Swamp Things


Revisiting the electoral crime scene in hope of preventing a recurrence, Melville House has brought out a cautionary trio of pocket-sized books (pamphlets, really) devoted to the hijacking of the 2000 presidential vote.

Return with them now to the thrilling daze of yesteryear: “a swamp,” as Renata Adler’s Irreparable Harm handily characterizes the Supreme Court decision that by imperious and self-contradictory judicial fiat installed George W. Bush as unelected president. But the same could be said of the vote itself. As Mark Danner’s terse but thorough The Road to Illegitimacy recalls, the whole process was a murky nightmare of “errors, misperceptions, and general foul-ups”—to say nothing of bad luck, bad faith, and bad timing, compounded by malfeasance and a good old-fashioned partisan power play. The underreported protest of the Bush Inauguration is the subject of Dennis Loy Johnson’s more hyperbolic The Big Chill. The lack of a “vivid and meaningful” media presence for the galvanic anger of the howling mob, or an accurate estimate of the eggs tossed at the presidential limo by same, is not quite equal to the crime against democracy that brought the occupant there in the first place.

The books maintain a present-tense immediacy and momentum, largely because they were all written in the debacle’s aftermath (Danner’s as a February 2001 dispatch from Florida ground zero for The New York Review of Books, Adler’s as a July 2001 essay for The New Republic, and Johnson’s as an unpublished orphan). Each has the briefest of afterwords, but only Danner’s summary of the unofficial press recount adds anything significant: “In an irony typical of his candidacy, Al Gore would likely have lost a count conducted, according to his preferences, in the state’s four largest counties. George W. Bush . . . would likely have lost a full, statewide count of all ballots.” What we really have here are three chapters in search of a larger book—or if you prefer, the Perfect Swamp served à la carte, one sluice at a time, without much in the way of an overview or lessons that might be drawn from the still-festering abscess.

Icy high dudgeon has always been Adler’s cultural-vulture specialty (a Beyond Hypothermia lit hit woman), but that bitterly incredulous tone is ideally suited to dismantling the mockery-sham-sophistry of the Bush v. Gore opinion. Sinking her fastidiously filed teeth into Antonin Scalia’s daft concurrence, this is the scorn of a soul mate (“a Republican and an attorney herself,” the press release reminds us) betrayed by one of her own. Injustice Scalia wrote that “irreparable harm to the petitioner, and to the country” would be done by counting the votes, “casting a cloud . . . upon what he claims to be the legitimacy of his election.” Adler picks apart the ridiculous notion of “cloud-casting,” a doctrine of legal preemption that shut down the recount because the legitimacy of Bush’s victory might indeed have been called into question if it turned out he actually lost. (Perhaps this case was a coming attraction for Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” victory-in-Iraq speech.) Still, Adler’s abstract sense of this as “an event so radical it alters everything” brushes aside the practical matter at hand: If the recount went in Gore’s favor, the Republican-majority Florida legislature would have submitted a rival set of electors for Bush, and it would have been left to the Republican Congress to choose.

Let’s not kid ourselves: Whatever the philosophical implications or radioactive half-life of this court’s extralegal imposition of order at the expense of law, its main thrust was to provide a cover story legitimizing a mugging that was virtually inevitable. In any endgame, Gore was doomed by unholy circumstances, not least of which was that to prevail he needed “the most generous standards of what constituted a vote” to be applied. Rekindling we-wuz-robbed indignation is no substitute for considering concrete steps to avert the same kind of disaster this time around (better voter preparation along with registration, for one), or even an unflinching evaluation of how the “disorderly process” of dueling electoral slates would likely have played out (white-rioting Republican Guards dropkicking Save the Whalers into the Potomac). There’s just enough lingering denial here to make you wonder what the out-crowd really wants: to unseat Bush for real, or simply have their hard-earned rage validated for four more years.