In the almost eight years since the 2000 battle for Florida's electoral votes, I have often been asked: "What was it like being there?" I have never had a short, satisfying answer. How do you convey the excitement of being involved in one of the most highly scrutinized and fast-moving constitutional cases in our nation's history? How do you get the questioner to appreciate the intense personal bonds that are forged working around the clock with talented, motivated, idealistic, and just plain fun colleagues—bonds that have turned into some lifelong friendships? Most difficultly, how do get someone who was not there to feel the emotional roller coaster of victory, followed by defeat followed by victory over and over again, ending with final, crushing defeat? I am not sure I have the final answer to the eight-year-old question, but I now have the opening line: "Have you seen Recount?"
Recount does a remarkable job of conveying what it was like to be there. Frankly, I was surprised. The movie captures the essence of the high-stakes political/legal drama that dominated our collective attention for six weeks in 2000 and has helped shaped the course of our politics ever since. Recount also does a good job of presenting the historical facts. It succeeds in explaining much of the novel and complex legal maneuvering that drove the parties' actions—a task that I would have thought impossible in a movie that anyone would actually watch. Most impressively, it transports the viewer back to that place and time and lets her experience how it felt for the lawyers and political operatives working on the biggest matter ever. For the two hours I spent watching, I was back in Tallahassee.
While it does a remarkable job of taking you back to Florida 2000, Recount is not perfect. It is, after all, entertainment not history. Some of the characters are composites. Many of the people who played critical roles in the process are not shown. Events are compressed. Scenes are created. In short, dramatic license was taken.
For the most part, that license did little damage to the history I recall and probably contributes to the emotional realism that is the core of the movie's success. I say for the most part because in at least two ways the dramatic license taken contributed to a telling of the story that does a disservice to some of the participants (and I suspect my Republican adversaries can think of others).
First, Recount portrays the decision by Vice President Gore and his legal team not to challenge absentee ballots from overseas military voters as one that was forced by the views expressed publicly by Sen. Joe Lieberman, the vice presidential nominee. That is just not how I remember it. There was a vigorous debate among the lawyers about what to do with this issue. There was absolutely no debate about whether there was a proper legal basis to challenge many of the votes—there unquestionably was one. And there was little disagreement that challenging the votes could well swing the election in Vice President Gore's favor. All the debate was about what was the right, responsible thing to do.
In my memory, the debate was ended by Vice President Gore, who said words to the effect of "how can I effectively serve as commander in chief if I get the position by disenfranchising military personnel serving abroad?" While one can now question the wisdom of that decision, particularly as some of those military personnel serve in Iraq for a third time or more, one cannot question that it was being made for noble reasons—not base, political ones. I have told this story many times since 2000 and I always add that it was one of the moments when I was most proud to be representing Vice President Gore. It still is.
The second disservice that I attribute to the dramatic license taken is inherent in the narrative structure of the movie. One could come away from watching Recount with the impression that much of the effort to get votes counted in Florida and Gore elected president was driven by the Ron Klain character's personal motivations. That does not comport with reality. The real Ron Klain was central to the effort on behalf of Vice President Gore in Florida; we would have never gotten as close to prevailing as we did without his skill and leadership. But any personal motivations that Ron had were simply not on display in Florida. The drive and motivation behind the legal and political team's fight in Florida were not any person's desire to prove their toughness or to settle old scores. Those working to get the votes counted and Gore elected president were doing what they thought was right, often at significant personal and professional sacrifice. Telling a good story should not lead anyone to believe differently.