Bullied, autistic and obsessed with presidents: How the 2000 presidential election changed my life

That year altered my worldview as an autistic teenager obsessed with the Bush-Gore race and its results

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 2, 2021 7:30PM (EDT)

Matthew Rozsa, circa 2000 (Photo courtesy of author)
Matthew Rozsa, circa 2000 (Photo courtesy of author)

I love the word "neurodiversity."

"Neurodiversity" — which refers to the idea that some conditions viewed as developmental disorders are actually normal variations in the brain — exists to de-stigmatize autism and spread awareness that some neurological differences can be normal and healthy. My favorite thing about that word, though, is how it implies that there are a great many ways life shapes each distinct neurological type. Like a lot of others with autism, I tend to develop obsessive interests about which I insatiably acquire extensive, detailed knowledge. Worlds have changed because certain interests have caught fire within specific autistic minds.

According to author and autism advocate Temple Grandin, there are three ways that autistic people can think: They can be visual thinkers, musical/mathematical thinkers or verbal/logic thinkers. From the moment I first read her theory, I knew that I was a word thinker. How could I not, when this is the way she would later describe them? "The word thinker may be poor at drawing but have a huge memory for facts such as sports statistics or film stars."

I started with sports statistics. Thumbing through massive books brimming with historical data broken down by team and player, as a little child in the early '90s I would impress my parents' friends with memorized facts and figures about football lore. Shortly before the 1992 NFL season, I announced to my parents that I was going to be a Green Bay Packers fan. When they asked why I'd support a team from a distant state coming off a 4-12 season, I explained that they had won the first two Super Bowls and were the only team with green in both their uniform and name. Green is my favorite color, which gave these mathematical factoids profound significance to me. Luckily for me, the Packers' fortunes changed for the rest of the '90s, and I still vividly remember watching them cap off the 1996 season with a victory at Super Bowl XXXI. I spent the night regaling my parents' friends with tales from various seasons in the nearly-30 year championship drought I hoped was about to end.

By the late '90s, I had moved on to the entertainment industry. Film stars didn't interest me, but since I aspired to be the next Steven Spielberg (I would end up reviewing movies instead), I felt I needed to know about box office revenues. There was a time when I could recite the top 100 highest grossing films without missing a beat, as well as offer amateur theories as to why certain movies succeeded or failed. In 1998, when "Titanic" became the highest grossing film of all time unadjusted for inflation, I was personally engrossed by news of its week-by-week financial saga, putting me at odds with peers who were gushing about Leonardo DiCaprio, Celine Dion and the special effects. ("Titanic" would lose its title to "Avatar" in 2010, which would later by supplanted by other blockbusters.)

Then I moved on to politics.

On some level society made the choice for me. It started in 1997, when I was 12, and after I survived an antisemitic hate crime. A group of my classmates held my head under water and, motivated by religious prejudice, chanted things like "Drown the Jew!" This didn't on its own make me interested in politics, but it did cause a hyperawareness of how the world views me as a Jew. I suspect most Jews experience that stinging moment when they realize with sudden and vicious clarity that, for some people, they are hated simply because they fall into the category of "Jew." People can draw very different lessons from this revelation. Mine were leftist.

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Yet my politics were shaped much more by being autistic than by being Jewish. Growing up I was bullied and socially isolated as a child, which made me strive to identify with others who are marginalized and mistreated. When I reached the age when my peers were taking on after-school jobs, I struggled with employment because I couldn't naturally socialize, maintain eye contact, pay attention during menial tasks and "fit in" (a catch-all term that not-so-obliquely labels you as a misfit). This gave me a hyper-awareness that I was an outsider, and I coped with the anger and loneliness by gradually aligning myself with other outsiders.

That, in turn, brought me to politics. And once I was there, did I ever discover a world of fascinating, intoxicating information.

That passion perhaps deserves a bit of elaboration. To a certain type of autistic brain, the love of words and figures goes beyond an intellectual's zest for knowledge. There is a comfort to the order found in statistics — a chaotic world can, through the right paradigms, make sense — that seems natural. It isn't a chore to immerse one's self in mathematical concepts and other abstractions; it is like stumbling across a home you didn't know was there, but always suspected existed. And the home is always beautiful, at least if you know how to see rather than just look. When it comes to presidential elections every number is pregnant with meaning, representing the philosophies and choices of millions upon millions of individuals. Taken together, their raw life experiences wind up elevating one human being to the most powerful office in the world... and relegating many others to the dreaded status of "also ran."

