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Cradle of Democracy

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.

All this talk has an incendiary quality; it’s meant to intimidate people, and in some places, it has. It was a Republican near riot, after all, that helped shut down the recount in Miami-Dade County, and although I can’t say how many demonstrators here are “outside agitators,” there are a few young kids, skate punks and skinheads, getting in people’s faces, shaking fists at cars with Gore bumper stickers, screaming at the top of their lungs. Yet one of the ironies of the post-election election is the way Palm Beach County has confounded expectations. “It’s different here,” a Bush-Cheney observer acknowledges, with a mix of wistfulness and pride. Thus far, the recount has not yielded the expected Gore advantage, which may be why, unlike Dade and Broward counties, it goes on calmly, methodically; when we finally get inside the Emergency Operations Center, the Canvassing Board chairman, Judge Charles Burton, looks up to the enclosed observation gallery where we’re standing and waves at us, much to my son’s delight. Even the media encampment is largely quiet, with reporters and crew sitting around in deck chairs, reading, talking, waiting, paying little attention to anything but themselves. Despite the intensity of the demonstrators, in other words, this hardly feels like ground zero of an insurrection, which, in some strange way, lessens the impact of the protest, undercutting the immediacy of its charge.

It’s tempting to read all sorts of things into this, but most important, I’d suggest, is what it says about the changing face of Palm Beach County, with its unresolved contradictions, its tensions between locals and snowbirds, between old and new. For those who visit, even those who (like my mother-in-law) spend the winters, it’s easy to forget that some people have roots in the community, that this is where they live. One night, a local newscast offers the following viewer-poll question: “Do you think the election mess will help our tourism?” Yet if this seems a ridiculous prism, it reveals a lot about a landscape whose malls and housing developments signify some weirdly homogeneous new America, where everything — politics, shopping, culture — is equally a matter of diversion, a way to pass the time. In such a country, we are all herded toward the middle, and anyone who objects is marginalized, written off as an extremist, or worse.

Thinking about that, I can’t help but take another look at the demonstrators, seeing some of them, at least, as less threatening than threatened, as if they’re protesting not so much the election as their dissatisfaction with what we’ve become. Even their candidate, George Bush, has sold them out to get elected, and if he doesn’t win . . . well, what does that mean? “It’s not that I’m committed to Bush,” admits one protester quietly, “but I’m committed to the Republican Party.” As a Nader voter, I can almost see his point. Our politics may be diametrically opposite, but I don’t want this America either. In fact, if I’m thankful for anything this Thanksgiving, it’s that neither Bush nor Gore is yet our president, although with both candidates so deeply compromised by the process, I’m not sure it really matters anymore.

Either way, as the sun sets over Military Trail and the recount continues, the protesters and the media hunker down to wait it out. For me, emotion has long since yielded to exhaustion, and all I want to do is leave. Just before I head back to the car, a college-age kid with a punk buzz cut threads his way through the cameras and the klieg lights wearing a wet suit and flippers and carrying a shoebox labeled “Ballots (Fla.)” in thick black ink. In his other hand, he holds a hastily rigged microphone, and he’s accompanied by a friend carrying a small camcorder, to whom he refers as his cameraman. “I’m speaking to you live from the Emergency Operations Center,” he intones, deadpan, “where we’ve come to deliver this missing ballot box.” Then he approaches several observers — to interview or provoke them, it isn’t clear.

As he flops across the parking lot, a few film crews start to shoot him, but although the kid keeps seeking attention, most people just laugh or turn away. “Jesus,” says a local news reporter. “It’s time to go home.”