"Down & Dirty: The Plot to Steal the Presidency" by Jake Tapper

Reviewed by The Dubya Report staff.

This is a depressing book. It manages to indict Al Gore, George Bush, both major political parties, lawyers, judges, political professionals, the media - and the reader. And while it does present a detailed picture of the circus - maybe professional wrestling would be a closer analogy - that took place in Florida and spread to Washington in the aftermath of the 2000 election, its efforts to remain neutral lead to a pseudophilosophical cop out of a conclusion: "we're all to blame...."

Chronologically, Down & Dirty covers events from Election Day through the Supreme Court decision on December 12. Geographically it focuses on Florida, but includes accounts from Austin, Nashville, Washington, and elsewhere. As comprehensive as this is, one has the feeling that there was enough material for a book twice as long. In fitting the material to a manageable length the narrative has suffered a bit, and some continuity is occasionally lost from chapter to chapter. The book may not work as an historical account, but for political junkies or others who are already familiar with the denouement of the 2000 presidential election, it offers an intriguing and sometimes appalling "insider's" view of the events that led to the Supreme Court of the United States (affectionately referred to as SCOTUS) awarding the presidency to George W. Bush.

The subtitle The Plot to Steal the Presidency is somewhat misleading, in that Tapper never really exposes a "plot." Political demonstrations, legal maneuvering, attempts at manipulating press coverage and public opinion were coordinated by both campaigns. Two facts, however, come the closest to qualifying as a plot or conspiracy.

The first is that Bush's cousin, John Ellis, was, as Tapper says, "unbelievably put in charge of calling election results for Fox News Channel." In July of 1999 Ellis wrote an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe in which he announced that he would not write any more political columns.

I am loyal to my cousin, Governor George Bush of Texas. I put that loyalty ahead of my loyalty to anyone else outside my immediate family. That being the case, it is not possible for me to continue writing columns about the 2000 presidential campaign. A columnist's allegiance must be to the reader. This is an annoying and pretentious thing that journalists say, but it is, in fact, true. Columns depend upon trust…. There is no way for you to know if I am telling you the truth about George W. Bush's presidential campaign because in my case, my loyalty goes to him and not to you.

Yet this was the man Fox News designated to head their election decision team, where he would have the responsibility of "calling" states for one candidate or the other.

At 7:52pm on election night, Fox News called Florida for Gore, but only after the three other networks had already done so. Florida Governor Jeb (an acronym for John Ellis Bush) calls cousin John, who confirms that despite polls open on the Florida panhandle, in the Central time zone, Gore seems poised to win the state. All the networks, including Fox, rely on data from the Voter News Service, an independent organization formed in 1990 so the networks didn't have to maintain duplicate facilities. Tapper compares VNS to a motor vehicle bureau in terms of efficiency and competence. The numbers on which the networks based calling Florida for Gore included totals for some counties that exceed the number of voters, underestimates of absentee ballots, bad samples from Miami, and errors from exit polls. A little over six hours later, VNS numbers are skewed in the other direction. With 97% of Florida precincts reporting, VNS's estimate of votes outstanding is off by nearly 300,000. That includes about 80,000 votes in Palm Beach County, which has gone heavily for Gore. Aware of these details or not, Ellis calls Florida for Bush at 2:17am.

An hour later Ellis tells Jeb that Florida is once again too close to call. In the interim, Gore has already called Bush to concede. When Gore calls a second time to retract the concession, Bush has already begun a charade that some would say continues into the present. He pretends that he doesn't know the state is still in play, telling Gore that the networks are right. This is the genesis of the myth that will be promulgated to the American people for the next months: that Bush won "definitively, at the moment that his cousin called the election for him for Fox News Channel."