These were stories with significance, and my gateway drug was a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the legendary election between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, Theodore H. White's "The Making of the President — 1960." I devoured that tome and its three sequels, and in the process imbibed White's vision into my very being. He waxed lyrical with a romanticized view of American politics, depicting it as an arena in which the loftiest small-d democratic ideals were brought to vivid life through glorious combat. Even more brilliantly, White used math to paint his picture in the same way that a painter uses different hues on a canvas. I was hooked, and soon moved on to other books about presidents, presidential aspirants and their politics.

Before long I could rattle off minutiae about the biggest popular vote winners in American history. Usually I would present these factoids to acquaintances as questions that I would immediately answer for them:

Question: Do you know who the biggest popular vote winners are in American presidential history?

Answering my own question: There are four who surpassed 60 percent! Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, Richard Nixon in 1972 and Warren Harding in 1920.

Question: Do you know how many presidents lost when they tried to get elected to another term?

Answering my own question: Ten! John Adams in 1800, John Quincy Adams in 1828, Martin Van Buren in 1840, Stephen Grover Cleveland in 1888, Benjamin Harrison in 1892, William Howard Taft in 1912, Herbert Clark Hoover in 1932, Gerald Rudolph Ford in 1976, James Earl Carter Jr. in 1980 and George Herbert Walker Bush in 1992!

This is who I was at the age of 15, the year of the 2000 election. Much has been said about that contest, but let me add: It was an exhilarating and devastating time to be a politics-obsessed Jewish American teenage autist.

Given that my parents had voted for Bill Clinton twice, their sympathies naturally went to Al Gore and mine followed. The '90s had been prosperous and peaceful as far as my experiences went, and like many I gave credit to Clinton and believed Gore would deliver more of the same. I learned about Clinton's achievements and rattled them off to whoever would listen. When it came to the issues, I cared mainly about gun control. As a "weird" Jewish kid who had been previously victimized by violence, I viewed events like the deadly 1999 Columbine massacre in terms of literal self-preservation. (I acquired a lot of useful knowledge about the history of the Second Amendment during this period.)

I also leaned Democratic because I had developed a sense of "patriotism" for my home state, Pennsylvania. There was a period when I would regularly check out books about William Penn and the colonial Pennsylvanians, and I saw their Enlightenment ideals continued more by modern liberals than conservatives. This was particularly true when it came to matters of religious freedom, and in the year 2000 I could quote Voltaire's line about how "the so much boasted golden age" had "in all probability never existed but in Pennsylvania" in part for that reason. (I went through a Voltaire phase despite the French philosopher's antisemitism because, being a rebellious teenager, I loved his style.)

I had an additional reason to support the Democrats when Gore picked Joe Lieberman as his running mate. It is hard to capture in words what this meant to a Jewish kid who had nearly been murdered as a so-called "Christ-killer" three years earlier. On some level, it felt as if America's Vice President wasn't just elevating Lieberman, but sending a message to Jews like me that he was watching our back. As a child, I had associated Jewishness with feeling rejected; Gore helped me see that, for millions of Americans, it was something to be embraced. By accepting Gore's offer, Lieberman showed that it also wasn't something to be afraid of displaying to the world. I was all too aware that presidents like Nixon, Harry Truman and Ulysses S. Grant had been notoriously antisemitic, so it meant a great deal to think America might have a president who would put a Jew one heartbeat away from the presidency.

As I learned more about Lieberman, I saw much of myself in him, a bookish and idealistic middle class Jewish kid from the northeast. I also enjoyed the synchronicity of this detail: he was a senator from Connecticut, which was true of the only other Jew ever offered the vice presidency. Thanks to White's last "Making of the President" installment, I knew that Democratic nominee George McGovern asked Abe Ribicoff to run with him during the 1972 election. (When I mentioned Ribicoff's name to my parents after reading that, I discovered my great-grandmother catered his 1931 wedding.) McGovern had lost that election with, I believed, tragic consequences for America. I hoped both Gore and America would not again suffer that fate.

