The Race for the White House produces two things: lots of attack ads, and unwitting overnight celebrities. Think Sister Souljah. Joe the Plumber. Clint Eastwood’s empty chair. The little boy who spelled “potato” without an “e,” only to have Vice President Dan Quayle helpfully “correct” him.
With election season again upon us, The Washington Times begins a series remembering some of our favorite campaign one-hit wonders and asking: Where are they now?
First up: Hanging chad guy
Even today, the photo remains iconic, the snapshot seen ‘round the world: a man holding a magnifying glass, eyebrows furrowed in concentration, peering at a disputed punch card ballot, riddled with questionable holes.
This was Florida. The 2000 presidential election. The recount. Democracy hanging by a chad. And as for the guy in the picture, eyes bugging wide, deciding the fate of the free world one drop of Visine at a time?
Turns out he has a name.
“Nobody knows my name, nobody knows who I am,” said Robert Rosenberg, a 69-year-old Florida judge. “But everybody knows the man with the magnifying glass. People look at me and think they know me, only they can’t figure out where or how. Who is this person?
“If they ask me, I’ll tell them. You can see the light bulb go on.”
Twelve years ago, the judge was tasked with heading the recount of Broward County’s 1,800 disputed ballots. In the process, he unwittingly became that rarest of cultural creatures: an overnight presidential campaign celebrity.
Of course, Judge Rosenberg never wanted to become semi-famous. For that matter, he didn’t want to spend his Thanksgiving examining “pregnant” and “dimpled” chads.
In fact, when first asked to oversee Broward County’s ballot review, his response was blunt.
“I asked, ‘Can’t you find somebody else?’” the judge said. “They said ‘no.’ I had been appointed by a Democratic governor and a Republican governor. They told me both parties agreed that I would be fair, diligent and straight.”
Judge Rosenberg laughed.
“I said, ‘I have a full docket and other things to do,’” he said. “They still said, ‘no.’”
From a national perspective, the Florida recount was both thrilling drama and a head-scratching, lawyered-up mess: a premature declaration of victory for Vice President Al Gore, five weeks of legal wrangling, suits and countersuits, protests and the “Brooks Brothers riot,” disputes in multiple counties, the eternal mystery of the butterfly ballot, and ultimately, a still-controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision that tipped the presidency to George W. Bush.
For Judge Rosenberg, by contrast, the event was more quotidian. Day after day, he would arrive at Fort Lauderdale’s Voter Equipment Center at 8 a.m. and leave at 11 p.m.
“The one exception was Thanksgiving, where I think we left around four in the afternoon,” Judge Rosenberg said. “When you get home after 11, you’re exhausted. I would maybe take a shower and go to sleep, get up, shower, get dressed and go back again.
“They brought food in for us at lunch, and sometimes for dinner. They had snacks. That wasn’t bad. Though there comes a point where you’re thinking, ‘How many pizzas can I eat? How much rigatoni?’”
While the country was glued to nightly newscasts, the Florida jurist hardly saw any television. He was a judge. There was a job to do. The work was tedious.
Had a voter poked a hole? Had they attempted to poke a hole? Such were the questions at hand. Judge Rosenberg had studied a previous disputed election in Illinois, familiarized himself with more than a dozen different types of chads, the small bits of paper that are supposed to separate from punched ballots. He would examine ballots, one at a time, and then hold each ballot up to Democratic and Republican observers while making his call.
“I didn’t want there to be any mystery to what I was doing,” the judge said. “I remember on one occasion, Senator [Bob] Dole was sitting across a table from me. Somebody had put one of the ballots into a machine sideways.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Look at this, it’s as if they gave it to their dog to chew on, and now they’re trying to have me make a call!’ He started laughing. But I give them credit. Nobody ever approached me to do something one way or the other. They left me alone.”
The hardest part of the recount, Judge Rosenberg said, wasn’t deciphering mangled ballots. It was the eyestrain. He had 20-200 vision. With astigmatism. Squinting at ballots proved painful. He tried eyedrops. They weren’t enough.
One day, Judge Rosenberg turned to one of his clerks.
“I asked him, ‘Do you happen to have a magnifying glass?’” the judge recalled. “He could have said no. But he obtained one and gave it to me. It made things a lot easier.”
As soon as he started using the magnifying glass, he noticed something else.
“The press went crackers,” the judge said. “Everyone was taking pictures all over the place.”
At first, the judge thought nothing of it. Granted, the task at hand was a bit unusual: He had a two-car, 24-hour police escort, a pair of deputy sheriffs he later invited inside his family’s home for Thanksgiving dinner.
Still, Judge Rosenberg considered himself the equivalent of a baseball umpire. Call balls and strikes. Ignore everything else. Let the players — in this case, the lawyers and politicians — be the stars.
“I think it was a day or two after I got the magnifying glass that one of my sons said to my wife, ‘Hey, is Dad not telling us something? He’s all over the television!’” Judge Rosenberg said. “Then I saw the picture in the newspaper and knew. Friends from college and other people I knew started calling me.”
Following the recount, the judge recalled, he “might have taken a day off.” He returned to his day job as a circuit court judge, declining interview requests from news networks and late-night talk shows while explaining that “after the game’s over, you don’t interview the umpire. You talk to the coach and the players.”
When the National Museum of American History asked Judge Rosenberg to donate a magnifying glass for a 2004 election exhibit, however, he happily complied. He also broke his silence, telling Smithsonian magazine that his wife jokes that he “should have done an ad for Visine.”
“Am I historical figure?” Judge Rosenberg said. “I don’t know. It’s a historic thing. I’m happy I did it. I never asked for it. Never wanted it. I have good, close friends on the Republican and Democratic sides.
“After it was over, both parties came to me and said I was decent and fair and honorable, and that they respected that. That’s what a judge is supposed to do. That’s my job.”
Today, he is still Judge Rosenberg. He plans to retire next year. He has three adult children and recently celebrated his 42nd wedding anniversary. He still has old sample ballots and chads — “Oh God, I have loads of those,” he said — which he sometimes donates to charity auctions.
The judge still has a magnifying glass, too. In fact, he keeps it in his office desk. Just in case.
“A few years ago I was elected president of a B’nai B’rith chapter of lawyers and judges down here,” he said. “I gave a speech, and afterward they gave me some kind of award.”
At that point, the judge continued, he pulled the magnifying glass out of his pocket and held it up to his face, recreating his well-known photo.
“I said, ‘Let me take a closer look,’” he said. “The people who remember [the recount] got a big laugh out of that.”
• Patrick Hruby can be reached at email@example.com.
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