The Accidental President

How 413 Lawyers, 9 Supreme Court Justices, and 5,963,110 Floridians (Give

by Mark Dionne

25 September 2002


Rock the Vote

“The candid citizen must confess that, if the policy of the government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court . . . the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.”
—Justice Antonin Scalia, dissenting in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992

Once upon a time, the 2000 election debacle was set to be the most analyzed and discussed item of contemporary history since, well, impeachment. The controversy over that stalemated election seemed destined for a long life. Historians and journalists were poised to write books exploring the minutia of election law, illuminating the depths of hypocrisy and finding out who actually won Florida.

cover art

The Accidental President

David A. Kaplan

How 413 Lawyers, 9 Supreme Court Justices, and 5,963,110 Floridians (give or Take a Few) Landed George W. Bush in the White House

(William Morrow & Co.)

A passage at the end of David Kaplan’s The Accidental President: How 413 Lawyers, 9 Supreme Court Justices, and 5,963,110 Floridians (Give or Take a Few) Landed George W. Bush in the White House, obviously written before September 11th, recalls this era. “George W. Bush may be forgotten soon enough. His presidency is accidental and the tranquil times don’t cry out for great leadership.”

Are you like me? Did you just shudder?

At least two Election 2000 books have been well worth reading. I’ve already recommended Jeffrey Toobin’s Too Close to Call (see my complete review here) and I can similarly recommend Kaplan’s The Accidental President. Kaplan is a senior writer for Newsweek and the author the The Silicon Boys.

The Accidental President has some annoying Newsweek-y quirks. When Gore considers publishing an op-ed that might offend the Supreme Court, Kaplan writes that Gore decides to go ahead with it by saying “Fuck ‘em.” At least, I think the Vice President said “Fuck.” Kaplan writes it as “—‘em.” I understand Newsweek uses the dashes, but I think book buyers can handle a swear word or two. Kaplan also exhibits some habits of mainstream, middle-of-the-road journalism. He consistently balances his criticisms by noting that either political party can be as hypocritical or noble as the other. “What would each have said if they’d been playing with opposite hands—Gore in front, Bush demanding a recount? No doubt the same things…” As true as this may be, it de-emphasizes what actually did happen and what was said.

However, The Accidental President is also a strong re-telling of the sprawling legal battle. Kaplan clearly had excellent access to many participants and remains unswayed by some of the myths. Does anybody still believe, as Jim Baker was so fond of saying, that the votes had been “counted and counted again”? You should read this book. Do you think Gore maliciously targeted legal votes of our military and Bush’s team rescued them? Do you think Secretary of State Katherine Harris acted impartially and independently of the GOP? You’re wrong and you should read this book. And one for the Democrats out there: do you think that if the state-wide recount had gone through with Gore tallying up more votes, then he’d be president? You should read the book.

Kaplan sets up his various scenes and numerous characters with brevity and skill. By dropping a few details of his settings or subjects, Kaplan manages to quickly transport the reader to the many different areas of the conflict. “The courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court is as glorious a setting as there is in government, a testament to the splendor of marble and congressional appropriations.” Kaplan also recreates the time with bits from the media, such as newspaper headlines, news telecasts and jokes from Letterman and Leno. Also, like any good reporter, Kaplan rarely misses a chance to take a dig at TV news .

The most remarkable portion of The Accidental President concerns the final Supreme Court decision that effectively appointed George W. Bush president. Most of the criticism leveled in the book is fairly light, but at the end Kaplan rips into the Supreme Court decision. His forceful indictment turns a fairly breezy history into a scathing critique. Kaplan reveals the decision as patently hypocritical, intellectually unconvincing and legally bankrupt. Kaplan makes use of his law school background to put the decision in context, both within the law and history. These end chapters alone makes The Accidental President worth reading.

Toobin’s Too Close to Call similarly eviscerates Bush v. Gore. Toobin is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and Kaplan writes for Newsweek. That is the best illustration I have of the differences between the two books. Where Toobin has the depth and assuredness and trusts the reader with denser legal issues, Kaplan has the lighter style and the ability to quickly set a scene. Look, there’s no reason to pit The Accidental President and Too Close to Call against each other. They both appear to have gotten their facts straight and both present those facts in a coherent fashion. Considerable achievements. Look, if you’re going to be some kind of geek and read a book about the 2000 elections, you might as well be a real geek and read two.

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