The second candidate for conspiracy concerns absentee ballots. The Republicans got considerable public relations mileage from the revelation of a memo from Gore attorney Mark Herron outlining various ways in which absentee ballots could be disqualified. Although there was some expectation that ballots from Americans living in Israel would likely favor Gore, the majority of Florida absentee ballots are from military personnel who were expected to favor Bush. (This is course is ironic given Bush's history of draft dodging by way of the Texas Air National Guard.) Republicans obtained the memo and were able to exploit the conflict between the Gore campaign calling for every vote to be counted while planning ways to disqualify military absentee ballots.

Approximately 23,000 overseas absentee ballots were mailed from Florida, and more than half were returned by Election Day. By Monday, November 13, another 400 ballots were received. By the end of the week, however, that number grew to nearly 4,000. Tapper reports that "[a]ccording to a knowledgeable Republican operative," on or about November 11, Warren Tompkins, who had engineered the smear campaign against John McCain during the Republican primary in South Carolina, organized a conference call with Republican operatives throughout the state. One of the topics reportedly discussed was "having political operatives abroad and near military bases encourage certain soldiers who had registered to vote - but hadn't yet done so - to fill out their ballots and send them in." By examining computerized voter registration information the Republicans were able to identify which military personnel were Democrat, Republican, black, white, etc., and could then target those who were likely to favor their candidate. The plan was to get the votes sent in, and fight about the postmarks later, knowing that it would be a political and public relations challenge for the Gore team to argue that military ballots should be disqualified. Clearly this coordinated activity by the Republicans would have been illegal. Tapper concedes that without a "major law-enforcement investigation into this matter - where phone record can be subpoenaed, and operatives can be threatened with perjury if the fail to tell the whole truth," we may never learn if and how this plan was executed, and its effect, if any, on the election outcome.

Tapper is merciless in pointing out misrepresentations and outright lies by both sides. The overriding Republican myth, of course, is that Bush won definitively the moment Fox News called Florida for him. But the media and the country were presented with a myriad of lesser untruths from both sides. For instance, Gore lawyer Kendall Coffey claimed in an early post-election news conference that the infamous "butterfly" ballot was illegal. "The law requires a simple linear listing so that the boxes are punched in the same order…." According to Tapper the cited section of Florida law didn't apply, and the relevant section allowed squares "in front of or in back of the names of candidates." In perhaps a more flagrant disregard for the truth, Bush spokesman (and now Press Secretary) Ari Fleischer announced, "Palm Beach County is a Pat Buchanan stronghold," in attempting to explain why Buchanan received more than 3,400 votes there. Palm Beach Reform Party chairman Jim Cunningham reacted, "They can say that because they would like to believe that." Tapper observes, "In any other business, liars are called liars. There are penalties for perjury in the law, fines for inaccurate claims in advertising, libel laws against journalists and publishers. But many political spokespeople take to lies like mutts to kibble, knowing that their bosses are rarely held accountable for such lies." And the lies don't end with the campaign. Following Bush's inauguration, "[i]t took new White House spokesman Tucker Eskew only a matter of seconds before he was caught in a lie so egregious he was slammed by both the National Review and the Wall Street Journal. Eskew "…told reporters that Bush's nominee for labor secretary, Linda Chavez, didn't know that a woman who had stayed at her home was an illegal alien. Chavez herself told reporters that not only was that not true but that she had told that to Eskew."

One conclusion the book seems to make is that the Democrats were out-organized, out-smarted, out-lawyered, and out-staffed by the Republicans.

A week before Thanksgiving, emails were circulated to Republican congressional staff promising to pay their expenses if they would travel to Florida to "assist the Bush campaign in this effort to preserve the integrity of the election." During the critical recount effort in Miami-Dade County, an RV was parked outside the government building, dispensing leaflets, T-shirts, and clearly functioning as a mobile headquarters for the supposedly spontaneous demonstrations that sought to delay the recount. When the canvassing board voted to do a partial recount behind closed doors, Republican operatives were ordered to "close it down." A couple dozen demonstrators, eventually growing to eighty people, stormed the floor where the board had set up. Claiming to be "angry voters," the crowd actually included a policy adviser for House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, a DeLay fund raiser, an aide to congressman Hilleray of Tennessee, and aide to Republican Party Chairman Don Young, other political staffers for the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, etc. The protesters, through intimidation or simply by causing sufficient delay, led the canvassing board eventually to abandon their efforts at a partial recount, concluding that they could not meet the deadline established by the Florida Supreme Court. Tapper observes, "To the Gorebies, clearly, the Miami-Dade incident is the turning point…."

