Insider's view


Published: Tuesday, April 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 31, 2003 at 11:36 p.m.

Key players in Florida's dramatic 2000 presidential election will debate tonight in Gainesville

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University of Florida professor Julian Pleasants with several books on the 2000 presidential election.

DARON DEAN/Special to The Sun

Facts

Debate is tonight

What: Dexter Douglass, chief Florida attorney for Al Gore, and Barry Richard, chief Florida attorney for George W. Bush, will participate in the 2000 Presidential Election Recount Debate, offering their insights at the 4th Annual Augustus M. Burns Lecture. The debate is free and open to the public.

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: President's Room, Emerson Alumni Hall, W. University Avenue and North-South Drive

Florida's marathon election eventually stamped George W. Bush's ticket to the White House, but it didn't end the debate.

"What I've learned is that, by and large, the Democrats tell me that the election was stolen from Al Gore. The Republicans say that Bush won the election and Gore tried to steal it," says Julian Pleasants, director of the University of Florida's Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, which preserves history through interviews with its participants.

Pleasants doesn't make this claim based on speculation. He's interviewed nearly 40 of the key players in the drama of November and December 2000 as he prepares to write a book he's now calling "Hanging Chads: The Inside Story of the 2000 Presidential Recount In Florida."

As someone who has read more than a dozen books on the subject, explored the court files and studied the law review articles by the attorneys involved, Pleasants is continuing to find surprises. It's also why he thinks hearing Dexter Douglass and Barry Richard debate the recount should prove interesting to students, faculty and the general public. The two men are scheduled speakers at the 4th Annual Augustus M. Burns Lecture at UF.

"They're both Democrats, but they differ dramatically in both style and in their view of the law," says Pleasants.

That's right, President George W. Bush's attorney was a Democrat. Pleasants says Richard told him he would have represented Gore, but that call never came.

In interviewing the two, Pleasants was fascinated by the relationship they each had with their clients.

"Barry Richard was hired as the lawyer for George W. Bush. The entire time Bush was his client, Bush talked to him twice: on one occasion to congratulate him, the other occasion just to find out how things were going," Pleasants explains.

"Al Gore, on the other hand, was involved in every legal decision, in the legal strategy, and on at least a couple of occasions, went against their [his attorneys'] advice," Pleasants says.

"It's a very different approach, which kind of makes sense if you know anything about the two men. Bush delegates and Gore is a hands-on kind of person, and he's involved in all the decision making," Pleasants says.

The Gore-Bush battle for the presidency harkened to the battle Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden had in 1876, where Hayes lost the popular vote, but won the electoral vote and presidency. In that election, as well, controversy in Florida was a major part of the drama.

"We still don't know exactly what happened. We know that there were some illegal votes in Florida, it was hard to know how many for whom," Pleasants says. "Some historians will argue that Tilden probably won Florida; that would have made him president."

A major difference, however, was that the 2000 election occurred in the center of a media maelstrom, with live TV coverage of votes being counted, court challenges going on in several states, and journalists from around the globe following the contest all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It was something so unique in American history, we'd never had this vast array of information about an election, and it went on for 36 days," Pleasants says.

The Election Reform Act of 2001 did away with the punch card ballots that were the center of the controversy and also set up a provisional ballot, so that if a voter comes to a wrong precinct, he will still have an opportunity to vote. But Pleasants notes the 2002 general election in Florida proved the new voting systems are fallible. And with less than half of the registered voters going to the polls, Pleasants speculates that the most important lesson provided by the 2000 election may have already been forgotten.

"I thought, 'This will wake up the voting electorate in the state of Florida. They will vote more heavily, they'll realize their vote is important, that one vote does matter,' " he said.

Listening to Douglass and Richard discuss the 2000 recount in Florida can serve as a reminder of that lesson, and Pleasants sees it as serving up more than history.

"Another thing that makes this interesting is that this will probably be the key state in 2004," Pleasants says. "There's not a question in presidential elections this state is [split] 50-50."

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