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Venom Directed at Harris Aggravates National Split

November 27, 2000|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton, who writes a column for Newsday in New York, worked in the White House of President George Bush. E-mail: pinkerto@ix.netcom.com

Politics hath no fury like the fury of a woman scorned. And no woman has been more scorned than Katherine Harris, Florida's Republican secretary of state. But last night, after nearly three weeks of abuse from Democrats and the media, Harris hath had her revenge. The loser, of course, is Al Gore. And the winner, maybe, is George W. Bush. Yet even greater furies have been loosed in the three weeks since election day, far fiercer than during the campaign itself.

Early on, the Gore-iors identified Harris as a potential problem. After all, she had the formal legal authority to certify the winner of the Sunshine State's 25 electoral votes. And while she could be overridden, as she was, temporarily, by the Florida Supreme Court, she still had the power to make Bush appear to be the winner.

And so the Gore campaign and its allies zeroed in on her. Gore flack Chris Lehane called her a "commissar." Alan Dershowitz, lawyer for Florida Democrats, called her "a crook."

But the real venom has been spewed by the press: Time magazine's Margaret Carlson "reported" that Harris is " often compared to Cruella de Vil, snatching ballots rather than puppies"; the Boston Globe's Joan Venocchi likened her to Lady Macbeth. But by far the fiercest attack on Harris came from the Washington Post's Robin Givhan, a fashion writer, who was moved to this flight of misogyny last week: "Her lips were overdrawn with berry-red lipstick--the creamy sort that smears all over a coffee cup and leaves smudges on shirt collars. Her skin had been plastered and powdered to the texture of prewar walls in need of a skim coat. And her eyes, rimmed in liner and frosted with blue shadow, bore the telltale homogenous spikes of false eyelashes. Caterpillars seemed to rise and fall with every bat of her eyelid."

Then Givhan got around to her ultimate purpose, which was to delegitimize Harris as an electoral arbiter: "She looked as if she were wearing a mask. . . . The American public doesn't like falsehoods, and Harris is clearly presenting herself in a fake manner. . . . Why should anyone trust her?

Since it's an article of faith to Republicans that the Democrats and the media play hand in glove together, Republicans rallied to Harris' side as the press piled on. She might have wilted under the onslaught, but instead she got tougher. Although she had the option of extending the deadline for manual recounts until 9 a.m. this morning, thereby giving the three pro-Gore counties more time to submit new numbers, she drew the line at 5 p.m. Sunday, the earliest possible moment she could act, and the most disadvantageous time for Gore. And for good measure, she rejected the partial recount from Palm Beach County.

Last night in Tallahassee, she let some of her feelings show through. "I wish to thank the thousands of people throughout the country," she said, who had supported her through their letters, faxes, e-mail and flowers.

And so Bush is the likely next president, and the passions generated, pro and con, were vastly more intense than they would have been if he had won on election day. The old conventional wisdom was that Americans were closely divided in the wake of the election, but not deeply divided. Now it's apparent that Americans are still closely divided, and most likely more deeply split.

After an election campaign notable mostly for its dullness, partisans on both sides now have sharp issues. The lead editorial in last week's issue of the Weekly Standard, a Republican-leaning magazine, was titled "The Gore Coup," while the cover of the conservative National Review read "Thou Shalt Not Steal."

Democrats are angry, too. The galvanizing moment for them was the demonstration outside the Miami-Dade canvassing boardroom on Nov. 22. Joe Lieberman pointed to that fracas as he denounced "the rule of the mob"; Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said that a "whiff of fascism" was in the Florida air.

All of this talk, on both sides, may seem too strong for a vote-counting process that was more scrutinized than any in history. And that may be a paradox of the media age: The more an event is covered, the less legitimate it appears to be.

But the greater paradox is that Gore, who worked so hard to cultivate the "women's vote" this year, finds his presidential prospects cracking on the icy cold fury of one woman he and his team scorned, big time.

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