On the legal front, the Bush team's prescience was shown in their filing for a restraining order on November 11 to try to prevent hand recounts in the four counties that were conducting or preparing to conduct them. The brief argued that any hand recount undertaken absent evidence of fraud, corruption, or coercion would interfere with voters' rights to have their votes certified uniformly. The brief further asserted that a recount of only selected ballots violates the right of voters to be treated equally as guaranteed by the constitution. The brief was filed with the Federal District Court, arousing little media interest, and prompting legal scholars to question whether there was a federal issue at all. As we all now know, this little-noticed maneuver of the Republican legal team would lead ultimately to the Supreme Court awarding the election to Bush. As Tapper points out, the Democrats never really followed through with one obvious counter to this legal complaint, which would have been to fight for a complete recount. Gore did personally call for a statewide hand recount, but his team apparently regarded it as rhetorical since operatives or lawyers in the field never seriously advocated it.

But beyond that, Tapper suggests that the Democrats as an organization are simply sloppy. One example can be found in the observers each party brought to Broward County. While nominally present to observe, members of the canvassing board quickly realized that the Republicans were there to bad mouth the process. Lending weight to the comments, in addition to numerous staffers those present included five governors and two congressmen. The Democrats had three observers: Representative Jerry Nadler of New York, Alcee Hastings of Florida, and Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, supposedly to appeal to Jewish, black, and female constituencies. "Typical clueless Democrat balkanization," Tapper comments.

A second example can be found in the trial before circuit court Judge Sanders Sauls -- one of the early trials in which Democrats sought a judicial order to continue hand recounts. The Democrats presented a statistician who attempted to show that undervotes in Palm Beach County occurred because of faulty punch-card machines. Unfortunately no one thought to get a copy of the ballot to him beforehand, allowing Republican lawyers to impeach his credibility as a witness. "I've seen it a million times in D.C," Tapper chides, "Democrats can be so f***ing sloppy."

Another theme running through the book is the partisanship - or at a minimum, complacency - of the media. Fox News is singled out particularly for being a virtual extension of the Bush campaign or the Republican Party. For instance, following the violent actions by Republican staffers masquerading as "angry voters" in Miami-Dade county, leading to an end to the recount there, the Republican party spin machine immediately attempted to minimize any hostility or intimidation. Fox News anchor Brit Hume passed along the message on Sunday November 26, joking "…I've never found anything more frightening than a mob of young Republicans…. They have on light green corduroy pants, and they've got on little belts with little frogs on them…. I don't know about you, but those Republican preppies just scare the daylights out of me." In a footnote Tapper questions "the thesis beneath the surface," speculating on Hume's commentary if the same protest had been conducted by young Democratic African-Americans.

And Tapper indicts most of the mainstream media when he asks why Bush's rampant hypocrisies were never challenged - especially Bush's deriding the very notion of hand recounts when he had advocated and signed hand recount legislation in Texas in 1997.

While a little smug in a New York Magazine sort of way, Down & Dirty is notable for its inside view and detailed chronicling of the events between November 8, 2000 and January 20, 2001, in the aftermath of the presidential election. Tapper's effort to remain neutral is largely successful, although partisans for either side may find it frustrating. His conclusion that "we" allowed this to happen seems a facile contrivance, but in the end he is redeemed by his righteous indignation at would-be leaders who lie, and lazy media representatives who fail to distinguish between lies and the truth.