New from the Archives: Election’s End Jolts Loyal Viewers

December 19, 2000 | Chicago Sun-Times | Lloyd Sachs |

People say they’re glad the election is over, and a week after the Supremes stopped the really big show, there certainly are reasons to share that sentiment. At the very least, we don’t have to contend with those hooting demonstrators who did their best to reduce one of the most gripping episodes in American history to the level of pro wrestling.

But for those who became addicted to the TV coverage of Gore vs. Bush, adjusting to its loss has not been easy. Having submerged ourselves in the ultimate maxi-series – at home, at work, at the health club, in our unsettled dreams – many of us experienced a case of the bends in returning to the surface of business as usual.

Here was the perfect vehicle for the browser era. Sifting through the verbiage for signs that the good guys might win (and you know who you were), we clicked from CNN to MSNBC to lowly Fox News, from “Hardball” to Larry King to “Nightline,” from Tallahassee, Fla., to Washington, D.C., to the land now forever known as Miami-Dade. There was never a time of day or night when we couldn’t get an instant infusion of ripe speculation or reportage – which however warmed-over or non-“breaking” – was headline material in downloading the amazing moment we were living through.

It’s not surprising that many more people were interested in the post-election than the alleged main event: It had much better characters. While George W. Bush and Al Gore did their best to render their personalities null and void – appropriately disappearing for long stretches during the most crucial turns of Election 2000 – their supporting cast carved their names into history.

In attorneys David Boies and Barry Richard, you had a pair of brilliantly understated, camera-savvy pros who could teach “The Practice” a few things about lawyerly charisma. Boies was a master at defusing tense moments with his reflexive smile and down-to-earth delivery. Out of court, the extravagantly coiffed Richard was no less magnetic with his steely demeanor and dryly amused manner.

You also had a great femme fatale in Katherine Harris, a seasoned character-assassin-for-hire in James Baker, a punch-weary corner man in William Daley and a prime-time sermonizer in Joseph Lieberman. Comic relief was provided by Palm Beach County Judge Charles Burton, who in testifying before Circuit Court Judge N. Sanders Sauls, lightly made fun of his recounting exploits as he demonstrated how he had held up ballots to the light (“I think you’ve seen this before”). By covering his cutthroat intentions with Southern civility, Sauls was an update of Elmore Leonard’s Maximum Bob.

And then, among the media, there were such memorable players as David Cardwell, CNN’s affable, Pillsbury-doughy Florida election specialist, who seemed permanently affixed to his outdoor backdrop; Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation, who made not being able to get in a word edgewise on MSNBC’s nightly panels sexy with her perfectly pursed lips, and CNN’s Austin, Texas, correspondent Candy Crowley, a cross between Kathy Bates and Mama Cass with her severe, statuesque presence.

It was difficult not to play Hollywood casting director with these characters. How about Holly Hunter as Harris? Dennis Quaid or Sam Elliott as Richard? Madeleine Stowe as Vanden Heuvel? The late John Candy as Cardwell? And, of course, Larry King as Larry King? But no movie could do justice to this story with all its improbable twists, turns and bombshells and its ability to keep us on the edge of our seat for more than a month.

For all its entertainment value, this epic was educational. If TV’s wall-to-wall coverage of the O.J. Simpson case and all-Monica-all-the-time spree left us with a guilty conscience for indulging it, Election 2000 left us with a heightened understanding of politics, the judiciary and the electoral process. The rare access it gave us to Supreme Court hearings was invaluable, even if the justices’ woozy split decision may not have inspired confidence.

But all that was then. What do we do now that the party is over? Develop an interest in Court TV? Sign up for civics courses? Immerse ourselves in an Internet retrospective? Send away for a highlight tape of the saga – or hope one will be given away free with a subscription to Time or Newsweek?

Not since “Lonesome Dove” ended has TV left us in this bad a lurch. Bush likely will help ease the loss by providing abundant material for Letterman and Leno. But as much as it may benefit the country, all this unity stuff is bound to be a drag. On second thought, maybe we should bring back the demonstrators. As obnoxious as they were when history was on the line, they’d be great fun as mud wrestlers now that normal reality is sinking in.

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