New York Times
November 12, 2000


Looking for Democracy and Finding, Uh, Florida


By DAVID BARSTOW


Laura Kleinhenz/ Saba, for The New York Times

This week, with the future of the free world up for grabs, it is once again clear that Florida — America's sunny Margaritaville of drifters, grifters and politically active lap-dancers — has something of a credibility problem when it comes to the heavy lifting of democracy.

How else to explain the Bush and Gore campaigns' need to dispatch Warren Christopher and James Baker, as if Florida were some troubled banana republic too buzzed or backward to count votes straight? How long before Kofi Annan lands in Palm Beach?

For decades the country has entrusted crucial acts in the presidential pageant to those gritty, safe-as- meatloaf farmers of Iowa, and those flinty, live-free-or- die old-timers of New Hampshire. Not once, it can be said, has a former secretary of state monitored the vote count in Dixville Notch, a cherished ritual held out as unassailable evidence that American democracy is a ladder with no top or bottom. Everybody gets to play.

And yet, the nation seems uneasy about entrusting this election's grand finale to Florida, a state of gaudy 24-hour surf shops, leggy hot-dog vendors wearing the beach equivalent of dental floss and more than its share of movie-of-the-week serial killers. After all the allegations of vanishing ballot boxes, incompetent election officials and sheriff's deputies intimidating black voters — it seemed as if the judge who ordered a county elections office quarantined might extend the order to the entire state.

"It's hard to imagine reason coming from the land of the T-back and the pit bull, the parrothead and the near-dead," Mary Jo Melone, a columnist for The St. Petersburg Times, wrote on Thursday. "It's hard to imagine anything that really matters happening here."

Yes, it is true. Florida is a state that counts a Jimmy Buffet concert as a serious political happening. Its finest college, the University of Florida, ranks among the nation's best party schools. It is home for the National Enquirer, the Home Shopping Network, Hulk Hogan — a sleepy, seasonless place where reality routinely exceeds the imagination of its sharpest satirists.

Think about it: hundreds of liberal Jews in Palm Beach, some of them elderly retirees, mistakenly vote for Pat Buchanan, a candidate they revile for both his politics and his comments about Hitler, and this costs Al Gore, a candidate they adore for picking a Jewish running mate, four years in the White House?

Not even Carl Hiaasen is this good.

But on reflection, perhaps Florida is exactly the right place to settle this election. Unlike Iowa or New Hampshire, Florida can at least claim a richness of diversity that more closely mirrors the nation as a whole. This goes well beyond simply noting the Cuban community in Miami or the Haitian community in Belle Glade. From the citrus farmers in Central Florida to the tobacco farmers in the Panhandle, from the back office workers in Tampa to the Disney employees in Orlando, from the polo players in Palm Beach to the fundamentalists in Jacksonville to the migrant camps near Lake Okeechobee, Florida presents a vast ecosystem of political and cultural sensibilities.

It is a state knit together by a skepticism of government, a live-and-let-live outlook and a marvelous unpretentiousness. Defendants amble into court wearing tank tops, flip-flops and jams, and so do some churchgoers. There is no shame in a double-wide —- or in building obscenely huge homes and painting them pink. It is a land consumed by fresh starts. There are doctors running from pesky malpractice problems in California, mothers running from ugly divorces in Michigan, options traders who crapped out in Chicago, police officers who burned out in New York City. They cross the border and — presto! — they are suddenly reinvented as chiropractors, deep-sea fishing captains, building contractors and insurance agents. Is it any wonder that O. J. Simpson now spends a lot of time down there?

So while the sophisticates in Georgetown and on the Upper West Side debate the esoteric principles of constitutional intent and the historical implications of a popular-vote, electoral-college split, many Floridians, battle- scarred by the vicissitudes of life, will doubtless see this unfolding drama for what it (like democracy itself) really is — a brawl for political supremacy.

Admittedly, Florida has at times struggled to carry out important matters of state. There were those unfortunate executions, with flames bursting from men strapped into Old Sparky, the state's creaky electric chair. And who can forget the Elián González saga, in which Miami's City Hall stood in open, middle-fingered defiance of Janet Reno. Then there was the recent Miami mayoral race, in which campaign workers engaged in wholesale fraud with absentee ballots.

But a state that can withstand the devastation of Hurricane Andrew, swampy sinkholes that swallow houses, and aggressive alligators that walk across putting greens is surely capable of absorbing the brunt of a Category 5 constitutional crisis. Can it be long before Mr. Christopher and Mr. Baker put on jams?

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