happen to my spouse or my child or anyone affiliated with the court, and I'm equally sure that all over Tallahassee there are people who work in offices -- say, the Secretary of State's Office -- who are laboring under more and weirder threats. That said, from where I sit, there's no "like this" to this situation.

The O.J. Simpson trial happened in Los Angeles, which everyone knows is a loony bin.

The Clinton/Lewinsky scandal happened in D.C., which everyone knows is a loony bin.

The Elián González situation happened in Miami, which everyone knows is a loony bin.

But this is Tallahassee, Fla. I've lived here for four years, and it's no loony bin. Would that it were.

Tallahassee -- where the panhandle meets the pan. Live oaks, pine woods, rolling hills. A strip-malled Southern semi-boomtown, with roads and an airport that have just reached the levels of service they needed to provide 20 years ago. When you drive through for the first time, it's necessary for a local to point out that the otherwise random collection of intersections and three-story buildings is the downtown. It's a city defined by college football, boiled peanuts, smoked mullet and sinister Ken-doll lobbyists. It's defined architecturally by the Old South/New South juxtaposition of the clichéd but lovely old State Capitol building and the new Capitol that looms behind it, which is so ugly you never see it whole on TV -- a 26-story white shaft flanked on each side by a white dome, which seems egregiously phallic.

Tallahassee -- ground zero of the news-gathering world.

I should be less surprised. After all, as an accident of long-superseded demographic logic (Tallahassee is equidistant from St. Augustine and Pensacola, which, when Florida joined the Union in 1845, were the state's two largest cities), this is the capital of the state of Florida. And this year has been nothing if not the Year of Florida.

It was a year that began with Little Elián, the kind of "everyone is wrong" mess that America does better than any nation on earth. All summer and fall, Florida issues defined the tone and agenda for the soporific presidential campaign; few people in my social circles or even generation could give one-tenth of one goddamn about prescription drug benefits or Social Security lockboxes, but Florida was a battleground state represented disproportionately by old people who vote, vote, vote. Which brings us -- o, sweet bird of irony! -- to a well-meaning gesture by a Democratic do-gooder to print up a presidential ballot in BIG TYPE so that the grayheads could read it. Only the ballot spread onto two pages and confused the high-octane bejesus out of those same old people, who intended to decide the election in Gore's favor but will probably wind up deciding it -- the entire national election -- in Bush's.

Of course, Florida isAmerica. I don't blame you for not wanting to own up to us as a microcosm of you. But that cruise ship has sailed, skippy. Florida is governed (as we're all about to be) by one of President Bush's unaccomplished and deeply shallow boys. Like America, Florida's agrarian economy has been replaced by a feed-me, entertain-me, enhance-my-equity, smokestack-free mishmash of amusement parks, healthcare, video chains and surgically enhanced Realtors.. As in the rest of America, the rural people and the urban people regard each other as space aliens. Florida's principal urban areas (Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa/St.Pete and Miami/Fort Lauderdale) represent, respectively, the aggressively vulgar right-wing New South, the mother of all tourist-traps, the triumph of grim vacuous suburbia over an actual sense of place and an entertainingly corrupt polyglot international urban area.

Last weekend, the prima donnas from news got huffy about Tallahassee's priorities because they got booted from their hotels by the sports media who came here to cover the Florida State/Florida football game. But the football people (who slightly outnumbered the news people, which I find strangely reassuring) were polite and businesslike and slipped into and out of town without bollixing our comings and goings. The news people are still here, blocking traffic and inciting people who are more irritating than drunken football fans to gather and brandish signs the most hapless fan would deem witless.

Nothing really important in this election snafu makes for good visuals. Nothing great is happening anywhere that any member of the media has access to. TV news people stand on the plaza between the old and new Capitols and say things everyone with an Internet connection already knows. And forget press credentials: Anyone with a notebook, a microphone or a motor home with call letters painted on the side can come here and get precisely the same information, no more or no less, that you can get by watching MSNBC or CNN or hitting refresh over and over on any number of Web sites.

