Florida Florida Florida-- whatever happened to the other 49 states?
George W. Bush--doesn't he do anything besides come out of buildings, wave, then go back into buildings again?
And isn't it possible that over in Poland, people are telling one another "Americanski" jokes?
Whether one considers it fascinating, maddening, ridiculous or an inspiring demonstration of democracy at work, America is still watching as Election Day 2000 moves into its fourth week. It's so horrible, so dreadful, so terrible, and yet you can't look away. It's like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Except of course it's "The Florida Chain Saw Election."
Although a CNN poll revealed yesterday on the cable news channel found 62 percent of those responding believe the deadlock and court battles between George W. Bush and Al Gore have "gone on too long" (and 56 percent, way up from last week, said Gore should now concede), there's no sign yet that people are literally tuning out, that they're turning off their TV sets in favor of poetry reading or gin rummy. No, this is too compelling, too bizarre, too historical and hysterical to walk away from. And just when it seems as dramatic as it can get, saints preserve us, Dick Cheney ups and has another heart attack!
Clearly, public sympathy is drifting away from Gore, who failed to carry his home state on election night and has been fighting ever since over certain counties in Florida. And so there he was on television Monday night at 8:55, talking quickly and crisply as opposed to the way he usually talks, but still sounding a little bit like Mister Rogers as he "explained" it all to America.
Have you ever seen so many American flags in one small space as were crammed behind Gore during his little talk? Why didn't he wear flag pajamas while he was at it?
At 2 p.m. yesterday Gore emerged from the vice president's residence on Massachusetts Avenue NW and essentially repeated the same speech, this time with the Washington National Cathedral in the background. Now he proposed that the next seven days be set aside to recount all the ballots cast in Florida. CBS and NBC covered part of his appearance live, but ABC stuck with "One Life to Live"--another kind of soap opera.
Gore stammered badly while answering a question on alleged violations of the Voting Rights Act. Asked about thuggish pro-Bush demonstrators who showed up in Florida apparently to hinder the recount there, Gore chose not to answer and said, "The more important question is, 'Why not count all the votes?' "
He returned to this mantra a couple of minutes later: "When people cast votes, the votes should be counted--what is wrong with counting the votes? I'll tell you what's wrong with not counting the votes--" And so on.
Soon Bush aide Karen Hughes was trotted out for a counteroffensive. We should count the votes? We did count the votes. Oh, and guess what: She says "umble" instead of "humble." Like Uriah Heep.
Whether or not the public is precisely enjoying this seemingly endless miniseries, broadcast journalists are basking, preening and wallowing in it, happy ducks in an ever-widening pond. "How could you not enjoy yourself with this insane story?" asks Steve Friedman, executive producer of CBS's "Early Show" and former producer of NBC's "Today" show. "It doesn't get better than this. Every time you think the story is over, it takes another turn. It's like going to see 'Les Miserables.' You keep thinking every song is the last, and then they sing another one."
NBC's tireless Tim Russert, who has worked 12- to 14-hour days ever since the long election night, compares the story to "the sun, moon and stars aligning" in its momentousness.
"It's the most interesting story I've ever covered," says Russert, NBC News Washington bureau chief and moderator of "Meet the Press." He says it was encapsulated for him in the changing headlines of an Austin newspaper on election night. "First the headline said 'Bush Wins,' then it said 'History on Hold.' Well, history is still on hold, and we're all part of it."
CNN's ratings boomed in election week and have stayed strong. A network spokeswoman said yesterday that CNN's 24-hour, Monday-through-Friday audience last week showed a 200 percent increase in total viewers over third-quarter averages (August-October). CNN's daily "Inside Politics" show is up 300 percent in ratings over the same period.
"Clearly election night there was huge interest," Russert says. "And all night long--people were watching at 4, 5, 6 a.m. The 'Today' show was up 35 percent the first week and is still up about 20 percent. The 'Meet the Press' audience is up about 30 percent."
What have we been watching? Visually, it's hardly been breathtaking. Endlessly repeated shots of Palm Beach vote counters holding ballots up to the light and searching for the now infamous dimpled chads, pimpled chads, hanging chads, singing chads (well, none of those yet, unless you count Chad and Jeremy of the '60s), chads on the half-shell, chad roe, chad tartare, chad Parmesan.