My fixation on presidential elections broadly, and the 2000 contest specifically, did not help me socially. Most of my peers were uninterested in politics, and some of the interested supported George W. Bush. On one occasion my mother recalls me coming home very upset because a teacher had reprimanded me for being "too intense" on the subject. 

"As it turned out, another student was attacking you for your support of Gore-Lieberman using what we now call 'alternate facts' to support his case," she recalled. "Apparently, you rebutted with a litany of statistics that got the other student very upset."

The teacher said he had reprimanded me because I was "on a roll" and would have continued for the rest of the class period if he had not intervened.

My intensity would only worsen after Election Day. When it came to the popular vote, it was the closest election since the '60s. Moreover, it seemed obvious to me that the election was going to be stolen by Bush.

Question: Do you know which five elections before 2000 had a popular vote difference of less than one percent between the top two candidates?

Answering my own question: 1880, 1884, 1888, 1960 and 1968!

I was not happy — and the people around me knew it. To my friend Sal, I opened up about how I thought this was just like the 1960 election, and proceeded to detail all of the myriad controversies surrounding why that election was close and how the 2000 case was indisputably more egregious. I discussed the 1876 election with a teacher, comparing the chicanery from the Rutherford Hayes and Samuel Tilden campaigns with the actions of Bush and his crew. That teacher later told me that "what I really remember is your ability to recall the exact popular and electoral vote totals for any election that got mentioned. It was truly extraordinary that you could do that." In the year 2000, I used the full measure of that knowledge to try to convince anyone who would listen that we were in the midst of a historic moment, as if somehow spreading that awareness would help the righteous side prevail.

That didn't happen. Bush won and the rest, as they say, is history. For America, that means we had a president who won due to a 537-vote margin (out of six million cast) in a state controlled by his brother — and, like Trump in 2016, without having won the most votes nationally. I believed then, and still believe now, that the Bush political machine and Supreme Court misused their power, and that this misuse most likely explains why Gore lost Florida. I particularly believe that the poorly-reasoned decision Bush v. Gore stopped a process that would have flipped the state, and thus the election, to the Vice President. Despite these injustices, Gore displayed a sense of humor as he oversaw the certification of the electoral votes, while Vice President Mike Pence was vilified by Trump and his supporters (who attempted a coup) for eventually caving to the Constitution.

The contrast between the 2000 and 2020 elections is instructive. In the case of the Bush-Gore contest, there were legitimate questions that arose only after both campaigns saw that a single important state had a particularly close result. Trump, on the other hand, has a long history of being a sore loser, accusing his opponents of cheating in both the 2016 Republican primaries and the 2016 general election. He had repeatedly told his supporters that the only way he could lose in 2020 would be if the election was stolen, long before the Democrats chose Joe Biden as their nominee. The fact that Trump attempted a coup just shows that he lacked the character of Gore and his supporters. The fact that Trump was believed by millions is a tale of psychological phenomena like narcissism by proxy and malignant normalities, as well as Trump's fascist brand of politics, and not one of actual election theft.

That is American history over the last 21 years. My own history since 2000 involved pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in history; I've been in a PhD program since 2012 as I balance my scholarly pursuits with my journalism career. I also write a weekly column about political history parallels, and my personal history has given me a unique perspective on Donald Trump's Big Lie about the 2020 election. There is something uniquely infuriating about facing a Big Lie when you have devoted such a substantial portion of your neurodivergent mind to studying the truths that rebut it. I understand in the marrow of my bones why it means so much that none of the 10 previous presidents who lost an election outright rejected the result.

When I first read George Washington's Farewell Address as a teenager, I lived in a world where his chief warning was only hypothetical — namely, that "cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men" might some day exploit partisanship to "subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion."

Now I live in a world where Washington's prophecy has been realized, and where the statistics that I held sacred are being spat upon. The teenager inside me would tell you with absolute certainty that the only election to ever cause this much damage to our democracy was the 1860 contest. You shouldn't need to be obsessed with electoral statistics to know how that one ended.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Al Gore Autism Bullying Essay George W. Bush Joe Lieberman