Scenes from a crisis

As the hand recount starts -- then stops again -- in Florida, Bush and Gore supporters do whatever it is they do in Washington


Alicia Montgomery
December 10, 2000 6:37AM (UTC)

I was expecting Saturday to be an eventful day, but the lack of news in the morning -- especially after the legal shockers that rolled in one after another on Friday -- lulled me into thinking that maybe the courts would hold their collective tongues for a while. I was half-right. It was a slow day -- until the U.S. Supreme Court decided to throw its weight around.

Al Gore's house

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10:45 a.m.: Across the street from the forbidding iron gate at the entrance of the Naval Observatory, the vice president's official residence, supporters of Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Gore begin to settle in on opposite corners for a long morning of screaming at each other. Separated by a narrow side street and a broad range of ideas, each group flaps a collection of homemade signs at passing cars, urging motorists to honk for Bush or Gore.

Though the Bush supporters have been more visible in television reports, this morning they are outnumbered significantly. I count 10 on the Republican side, predominantly middle-aged, mostly men and all of them white. Among the 20 or so in the Gore bunch, I spot a few non-whites and over-40s, but mostly it is a crew of youngish men and women. Carried away by the spirit of the day, I begin recounting the Republicans. One of the Bushies spots this and comes right over to speak to me.

Dave Dilegge, a Bush man, explains that the Saturday morning count isn't a real representation of the normal balance between the two groups, and to prove it, he shows me a notebook full of photos. I don't point out that all the shots focus on the Bush side, so you wouldn't be able to tell if the Democrats had turned out in force. Dilegge apparently senses that he hasn't made a strong enough case because, without any prompting, he backs off his assertion that the Republican group is always larger and tries another tack. "We bring more passion," Dilegge said. "The numbers don't really matter."

11:07 a.m.: A Democratic organizer -- or perhaps just an organized Democrat -- arrives at the Naval Observatory site with orange ribbons for all the Gore supporters to wear. They're meant to symbolize the need for a recount in Florida. "Not just for Gore to win," explains ribbon-bearer Dionne Brown, "but for the final results to be fair." She also praises the Florida Supreme Court for its decision to authorize the recount.

Democrat Ken Wasch, who just happens to be jogging through the area, doesn't want to extend thanks to the entire court. "How you get to be so stupid and be the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court?" he sneers, dismissing the dissenting Florida justices as rubes.

11:15 a.m.: Wasch jogs off into the distance, a trip that takes him right through the heart of the enemy sidewalk. The neighborhood joggers generally deal with both sides the way kids are taught to deal with dangerous animals: If you don't bother them, they won't bother you. Most of the runners maintain a brisk pace and an unruffled demeanor, never making eye contact. But Wasch takes a different approach. He greets Republican jeers with an upraised fist and a shout of "Go Gore!"

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Bush woman Susan Clark knows just how to respond. "Fags for Gore! Fags for Gore!" she shouts in Wasch's direction.

Clark is using a bullhorn because her throat's been worn out by shouting. "I've been here since 5," she says. All morning, Clark's been yelling at the "Goreons" that their candidate is a liar and a thief, just like his boss, President Clinton. She blames the "lazy liberals" for bad schools, slow bureaucracies and impure children. "Kids today know more about oral sex than I did when I was 20-something," she said.

11:45 a.m.: The Gore side is still winning the numbers battle, maintaining about a dozen-person lead over the Bushies despite late arrivals to both groups. But with more men's bass voices and one more bullhorn than the Democrats, the GOP has the edge in volume. The honking of horns in response to the partisan entreaties is an enterprise of dubious effectiveness. The two groups are so close together that some motorists who honk are greeted with appreciation from both sides. Some drivers honk and point to make sure that their intent is easily discerned, while others seem to honk out of irritation that other cars are slowing down to ogle the demonstrators. They just want to get to wherever it is they're going.

The Democratic National Committee

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12:35 p.m.: With their candidates' bright blue signs papering the windows, volunteers for the Gore-Lieberman Recount Committee pursue their mysterious mission -- no one will explain to me exactly what it is -- in silence. A security guard waves me toward a few dimly lit rooms on the ground floor of the Democratic National Committee building, where signs on the door of one chamber warn those who enter not to make a sound. About two dozen young people sit at computer workstations lining the walls while a television broadcasts CNN from a corner. Everybody is so engrossed in whatever work it is they're doing that it takes them a minute to notice an intruder.

