Twenty-three years ago, November 2000, the liberal media unleashed their full fury on Florida’s Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, for following the election laws of her state as well as various court rulings to certify George W. Bush as the winner of her state’s electoral votes in the disputed 2000 presidential election.
During the recount drama, the national media pushed a two-track strategy: attempt to bully Harris into using her office to aid Democratic nominee Al Gore; or, failing that, to discredit her as a mere partisan helping a fellow Republican block a full accounting of Florida’s votes.
On election night (November 7), all three broadcast networks had declared Bush the winner, only to retract their declaration when it became clear that the vote margin in Florida was barely 500 votes — a minuscule number in a state which cast more than 5.8 million ballots.
The Gore campaign asked for recounts in just four heavily-Democratic counties, hoping to salvage enough additional votes to put themselves over the top. As both sides went to court, the legal deadline for county election officials to submit their final tallies — November 14, 2000 — neared. The Gore campaign could continue their court challenges after certification, but did not want their candidate to be seen as a sore loser fighting against official results.
So the national media went to work trying to push Harris to delay certification for as long as possible. “One of the key questions this morning, is the Florida Secretary of State absolutely wedded to that deadline of 5pm tomorrow?” ABC’s Diane Sawyer wondered on the November 13 Good Morning America.
“Democrats say if she does stop the vote count tomorrow, the country will always wonder about her motives,” correspondent Linda Douglass relayed that evening on World News Tonight.
But over on the NBC Nightly News that same day, correspondent David Bloom actually read the pertinent law to viewers: “If the county returns are not received by the Department by 5pm on the seventh day following an election, all missing counties shall be ignored, and the results on file shall be certified.” So Harris was reading the law exactly right.
“Do you think, and to use a rather crude term, that her decision does not pass the smell test?” NBC’s Matt Lauer teed up a top Gore campaign official, William Daley, the next morning (November 14) on Today. Over on ABC, Diane Sawyer pressed Republican Senator Bob Dole if Harris’s decision “on its face, looks unfair.”
The Florida Supreme Court (dominated by Democrats) pushed the deadline to November 26, to give counties more time to execute their recounts. The media kept up their campaign to paint Harris as a villain. “What do you say to Floridians who now believe that they have been left without a voice in this election because of Ms. Harris’s decision,” CBS’s Jane Clayson argued on the November 16 Early Show.
Over the weekend, media pundits had their turn. “She’s a partisan player and proud of it,” Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift proclaimed on the McLaughlin Group.
“She campaign for him [George W. Bush], she was his co-chairman in Florida, she expects an ambassadorship, a lot of people think, or she wants to run for Senate. Clearly she’s a partisan,” Time’s Jack White agreed on Inside Washington.
In the November 18 Washington Post, “Style” columnist Robin Givhan launched an ad hominem attack at Harris’s make-up: “At this moment that so desperately needs diplomacy, understatement and calm, one wonders how this Republican woman, who can’t even use restraint when shes wielding a mascara wand, will manage to use it and make sound decisions in this game of partisan one-upmanship.”
Writing in Time magazine (November 27 cover date), Margaret Carlson slashed: “The only person who looks like a character from one of the more usual cable dramas is Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Bush campaign co-chairwoman who mixed the pious certitude of Linda Tripp with the hauteur of a Dynasty protagonist....Until the Florida Supreme Court enjoined her from certifying the vote, Harris, often compared to Cruella de Vil, snatching ballots rather than puppies, was briefly the most powerful woman on the planet.”
In a twist, future MSNBC anchor Lawrence O’Donnell rode to Harris’s defense. “She’s been following the law very carefully and scrupulously,” he announced on the McLaughlin Group. “It is impossible to find a politician in America who doesn’t support either Al Gore or George W. Bush. They can’t all vacate their offices.”
On November 26, the new deadline set by the Florida Supreme Court, Bush still led in the tally, so Harris fulfilled her duty and certified the results. In a CBS News Special Report that night, anchor Dan Rather went to preposterous lengths to insist the certification was only as Harris “sees it” and “decrees it:”
“Nineteen days after the presidential election, Florida’s Republican Secretary of State is about to announce the winner — as she sees it and she decrees it — of the state’s potentially decisive 25 electoral votes. Katherine Harris will officially certify the state’s election returns....The believed certification — as the Republican Secretary of State sees it — is coming just hours after a court-ordered deadline for counties to submit their hand count and recount totals.”
While that was the beginning of the end for Gore’s challenge, the two campaigns slugged it out in court for another two weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled against further recounts. Late night hosts, however, continued to take nasty potshots at Harris.
Then-ABC host Bill Maher on November 30 was the nastiest: “Earlier today, a rental truck carried a half a million ballots from Palm Beach to the Florida Supreme Court there in Tallahassee. CNN had live helicopter coverage from the truck making its way up the Florida highway, and for a few brief moments, America held the hope that O. J. Simpson had murdered Katherine Harris.”
For liberals who condemned Harris for somehow abusing her office (by merely following the rules!), a media recount in 2001 was a shock of cold water. “The first major, independent review of the Florida vote has found that President Bush would have won by an even greater margin if the Supreme Court had not stopped the recount,” ABC’s Peter Jennings told his audience on April 4, 2001.
But the final word went to Harris, a guest of honor at the Media Research Center’s 2002 “DisHonor Awards.” Harris accepted the “Sore Losers Award” on behalf of CBS’s Rather and his November 26, 2000 “sees it and decrees it” absurdity.
“Some of you may know me only as Cruella de Vil,” Harris told hundreds of MRC supporters on January 17, 2002, “or the partisan hack, or perhaps even the lackey of the Bush brothers who single-handedly ‘stole’ the election by taking the inflexible, unfair, outrageous position that the rule of law actually mattered: that the law said what it said, and not what Dan Rather deemed it, or wished it to say.”
Here’s video of the entire presentation with Harris’s full remarks, as introduced by conservative columnist David Limbaugh:
For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.