And, of course, lawyers--lawyers by the cartload.
But we have also been looking at Russert and his little white erasable pieces of cardboard. On election night, when the red-and-blue maps were a blur and the networks were drowning in electronic graphics, Russert and the little white boards he held up, heavily doodled with figures and calculations, proved strangely reassuring as well as informative.
"We were going to use white paper on an easel but frankly there wasn't room for the easel in the studio," Russert says. "I just thought, You can make this very complicated, or you can make it interesting and even fun by saying, 'Listen, this is what Bush needs to win' and 'This is what Gore needs to win.' Computer graphics swirl by and confuse people--even numb them."
Russert has won wide praise for making a kind of anti-technological statement with the white boards and says he has even received requests that he donate used boards to the Smithsonian and to the Newseum in Arlington.
He's used up more than 200 boards since election night, Russert says. Two particular boards he plans to save. One, he says, dates back to the day before the election, when he was asked by Tom Brokaw what was the most important factor in the outcome and Russert said, "In one word, Florida," which he wrote on the white cardboard. On election night he was asked what Bush and Gore both needed and he said, and wrote, "Florida, Florida, Florida," he is proud to recall.
Florida, Florida, Florida!
CBS's Friedman says the story fascinates viewers because "this is one of the few things in American life where you don't know what's going to happen. Everything else in politics seems so scripted now. Of course, the amazing thing is that in other countries, people would actually be concerned. Here we tend to look at it as a diversion and an amusement. It helps that there is no Cold War and that people know that whoever becomes president, he'll veer the ship of state more than really steer it."
In an unusually nonpartisan gesture that Bush and Gore might think about emulating, Friedman praises Russert's performance even though it's on a competing network: "I think Tim is doing a terrific job." But then he says including Katie Couric with Brokaw and Russert on election night was pointless, finding Couric's credentials questionable.
Friedman says all three networks have no choice but to keep watchful eyes on the all-news cable networks, even if the audiences they draw are minuscule in comparison to the broadcast big-timers. "We all have to react to the all-news networks and what they do. Maybe not that many people on the outside are watching, but everybody on the inside is. It's amazing how much effect a .4 rating can have on the rest of TV."
Russert finds positive sides to the story. "The American people are seeing what usually goes on in politics behind the scenes," he says. "The curtain has been lifted, and it's both frightening and fascinating. It's good for the young desk assistants working here to see this happening because their experience in reporting politics was previously framed by the impeachment. Now they know the electoral college is real.
"The story has everything. It's the last few seconds of a basketball game, a soap opera and a historical drama rolled into one. And all those concurrent forces have drawn a very steady audience."
On Sunday night, the nation watched as Florida officials certified the vote in their state even though the legitimacy of the certification was immediately challenged by the Gore campaign. They sat there patiently as three officials of the state election canvassing board, including Secretary of State Katherine Harris (her eye makeup markedly reduced) passed around big black books and signed documents.
George W. Bush stopped waving and exiting buildings long enough to make a kind of victory speech, squinting into the camera as usual and looking anything but comfortable. His appearance brought back two memories. One was Alexander Haig's notorious "I am in charge" speech, and the other was Don Imus's description of Dan Rather's on-air demeanor: "He reads the news like he was making a hostage tape."
Peter Jennings of ABC News was on safe ground when he said at the end of the odd little ceremony, "It's going to be a long and messy week."
Russert remembers being on the air delivering a report, being handed a note and looking down quickly to see what it said. It said that Dick Cheney was having chest pains. "I thought, 'Oh, give me a break!' " Russert recalls. Sometimes there's just too damn much news.
Now America watches and wonders and waits out history-on-hold. How much longer and how much messier can it get? Does anybody really care what fictitious folderol happens on "The West Wing" tonight? Is anybody going to be watching when that "illusionist" is freed from his giant block of ice in Times Square?
"Over the last four or five days, I've heard more people saying, 'I think it's time to move on,' " Russert notes, "but they really, really want to know how it's going to end. People clamored for reality TV. Well--now they've got it."