Tallahassee is, it should be said, kind of a hick town, and so daily our local media reports breathlessly on the influx of cold hard cash into the local beauty-shop industry, as famous TV personalities need somewhere to go every day to get their hair that special kind of poofy. And we did, cornily enough, respond by the hundreds to the lodging crisis last weekend with offers (free and otherwise) of spare bedrooms and pullout couches where the likes of Wolf Blitzer could, if need be, crash.

Off and on for two weeks now, we have wandered down to the plaza with our children on our shoulders, smiling like rubes who were good in social studies. We've marveled at what gets covered and what does not. Two days after the election, I went to a sit-in in the Capitol rotunda by black kids from Florida A&M, who were alleging all kinds of voter fraud and civil rights infractions (including some kids who said they were turned away because they were told the polling place had run out of ballots). It was one part March on Washington, one part slumber party and one part Florida A&M pep rally, complete with hissing sounds (they are the Rattlers) and football cheers. The only TV cameras covering it were from local stations. The network talking heads were all outside, on the plaza. Whenever any of them was about to do a stand-up, shouting and shirtless frat boys, alpha males with Bush/Cheney bumper stickers stuck to their chests, ran into the shot, and defeated-looking people with Gore/Lieberman signs filled in behind them. One Bush dork had a sign that said, "My grandmother can figure out how to vote, why can't yours?" Behind him, one of the Florida A&M kids muttered something about how risky it is to insult black folks' grandmothers. Three men with big signs advertising a march on Washington to combat male circumcision got into the mix, too. This was all about male circumcision, they were (in soft voices) arguing. Male circumcision apparently causes brain damage. They had pamphlets.

A few days later, a friend of mine, came to town. When he got off the plane from New York, I asked him if he wanted to go grab a bite and see the circus. So we went to a watering hole right across the street from the new Capitol. On TVs all over the bar, Warren Christopher was giving a press conference. My friend and I were drinking beer and eating wings while watching it. Less than a minute after it ended, I looked up. "Hey, look," I said. "It's Warren Christopher. Fresh from the world of TV."

It was. He and three suits sat down at the next table and, while the talking heads on TV were talking about what a blow that day's decision was to the Gore campaign, the men softly chuckled and ordered wine and clinked glasses. Christopher got up and walked to a vacant corner and, on a cellphone with pre-programmed numbers beyond what you can ever know, made a call. A while later, the talking heads reversed field and wondered if the day's decision might not be a matter of Judge Lewis handing Katherine Harris enough rope to hang herself. The suits laughed.

Nothing, though, has been more odd than what happened this weekend, when I watched the talking heads yell at one another and blather on about what they imagined they knew about the Supreme Court -- and I knew more, in my own living room, than they did. Not because I have any insider info but because I picked up some of the statutes and briefs that are strewn about my coffee table (and available to any of you at any of a zillion places on the Web) and read them, which is more than almost anyone on TV seems to have done. Over the past few days, while the pols and the journalists and the pundits have gotten snippy about things, the court itself has been unflappable. Over the weekend, the atmosphere in there was like that of a bunch of good, well-prepared students studying for final exams they knew they'd ace. After finishing preparation for Monday's hearing, several of the justices even took time out to attend the Florida State/Florida game.

As I finish writing this, the court has announced its ruling: The secretary of state must allow the hand recounts, and she has abused the crap out of her discretionary powers. (I'm paraphrasing.)

I sit down next in the bed next to my spouse.

"Not to slight you or your abilities as a lawyer," I say, "but how does it feel to have worked on the biggest case you'll ever work on? I mean, it'd be the biggest case anyone could ever work on."

"No comment."

Even in the darkness of the bedroom I can see a smile. It's hard to tell what kind of a smile it is. Maybe tomorrow things will start to get less weird. Anything's possible. Our sleeping child stirs. Editor's Note: The identity of the writer has been changed.

Chris Lazenbee

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2000 Elections