Deadlock: The Inside Story of America’s Closest Election by David Von Drehle


By Valerie MacEwan

Butterflies and Bush's Thighs

Reckon the hoopla over the Florida electoral process will change anything? I’m pondering this question as I read my local newspaper, five months after the final tally decided G. W. Bush would be our next president. The small southern county in which I reside is facing major financial problems. Our total county population is less than 40,000 people. I could triple that if I included goats, chickens, hunting dogs, and pigs. Granted, the grand total of this county’s budget for an entire fiscal year would probably fit in the miscellaneous line item column which covers the cost of Post-It Notes for the city of Chicago, but it still bears relevance. The County Commissioners are currently in the midst of budget negotiations. Last year they failed to approve funding for new voting machines. This year the director of elections is asking for $644,000 to update our system. She probably won’t get it, despite what happened in Florida.

Voting here is a exercise in southern hospitality. You meet up with folks you haven’t seen all year; so if you have to wait more than a couple minutes for your ballot, you spend time catching up on where the bass are biting and marveling over the fact that Aunt Lizzie is still alive. Outside the polling areas residents set up tents, the cemetery cover type, and fill them up with folding chairs. Folks eat barbecue and drink iced cold sweet tea while holding up signs for or against some local ordinance, candidate, or issue. Discounting suffrage for all American citizens, the process, the down-home how’ya doing of polling, hasn’t changed much around here in the last two hundred years.

So what did we learn from the last presidential election? It is being decided right now, as you read this review, by your local government. Budgets for the next fiscal year for your county, scrutinized and debated as they must be, contain the answer. County politicos, be they commissioners, managers, what have you, are this moment deciding the fate of your current polling process. I suggest they all read Deadlock before making their fiscal decisions.

Hyped as the “first full-length account” of the 2000 presidential election, Deadlock offers a linear account of the events leading up to and following the casting of the November ballot. The book also attempts to offer some advice for future elections. While the Washington Post doesn’t truly offer the first account, it’s certainly neck-and-neck in the all-important flash-history publishing horse-race currently popular in the US.

The book contains insider information from both sides of the political spectrum and takes readers through the more-than-month-long battle for the presidency via the US Supreme Court, the Florida Supreme Court, and local election commission decisions. Bear in mind, the point of Deadlock is not to draw historical conclusions, it is to document the events. The Washington Post leaves it to historians, statisticians, political scientists, and, dare I say it, the common citizen to decide the final impact of Florida’s voting snafu.

Deadlock takes the time to explain the political character of both candidates. According the book, Al Gore is a hands-on politico, involved in every level of the election process, while George W. Bush is the master delegator who remained in Texas while trusting his decisions to his advisors. An interview with Bush concludes the book and one suspects much of the insider information contained in Deadlock came from George W. himself. But that goes against the press corps’ carping during the campaign about Bush’s inaccessibility. This is where a “source” debate starts in my head. Who said it, where, when, and to whom?

According to the jacket, the Washington Post political staff provided the information in this book. It’s a good thing the jacket tells us this, because the book contains no source notes, no author bios, no reference material. It’s flash history created by the instant-gratification culture of Internet analysis and sound-bite news. One fears that, to the general public, source is irrelevant, content is king. But there exists a subversive group of individuals who want to know how information was attained, the validity of the source, the bias of the reporter. Those who know photos can be cropped, quotes chopped, and tapes edited. Those individuals must look elsewhere for their post-election analysis.

Deadlock presents itself as a drama, an up-close-and-personal narrative, and the Washington Post has a tradition of publishing this type of flash history. Woodward and Bernstein probably began the trend. All the President’s Men, published in 1974, is an exciting detective story, with the two reporters as the main characters. The autobiographical style worked, as the authors were writing about their firsthand experiences. But when it came to the sequel, The Final Days, critics took exception to the research techniques and the narrative style. Woodward and Bernstein crossed the line from autobiography to history and left out their sources. As a history text, The Final Days needed footnotes.

I thought about The Final Days as I read Deadlock. Where are the sources? Who said that, how did the Post know this? And with such a huge cadre of reporters, which one was there? As Richard Reeves wrote in his review of The Final Days in the New York Times, “But how do you evaluate material this important without a guide to the sources?” Reading Deadlock provides the reader with the Washington Post‘s-eye-view of the events and that’s it. Believe in the Post, believe in the story.

Footnotes and source references aside, Deadlock gives a credible account of the post-election frenzy. What’s it all about, Mr. Natural? Well, it’s about the CHADS. The omniscient narrator guides the reader through the Florida electoral process, providing insightful commentary and in-depth analysis of chads, and if the reader doesn’t grasp the entire dimpled/pregnant chad-counting process after digesting this book, he or she is never going to get it. And it’s all about the butterfly ballot, the political strategies of the two camps, whether or not Gore should have challenged the military ballots, who leaked the Supreme Court information to the Bush campaign members, how Mac Stipanovich influenced Harris’s decisions to favor Bush, and the role brother Jeb played in ensuring a Florida victory for Dubya . . . and it’s about time to evaluate the whole voting process in the United States.

On a side comment, what is the deal with political reporting today? Men get elected to political office, appointed to important committees, decide court cases, and serve as campaign strategists and we never learn a damn thing about their toilette preferences. Not anything important, anyway. We get to find out about Katherine Harris’ makeup, her relationship with her Daddy, and we are privy to which woman polling judge or election official needs to get a haircut. Well, what of the men in this scenario? Whitey tighties or boxers? Does Warren Christopher pluck his eyebrows? What kind of shampoo does James Baker use? Apparently we can’t grasp a woman’s political acumen without knowing about her makeup… so, how are we ever to judge the effectiveness of Karl Rove if we don’t know what type of deodorant he uses? And those thighs . . . how are we supposed to trust George W. Bush — have you seen how huge his thighs are? If you’ve never studied the political process before reading this book, you will learn how important it is for reporters to dig deeply into the physical characteristics of female politicos.

Deadlock provides an excellent overview of events which led to the January 21, 2001 swearing-in of George W. Bush as President of the United States, but the book does not give the final answers. Those will be written in the future, as the lawsuits progress and as the presidency of George W. Bush is played out over the next four years. Read this book. But then read a couple more on the same subject.

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