Series-Skipper: The Post's Deadly "Deadlock"

Political commentary and more.
Feb. 14 2001 2:22 PM

Series-Skipper: The Post's Deadly "Deadlock"

What are the four most discouraging words you can read in a newspaper? "First of a series," says Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard. He's right! Nothing saps a reader's will faster than the prospect of giving over a large portion of the week to some bloated journalistic project driven by egos and internal institutional needs. But, until now, there was little an individual consumer could do about it. You could set the series aside each day, in a growing pile to be read in some future era. But what if it contained something juicy? What if Part 3 jumped to the "B" section, which you already threw out? You could go to cocktail parties and subtly grill your friends. ("There wasn't much in that endless Times thing ... was there?") But what if they haven't read it either--and have been hoping to grill you? At dark moments like this, if a newspaper series looks worthy enough, it's almost as if you have no alternative but to read it.

Or so it seemed. Until now!

Just as the microchip has solved many of life's formerly aggravating problems, kausfiles engineers have cracked the problem posed by the interminable newspaper series. Never again will you have to debate whether to "just skim the first few paragraphs" before getting on with your life! No more feeling embarrassed about trying to get the gist from the photo captions! From now on, when a Pulitzer Prize-winning opus lands on your doorstep, you can do what you've always wanted to do. Recycle it! With no fear of missing anything--and no guilt! That's because kausfiles will read it for you, and tell you all you need to know. Thanks to advanced Series-Skipper™ technology, even intriguing, buried statistics, or small backbiting remarks by presidential aides, will be captured and presented, in compressed, readable fashion, for rapid downloading.

Think of all the things you can do with your time, now that you never have to read another newspaper series again! This is better than Celebrex!

Series-Skipper™ begins today, with the mammoth eight-part series on the Florida recount that the Washington Post recently finished publishing--a project so enterprising it was mildly dissed  by the Post's own ombudsman. But he insisted that the series, while a misallocation of resources, was "very good." Don't be so sure!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *  * * * * * * *

Oh-what-a-big-deal-this-is hype sentence: "It was an all-out war involving America's canniest political soldiers and some of its best legal minds."

Most important substantive thesis: That the wisdom of hindsight--which says Gore should have pursued a statewide hand recount--is wrong because such a count would have been "legally unfounded." The leader of Gore's legal team, Ron Klain, notes, "You had to go to 67 counties" and file requests. That would have been "a public relations disaster, interpreted by opponents and even neutral observers as an effort to prolong the election unnecessarily," says the Post.

Holes in thesis: Gore had a choice--file in all counties and be accused of doing too much, or file in a few counties and be accused of "cherry-picking." Both carried PR risks. As a much more useful Los Angeles Times story (not a series!) noted over a month ago, Gore's local ballot experts in fact urged the statewide course. If it required filing in 67 different counties--well, Gore had 67 lawyers! Or Gore could have challenged the count in a few counties, and then when Bush accused him of cherry-picking, immediately called Bush's bluff by requesting the statewide count. Indeed, if Gore hadn't prolonged the initial "protest period" before Katherine Harris "certified" the results, he would have had time to pursue a broad recount during the subsequent "contest period." (One experienced Gore lawyer, Dexter Douglass, made exactly this point at the time, the Post itself notes.) In the end, the public proved much more tolerant of a prolonged recount than the Post gives it credit for.

Larger problem these holes reveal: Nobody important ever makes a dumb mistake in this series. Nobody cuts corners, or cheats, or lies, or is otherwise an asshole. Nobody described in the story will read this series and get mad at the Post. All the players--that is, all the Post's sources--come off as smart, honorable, sincere loyalists doing their parts as best they can. That especially goes for Klain, who must be a great source because he's portrayed as a hero despite seemingly having made a number of whopping blunders. (He actually thought Gore's best chance was not a recount at all but the remedyless lawsuit about the confusing "butterfly ballot.")

Other actual news in the series: Not much. 1) The Bush team was "shocked" when the networks called the state for their candidate, because their numbers showed it too close to call. 2) When they were kicking around possible theories to take to federal court, Bush's lawyers considered the "equal protection" argument (which the U.S. Supreme Court eventually bought) to be a "fairly lame case." 3) In the initial post-election hours, Jeb Bush's lawyer, Frank Jimenez, quietly locked up many of the state's top law firms to keep them from representing Gore. 4) Gore spent a lot of time "seething to friends" about those "he believed were betraying him," including ex-Clinton aide Leon Panetta, Sen. Robert Torricelli, Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, and Miami Mayor Alex Penelas. 5) The Florida dispute "always felt like a lost cause to Gore campaign chairman William Daley."

Entertaining anecdote: Jeb Bush's lawyers try to figure out how to get the governor's "certificate of ascertainment" to Washington without getting served with a Gore subpoena. They cleverly decide to entrust it to a low-level staff member the Gore team "would never think of serving." But she makes the mistake of sending it Express Mail. The Bushies actually go to the post office and get the U.S. Postal Service to pull the package.

Good Gore micromanagement example: "In the days after the Miami-Dade canvassing board's decision [to stop counting], Gore would check in regularly with Democratic National Committee researchers, trying to identify the Republican congressional aides-turned-demonstrators who had helped shut the board down."

Mildly disconcerting image of Gore at work: "When Daley arrived for lunch at Gore's house, he found the vice president with his familiar marking pens and easels." ...

Spin the Post lets go by unchallenged: 1) George W. Bush denying that prior to the recount "there was an issue between Baker and--not me but the Bush family." 2) At 5 p.m. on a Sunday, Katherine Harris "felt she had no choice but to certify" the first, pro-Bush tally from Palm Beach rather than give the local canvassing board until 9:00 Monday morning to finish its recount. ...

Intriguing but unexplored incidents: 1) Why did Harris urge consolidation of all the recount cases under the (Democratic) Florida Supreme Court, a move that "angered the Bush lawyers" and would have helped Gore? Was she really independent? 2) Why were former U.S. Supreme Court clerks "more confident" than the Bush legal experts who hadn't clerked that the federal justices would take the Florida case? Was it because the ex-clerks knew how partisan the justices really are? 3) Was Bush winning the recount before it was stopped or wasn't he?

Most dramatic scene: Warren Christopher telling Laurence Tribe that Gore wants to replace him with David Boies for the final oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Worst quote: "This has been an amazing experience"--Judge Charles Burton of Palm Beach.

Best quote: "Okay, we're in a battle here, and five senior people are sitting here sucking each other's toes"--Mindy Tucker, Bush press secretary.

Problem with best quote: It's wrong, the result of a transcription error, says the Post's Dan Balz. Tucker said "stepping on," not "sucking."

Most misleading assertion: That the decision of the Miami-Dade canvassing board to stop counting was one of two "significant turning points." A subsequent media count strongly suggests Gore wouldn't have gained many new votes in Miami-Dade. He would have gained votes  in several small Republican counties.

What's missing: Tension, passion, little suspense-building details ("tic-tock," in reporters' jargon), lively prose. The Post's Designated Overwriter, David Von Drehle, is lead author on most of the stories, but here he's been chloroformed to the point of unconsciousness, not unlike Gore in the second debate. ... Also missing is any but the most superficial discussion of the dispute's legal arguments, which is where much of the drama could have been found. For example, there's no description of how the Florida court was scared to announce a clear "chad-counting standard" because then the Bushies would claim it was "making law" in violation of Article III of the U.S. Constitution. ...

Estimated time you've saved by reading Series-Skipper™ instead of the series itself:  2 hours.

First of a series.

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