- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2001

The 67 days Bill Sammon says he spent writing this book have paid off in spades. "At Any Cost" gives Mr. Sammon, senior White House correspondent for The Washington Times, first crack at explaining in detail the intricacies and outrages of last year's post-election day wrestling contest for Florida's 25 crucial electoral votes.

It won't be the last crack at the Florida weirdness. Weirdness at the level we watched through Thanksgiving and almost right to Christmas requires amplification and re-amplification. We've got just a start here. But, it is an impressive start, lively and well-informed, the offering of a reporter who was there throughout.

The subtitle "How Al Gore Tried to Steal the Election" quickly flips Mr. Sammon's ace card. He doesn't think much of Al Gore's performance in the Election Day aftermath. Actually, he doesn't think much of Al Gore. By Mr. Sammon's account, the vice president "single-handedly kept the nation on tenterhooks for five long weeks." He "openly placed his own interests above those of the nation." As to the larceny angle, "The dictionary defines as the taking of someone else's property, especially by unjust means. By that definition, it can certainly be argued that Gore tried to steal the election. After all, Florida's 25 electoral votes always belonged to Bush."

The passion in Mr. Sammon's account may owe something to the Florida exile into which Mr. Gore's post-election maneuvers consigned him and other reporters. It likely owes much more to outrage at the effrontery of Mr. Gore's strategy: Wrest those electoral votes away from Mr. Bush. The author says Mr. Gore told aides, "I'm not like George Bush. If he wins or loses, life goes on. I'll do anything to win."

That sounds pretty blatant, and the book has no footnotes that might permit independent verification of this and like quotations. But Team Gore's actual actions such as trying to throw out absentee ballots from overseas military personnel give the assertion some weight. More pointedly than anyone else, perhaps and in public William Daley, Mr. Gore's campaign chairman, set the post-Election Day tone: "ntil the … recount is concluded and the results in Florida become official, our campaign continues!" The recount was part of the campaign, or as it is said in Texas, and doubtless other venues, "With a good election, it ain't the voting that counts; it's the counting that counts."

Mr. Sammon's disgust with Mr. Gore takes a back seat only to his disgust with his own illustrious profession. The book starts with a middle-class businessman hastening to the polls in the Florida Panhandle, one thought on his mind: a vote for Mr. Bush. He hears the news on the radio. With Panhandle polls still open, the networks have called Florida for Mr. Gore.

Our would-be voter calls the whole thing off, goes home in despair. He has company. "By prematurely declaring Gore the winner shortly before polls had closed in Florida's conservative western panhandle," a Yale researcher says, "the media ended up suppressing the Republican vote" by at least 10,000 votes. That was enough to have made Mr. Bush president without cavil or protest.

Likewise Mr. Sammon deplores the alacrity with which many in the media bought into the Team Gore strategy; for instance, the savaging of Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Mr. Sammon says "Gore personally instructed his team to smear" her. Again, no footnote. On the other hand, the vice president wasn't heard calling off the dogs including his own press spokesman, Chris Lehane. (A "Soviet commissar," Mr. Lehane said of the Republican secretary of state.)

The public gagged at such extravagances, deluging Mrs. Harris with 400,000 messages of support. Then Mr. Gore claimed to want every vote counted. Oh? If that was so, what about his attempts to exclude the unpostmarked absentee votes of soldiers and seamen? How did that look? The Gore people seemed tone deaf.

We have in Mr. Sammon's book the bare bones of this odd episode. No discussion of the presidential campaign, or of the mind of the American electorate, or the state of the two political parties or the general penchant we seem to have developed for handing over major controversies to lawyers and judges, the once normal means of resolution having failed or been abandoned.

The Florida weirdness says much about modern America. What it says is mainly unflattering. If the circumstances of the 2000 election were unusual an election that close is the political equivalent of a 100-year flood the means of addressing the outcome had an alarming familiarity.

Other peoples regularly come to blows over politics. Not Americans surely? But indeed you never know. Anger and hostility, as in 1914, can surge beyond the control of institutions charged with suppressing them. Just suppose some chivalrous Republican had taken old-fashioned umbrage at the trashing of a lady that Mrs. Harris and had taken direct action. The social fabric is thin at the best of times. How many times do we want to test it? One glances back over Bill Sammon's book and realizes that, come to think of it, we had a fairly close call there.


William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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