Al Gore's Deadly Ambiguities


If there's something unsatisfying, politically and even aesthetically, about the conclusion to the national recount nightmare, it may be because the struggle for Florida did not so much reach resolution as it finally collapsed under the weight of its accumulated ambiguities.

From the beginning of this struggle in early November, Al Gore and his allies relied heavily on ambiguity to advance their case and tell their story; they stretched such essential concepts as "voting," "counting," "legitimacy," "victory," and even "disenfranchisement" until these terms had assumed new meanings more congenial to the Gore argument. Indeed, Gore's central narrative for weeks has been that if only all the votes were counted, they would reveal him to be the winner. But the final effort to count votes, as ordered on December 8 by the Florida Supreme Court, echoed the cacophony of Gore's rhetorical fugue. Neither "counting" nor "votes" had agreed-upon meanings for those attempting the last, unfinished tally. For a majority of justices on the United States Supreme Court, such ambiguity had implications in the law: It was antithetical to the constitutional guarantee of equal protection.

But if the Gore argument eventually foundered on the shifting meaning of its own terms, that very same shift of meaning allowed Gore to get as far as he did, and to protract his struggle for 35 days despite never once assuming a lead over George W. Bush. Here is a brief look Gore's Florida lexicon, and a short study in deformed meaning.

Vote. Democratic partisans consistently claimed that Gore really had more of these than did Bush, but what were they? They were what Gore partisans wanted them to be: dents, light that passed through a ballot, a "logical" pattern of party choices, etc. The infamous recounting team of Broward County Democrats found a great many cast on Gore's behalf, even as the Republican member of that same team found far fewer. As late as December 11, Supreme Court justices pressed Gore lawyer David Boies for his view of a fair standard for recognizing votes; he had none to offer. Why? The looser the definition, the more that will fit into it; the fewer the standards, the more votes.

Count. The Gore team pressed daily for certain votes to be counted. But you cannot properly "count" what does not exist until you define it into being. The process that Gore's allies were demanding was not a count, it was an act of interpretation. Of course, a demand that we should "interpret all the ballots" has considerably less resonance than does a call to "count all the votes," but in fact it was interpretation that Gore wanted.

Legitimacy. Gore partisans claimed throughout the Florida debate that unless all the votes were counted, any Bush presidency would lack legitimacy. But the Gore team had redefined both votes and counting in ways useful to its own ends, and thus had the concept of legitimacy surrounded. Even as Gore's effort finally collapsed, "legitimacy" remained his to confer. The recount misadventure had so utterly muddled the election's resolution that, in terms of legitimacy, Bush's consistent lead was almost secondary to a "gracious" concession speech by Gore.

Victory. Gore's team made the consistent claim that he was really the winner. In fact, although Bush's lead was always paper thin, Gore never had a lead at all, despite numerous tabulations and a dramatic deadline extension. "Victory," under these circumstances, is transformed from a demonstrable act to a latent state of being. This novel concept of victory is still being articulated, and is being cast into the future. On December 13, the Rev. Jesse Jackson announced his intention of recounting Florida's ballots to unearth Gore's victory. Jackson already knows the result of his recount. "No matter who the Supreme Court crowns, we will know before January the 20th that Gore got most of the votes," he told the Associated Press.

Disenfranchised. A number of Gore allies, especially Jesse Jackson, claimed that the failure to count certain ballots was an act of disenfranchisement. Most of these ballots were from Miami-Dade County, and had been kicked out by counting machines as showing no presidential vote. But because the disputed ballots came from predominantly Black precincts, Jackson and others spoke of the voters as "children of slavery," thus transforming a mechanical tabulation into a crime against humanity. Disenfranchisement, which had previously described preventive acts against a voter, who cannot cast a vote, was thus transformed into an act against a candidate, who cannot benefit from a vote.

Not even the Florida Supreme Court, which otherwise understood words the way Gore used them, went along. Rather than ordering a hand count of only the disputed Miami-Dade ballots, it ordered a hand count of the whole of Florida's so-called "undervote." Unfortunately, it otherwise read from Gore's lexicon, with the result that the U.S. Supreme Court, struck by the inherent illogic of the process, finally ended the matter in mid-count.

There's a dictionary full of other terms that Gore's team attempted to render ambiguous, from spurious claims of statistical "anomalies" at the outset of the recount campaign, to elastic notions of a "deadline," to self-serving notions of "justice." Nor is this legacy of ambiguity likely to be short-lived, if Gore partisans have anything to say about it. Wednesday morning, attorney David Boies was asked what Americans may have learned from all this. What they've learned, answered Boies, is that "every vote counts."