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Jimmy Carter, James A. Baker, and HBO at Rice

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Last night I drove to Houston to attend an event at the old alma mater. The Baker Institute hosted a screening of the HBO film “Recount,” starring Kevin Spacey and Laura Dern, which premiers Sunday night. The film tells the story of the battle for Florida’s 25 electoral votes in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election. It’s a compelling tale, but it’s 90% Hollywood and at best 10% documentary. Spacey is terrific as attorney Ron Klain, Gore’s sacked chief of staff, who was brought back to oversee the campaign’s strategy in Florida. Dern plays (or, more accurately, overplays) the villain of the film, Florida secretary of state and chief election official Katherine Harris, as a self-absorbed, limelight-loving bitch who is putty in the hands of a smooth talking Republican lobbyist. Other lead characters are Baker (Tom Wilkinson, right hair, wrong accent), famed New York appellate lawyer David Boies (Ed Begley Jr., not intense enough), Bush lawyer Ben Ginsburg (Bob Balaband), Gore lawyer Warren Christopher (John Hurt) and Gore pollster Michael Whouly (Denis Leary). Karl Rove is not a character. Joe Allbaugh is, and he won’t be happy about it; he is represented in several scenes looking seedy and fat rather than like the sturdy former football player he is. The best scenes are the strategy sessions of the two camps. The dialogue, particularly between Klain and Whouley, has the ring of how political operatives really talk. Lots of the F-word. The Baker character often speaks in veiled language, befits a former Secretary of State, as when he recommends that Republicans stage a demonstration in Miami (which was successful in shutting down the recount there), by saying, “It’s time our supporters started excercising their First Amendment rights.” I thought that the film tilted toward the Democrats. Perhaps this is because we cannot help but ask ourselves whether the better man did not win–or, to put it another way, the winner has been an unsuccessful president. Another reason, which has less to do with history and more to do with scriptwriting, is that the story just makes the Gore team seem more sympathetic, and their cause more noble, when at the time I remember thinking that they were trying to steal the election. (The film does acknowledge this; one of the R’s says of William Daley, Gore’s campaign chairman, something along the lines of, “His father stole the 1960 election for Kennedy and now he’s trying to steal this one for Gore.”) The D’s main talking point–“We just want all the votes counted”–is easier to embrace than the Bush team’s insistence that the law was on their side, which depended upon which court was interpreting it. Perhaps the perceived Democratic bias is simply due to Spacey’s ability to transmit Klain’s emotions.  The R’s, on the other hand, come across as the ones who were willing to manipulate the system. One example is the riot scene in Miami, as the R demonstrators “exercise their First Amendment rights.” A Democratic lawyer shows up at the courthouse, gets an unused punch card from a clerk, and the demonstrators surround and pummel him and scream at the cops that he is commiting voter fraud. One shot shows shoes kicking his ankles. Maybe that’s the way it really happened, but it seemed gratuitous. Dern really makes you loathe Katherine Harris, which IS the way it really happened. The R lobbyist who manipulates Harris oozes sleaze. Wilkinson plays Baker as ruthless and efficient–pretty accurate, I would say. There is one poignant moment when Baker explains how he was a Democrat until he was 40, when his wife died, and a friend who was a Republican was running for the Senate, and asked him to join the campaign, to keep him busy. Wilkinson points to a photograph on the wall: George H. W. Bush. The only Democrat who fared badly at the hands of the scriptwriters was Warren Christopher, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State. When he arrives to lead the Gore team, he and immediately talks about negotiation and compromise and making sure that American democracy sets an example for the world–in short, a total wuss. Both Carter and Baker, speaking after the screening, decried this portrayal of Christopher. At the very end of the film, Whouley runs through the what-ifs of the battle with Klain, the last of which was, “If George Bush hadn’t stopped drinking.” That was gratuitous. The online chat is about whether the film succeeded in its goal of being purple, rather than red or blue. I would say blue. New York magazine hosted the premier of the film, which attracted a glitzy crowd, including Spacey, Dern, Klain, Boies, and others. For a video including interviews, click here. * * * * * After the screening, Baker and Carter came to the stage for a discussion about election reform, a subject about which they had co-chaired a commission. Carter had also co-chaired a commission on the subject with Gerald Ford. The moderator was Time’s David Von Drehle, who let the featured speakers do most of the talking. Baker began by describing the film as, “whichever side you were on, a solidly entertaining film.” Von Drehle said that he feels no one will never know who won the election in Florida. The Washington Post, where he worked at the time, joined a consortium that examined the ballots. It took a year to count the 6 million votes. If the four counties where recounts were going on had completed their recounts, Bush would have won by around 225 votes. If the U.S. Supreme Court had not stopped the recounts, Bush would have won by a smaller margin. If the Florida circuit judge had held a hearing and had counted both the undervotes and the overvotes, Gore might have won by 100+ votes. Then the discussion turned to the Carter-Ford committee. Carter said that he would never agree to monitor an election in the United States. “Our election laws are so bad that it’s hard to tell who won,” he said. We don’t monitor elections unless candidates have equal access to media, uniform election laws in all states, and states have the final say over