By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Dave Martin/AP
WEST PALM BEACH, Florida — Here’s a joke I’ve heard a few times since Election Day: “If a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush, then a vote for Gore is a vote for Buchanan.” It’s not a great joke, but the day before Thanksgiving in Palm Beach County, Florida, it seems as appropriate a metaphor for the 2000 presidential election as I’m likely to find. My family and I have spent the last 75 minutes traveling the broad empty boulevards of West Palm Beach looking for the Emergency Operations Center, site of the county’s manual recount, but no matter what direction we go, the election seems to be happening someplace else. At City Hall, a couple of workers on a cigarette break smile at my request for information. “Oh, no, honey,” one drawls, “we haven’t counted here in almost two weeks.” Out near the airport, where a complex of county offices abuts Belvedere Road, I flag down a man in a county pickup, but he just laughs and tells me, “I can’t believe I don’t know where it is. I’ve been here 35 years. No wonder we can’t vote right.” Even two Sheriff’s deputies can’t do much but shrug their shoulders, joking, as I ask about TV trucks and satellite dishes, “I don’t know. Maybe they’ve given up.”
After a while, I start to wonder if all of Palm Beach County is one enormous butterfly ballot, confused, chaotic, a feeling only heightened when, at a stoplight, a car blows straight through a left-turn lane, nearly taking out our front fender. “Florida,” my mother-in-law cracks from behind the steering wheel. “They can’t vote, and they can’t drive.”
It’s odd to hear my mother-in-law talk like that, because I’ve always thought she liked everything about it here. But this year in south Florida, a lot of things are not as they seem. Even I, who through a decade of holiday visits have never once stopped grumbling and complaining, find myself for the first time eager, even excited, to be in West Palm Beach, if for no other reason than the prospect of standing at the eye of the American political hurricane.
For days, I’ve been telling my 6-year-old son, Noah, that we’ll have a chance to witness history — not just the media-manufactured variety, but the real thing — and as soon as our plane lands, we make plans to see the recount unfold. History, however, has a way of taking unexpected paths, like our drive through Palm Beach County. Just as we’re about to give up on the Emergency Operations Center, my mother-in-law turns onto Military Trail, and there among the strip malls and the empty, sand-swept lots we see a forest of antennas, and a line of 40 or so demonstrators stretched along the sidewalk, chanting and waving signs.
“Look,” my wife says, pointing to a large cardboard placard that screams, “Al Gore + the Media = [swastika].” As we watch, passing cars honk their support, and a man in a T-shirt reading “Palm Beach County, Banana Republic” yells into a megaphone, “Thank you for stopping by the Palm Beach County Voter Fraud Division. Get your chads here, ladies and gentlemen. We have all your voter-fraud needs.”
On the one hand, there’s something ludicrous about this setup, orchestrated, as it has been, by the Bush campaign. There are no pro-Gore protesters anywhere, and the tone of the demonstration seems intended to do little more than ratchet up the controversy, with its “Sore Loserman 2000” T-shirts and “crying towels” (modeled on the “Gore Lieberman 2000” posters) and all those pocket-size American flags. At the same time, though, I feel an unmistakable edge of menace the instant I set foot on the pavement, as if I’ve entered enemy territory, and it’s a sensation that extends beyond the picket lines.
Maybe it’s coincidence, but the Emergency Operations Center stands only a hundred yards or so from Gun Club Road; at one point, I overhear a demonstrator tell a deputy he works the Palm Beach Gun Show, to which the officer replies, “Do you? Good.” Across Military Trail, a huge billboard reads, “I knew you before I created you. — God” (a pro-life message for pregnant girls). Even off the street, there’s no escaping the rhetoric; waiting in line with Noah to see the counting, I watch an elderly woman, a Democrat, argue with a young Republican for the benefit of a public-television camera. “I’m not sure who I voted for,” the woman says, her face genuinely stricken, to which the Republican replies, “Ninety-seven percent of Palm Beach County managed to vote right. What’s the matter with you?” Her snide and dismissive tone reminds me of the protester who tells me, “Anyone who couldn’t figure out the ballot doesn’t have the mental capacity to vote. Do you want retarded people voting? It wasn’t quite that bad, but pretty close.” So what happens if Bush loses on the recount? I wonder. “Oh, man,” he says, “there’ll be a revolution,” and he gestures vaguely to the grassy knoll behind him, where another protester, dressed in fatigue pants, holds a sign declaring “Bush or Revolution,” the letters framed in dripping Magic Marker blood.