Even as the Tallahassee attorneys for Vice President Al Gore were dolefully packing away their legal-size manila folders and Gore's aides in Washington were reaching for bourbon Wednesday, three Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Florida called for Gore to continue to pursue whatever legal avenues remain available in his quest for the presidency.
Reps. Alcee Hastings, Peter Deutsch and Carrie Meek made clear that they harbor lingering doubts about Bush's legitimacy as president in the wake of the divisive battle that apparently ended Gore's chances with a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in Texas Gov. George W. Bush's favor Tuesday night.
"The vice president should not concede and should actually use that opening the Supreme Court has given him," Deutsch said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. "There's still time to count the votes." Despite legal experts' claims to the contrary, Deutsch insisted, the Supreme Court ruling, in remanding the case back to the Florida Supreme Court, left an opportunity for the recount to be reordered on constitutional grounds. The actual final deadline "is Jan. 6, when Congress accepts the electors," Deutsch said.
The three Florida Democrats implied that a cloud covers the prospective Bush presidency in the darkness of illegitimacy. First and foremost, they slammed the Supreme Court for what they consider to be a partisan ruling precluding, according to Meek, "my African-American constituency" from having a "chance of having their votes counted." The court's decision "reminds me of some terrible, horrible mistakes of the past," she said.
Hastings said that the ruling turned American politics upside-down. "Rather than be a place where presidents choose judges, these were judges choosing a president."
Deutsch said that his 10-year-old son summed up the perception problem of the court Wednesday morning when he said, "It's not fair."
"It looks like a political decision," Deutsch said, calling the ruling "maybe [the Supreme Court's] darkest hour ever."
While Hastings, Meek and Deutsch said they would live with a President Bush, Hastings called the election a "stain on democracy ... The people are going to be left saying, 'I'm not certain this guy won this election.'"
Factor in the various disputes surrounding the Florida election, Hastings said, including the butterfly ballot, the failure of various hand recounts to be completed, the fact that some ballots were "on an 11th-grade reading level" and on and on. After all that, "you tell me that you know that George Bush won this election, I will tuck myself under the legitimacy that you have just falsified."
"The legitimacy of any president where the votes are left uncounted is automatically a consideration," Hastings said. "He'll be the president, and if the Middle East explodes tomorrow we will rally around him as we would Al Gore."
Still, the wounds from this election may be slow to heal, Meek said, particularly among black voters, who are especially wary of the legitimacy of Bush's presidency. "Our voters are suspect of the judicial system," Meek said. "They feel there's something rotten in Denmark. There have been too many circumstances that belied honesty and integrity in this process. They don't believe that Gore has been treated fairly. They feel that their votes have not been counted."
But beneath the Democrats' strongly worded rhetoric lay a tacit recognition that Bush is almost certain to be the president-elect. Since the ruling was handed down, high-ranking Democrats like Democratic National Committee chairman Ed Rendell, Sen. Bob Torricelli of New Jersey and Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota have called on Gore to concede.
But Florida's Democrats are urging Gore to fight on, however contrary such a fight may be to legal practicality, public opinion or even the apparent decision of Gore and his advisors to concede Wednesday at 9 p.m. EST.
The conference call for reporters was arranged by the DNC, working with the Florida Democratic Party. Tony Welch, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party, acknowledged the gulf between the Gore campaign's tempered public remarks and the three representatives' rather strong sentiments -- especially those against Bush and the Supreme Court. But the three members of Congress really wanted to express their views, Welch said.
"I don't think this thing is over," Deutsch said during the conference call. "Just think about every Bruce Willis movie you've ever seen."
"I prefer 'Friday the 13th' and Freddy Krueger from the "Nightmare on Elm Street" films, joked Hastings.
But even Bruce Willis movies roll the credits at some point. What about the members of the Gore team who are saying that it's all over?
Deutsch referred to them as "the people in Al Gore's office who want to go back to being lobbyists" and "don't want to offend a Bush administration" because they're "afraid of losing their clients." Deutsch said that he knows Gore fairly well and that "I know in his heart I don't think he wants to stop."
Hastings noted that Bush's running mate, presumed Vice President-elect Dick Cheney, was meeting with moderate Republicans in the Senate Wednesday, and suggested that Bush and Cheney get moving on setting up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus. "We always know we're going to be last on the list," Hastings said. "But he had better get started. Because the honeymoon is over before it began."