local election officials. The Carter-Ford commission was unanimous in its recommendations: * Statewide uniform voter registration * Provisional voting if the authenticity of a voter is challenged * Hold national elections on a national holiday * Simplify absentee voting * Voting rights for felons, except for capital offenders and sex offenders (this was a major problem in Florida in 2000, because a private contractor knocked many voters off the list because their names resembled, but were not identical, to felons who had lost the right to vote) * News outlets may not release early returns * Congress should allocate funds to purchase reliable electronic voting machines that have a paper trail * A national election commission to enforce voting laws Baker said that Bush won the presidency by winning Ohio by only 59,000 votes in 2004, which is a very small margin. There was dissatisfaction of the American people about whether their votes counted. Some of the other problems of the ’04 election included: * Some states didn’t have statewide voter registration lists; * A number of states failed to pass paper trail legislation; Carter summed up the recommendations of the Baker-Carter commission: * All voting machines must have a paper trail * All states should have photo ID requirements. Carter had voted for this, realizing that it was controversial among Democrats. It was the only recommendation that was not unanimous. Carter felt that voter ID’s would help make sure that everybody got to vote. * Voter ID requirements should be accompanied by a major outreach effort, and all voters who did not have a driver’s license would receive a free government ID. * A uniform presidential primary system with four regional primaries, keeping Iowa and New Hampshire first. In 1984, Carter said, there were eight primaries before the end of March. This year there were 43. The political parties would have to agree, or Congress could pass a law requiring the regional primaries. The order would rotate every four years. * Felons would have the right to vote, except for capital offenders and sex offenders. Von Drehle asked what the most important reform was. Carter: An electronic system that is trusted and has a paper trail. Then he said, “Many nations are doing this, including Mexico and Venezuela.” Mexico and Venezuela? These are the models? Two of the most corrupt countries in the world? And while I’m expressing doubts, tell me why Iowa and New Hampshire should be first. They are two unrepresentative, pipsqueak states. The New Hampshire primary rewards Massachusetts liberals like John Kerry. The Iowa primary causes candidates to swear their affection for ethanol, which drives up the price of fuel and corn. Carter returned to the issue of photo IDs. “Republicans insist there is massive fraud,” he said, “although there is no evidence of that. Democrats say voter ID is put in to prevent minorities, the poor, and the elderly from voting.” Carter reiterated that the IDs should be available for free. He favored voter ID because it would actually help assure voters that their vote would count. His concern was that to get the photo ID, they would have to have a passport, which costs $100, or a birth certificate, which costs $12, and it is not easy for someone who doesn’t drive to get either one. This is why he thinks the voter ID should be free. Baker discussed the Supreme Court opinion on the Voter ID bill. All it said was that photo IDs are constitutional. The Court did not decide whether the Indiana law is preventing people from voting. He mentioned that one of the opinions in the recently decided case said, “The Carter-Baker Report is not the Constitution of the United States, but its findings are relevant.” Von Drehle asked if we had progressed down the road since 2000? “We’ve made a lot of progress,” Carter said. “Anybody who wants to know what the election system should be can read our report.” Von Drehle asked, “What are your thoughts on this year?” “We might disagree on this, Baker said. “It’s very hard for one party to maintain control of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for three successive terms.” “You pulled it off,” Carter said. Baker continued, “We got the best nominee we could have. It’s an uphill fight, but we can win. The economy isn’t booming. The war isn’t popular.” “The Democrats can win,” Carter said. “The loser for the nomination will su[pport the winner. The supporters of the loser will support the nominee. If Hillary gets the nomination, there will be some defections. The Democrats are making every effort to tie McCain to Bush. Obama doesn’t have the experience in foreign policy. He must choose a running mate who has that experience.. Baker said, “It seems like we Americans like divided government. That will help us. I see two scenarios after June 3. Senator Clinton is the obvious choice to be vice-president. Just because they have been fighting doesn’t mean that they can’t be on the same ticket.” He mentioned Kennedy and Johnson, and Reagan and George H. W. Bush. “Reagan wanted Ford to be his vice-president in 1980,” Baker said. We kept asking him, “How would we refer to Ford? Mr. President Vice President?” Carter said that Sam Nunn should be the vice-president, not Clinton. “Ted Kennedy ran against me for three years, he tried to make me look bad for three years, then he wouldn’t shake hands with me on the podium. That’s why we have Super Delegates now.” There was some buzzing in the audience about Carter’s mention of Kennedy in the light of the latter’s brain cancer. “I think Obama and Clinton is a strong ticket,” Baker said. “That’s not the strongest ticket,” Carter said. It’s the ticket the Republicans would favor.” Von Drehle brought the discussion back to the film. “I was distressed at the portrayal of Warren Christopher,” Carter said. “The biggest blight on my presidency was the Iranian hostage crisis. Warren Christopher was in Algeria, trying to get the hostages out, for the last three days of my presidency. “I told HBO I disagreed with the treatment of Christopher,” Baker said. Carter had the last word: “I won’t complain about Katherine Harris.”

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