"I don't think that we're allowing press in here," says Gore spokesman Chris Lehane, glancing across the room toward a young man who silently shakes his head in agreement. Lehane smiles politely and stops me at the door. "No, I don't think you can come in here," he says, although he does allow me to walk the length of the hall outside as long as I don't disturb anyone. But it would be hard to disturb this bunch. Most of the volunteers appear mesmerized by their computer screens and lulled into a daze by the clicking of their keyboards. Here and there, I spy half-empty bottles of Diet Coke and a stray beer can.

12:43 p.m.: Two volunteers taking a break don't like that I'm standing in the hall unsupervised and ask the grandfatherly security guard to guide me back to the lobby. Lehane steps away from his work for a moment to talk to me. If he's having a mental breakdown from the never-ending campaign, it certainly doesn't show. He seems at ease and even happy, perhaps still basking in the renewed hope of the Florida recount.

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The Gore whiz kid hasn't been back to the Sunshine State since the early days of the recount battle, and he doesn't miss it a bit. "I really enjoy waking up into my own bedroom for a change," he says. I ask him what he expects to be doing in two months. "I hope to be reading reports about the success of the first hundred days of the Gore presidency, the first third of the first hundred days, anyway," Lehane says, grinning. "It'll be like a valentine to the whole nation."

12:50 p.m.: Lehane returns to his work among the volunteers, the phone lines and the computers of the DNC headquarters, just as two young party stalwarts arrive with a dozen pizzas. Everyone is preparing for a long day.

The White House

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1 p.m.: One of the Bushies picketing Gore's house earlier promised that his cause had reinforcements spread throughout the capital city, ready to denounce the vice president loudly to any television camera or passing tourist. I had been told that there would be a group gathered for that purpose on the sidewalk in front of the White House, but there are no signs of dissent when I arrive. The sidewalk is off-limits anyway because workmen are busy assembling wooden seats and display stands for the parade celebrating the inauguration of God-knows-who in a few weeks,

The sole picketer at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. holds up a placard that reads, "Obstruction of Justice. Perjury. President Clinton, You must resign!" -- clearly a leftover from last year's great presidential crisis.

Bush/Cheney Transition Office

1:45 p.m.: During the campaign, Bush always made a point of insisting that he wasn't part of the Washington scene. Apparently, he wants that to be the case until the last possible minute. The space that he and running mate Dick Cheney are occupying for transition planning is in an unremarkable low-rise office building in a suburb located a good 30-minute drive from downtown. It's quite convenient for Cheney because it's in McLean, Va., where he owns a house. It's convenient for Bush because it's near Cheney.

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Though the site is far away from the center of government, the Republicans are already trying to infuse their temporary nest with some of that executive branch flavor. One roving security guard monitors the outside parking lot while another maintains a lookout at the door of the press area, ready to give bags a thorough search. But when I pass through the checkpoint, I wonder why it's there in the first place. There isn't anything inside the press area besides a few phones, a half-dozen bored reporters and some cameramen.

Set against a back wall is a platform and a podium surrounded by thick, royal-blue drapes. A sober "Bush-Cheney Transition" sign hangs above the stage, framed by two large American flags. Two real live ferns sit on either side of the podium's base, and a series of red velvet ropes separates the platform from the 25 empty chairs where journalists would sit should anything ever happen here. It all looks very presidential, dignified and a bit overdone. Nothing is going on.

2:07 p.m.: As I idle for another moment at the Bush-Cheney office, word comes from CNN that maybe, perhaps, the U.S. Supreme Court might be ruling on whether the Florida hand recount should stop. Those seem like much better story odds than what I'm being offered at the slumbering transition office, so I head back to the city.

U.S. Supreme Court

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2:38 p.m.: The cab rolls up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court just in time for me to spot three or four men in suits sprinting around the building. There really has been a ruling. Even though the court is slow in passing out the papers, the camera operators surrounding the building already have the news: The Florida recount has been halted again, maybe for the last time.

2:57 p.m.: Though the Supreme Court steps had been relatively free of protesters when I arrived, a small crowd has now gathered as television reporters announce the ruling. But Dan Martino, an anti-abortion activist who has spent a lot of time here in the last few weeks, is leaving before most of the cameras roll. He says he's just tired of the whole thing. "I think it's really time for one of these guys to get out of the toy box," he said. "Maybe this will do it."


Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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