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Vol.26, No. 19 Apr. 9, 2001

New York Times Journalists Offer Insights into Aftermath of 2000 Presidential Election

By James DeVitt

The 36-day Florida recount that followed the 2000 presidential election offered a preview of how George W. Bush would perform once in the Oval Office, but left open the question of how the political system will function in the future, said New York Times journalists at an April 3 forum co-sponsored by Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and The New York Times.

The forum, “36 Days: the 2000 Presidential Election Crisis,” which attracted an audience of more than 200 people, was moderated by Journalism School Dean Tom Goldstein. The panelists were Frank Bruni, Journalism’88, who covered the Bush campaign, U.S. Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse and Deputy National Editor Jim Roberts, who coordinated The Times’ coverage of the 2000 presidential race.

The Florida recount concluded on Dec. 12, with the United States Supreme Court decision that, in effect, gave Bush a victory in Florida and, with it, the electoral votes necessary to capture the presidency.

“This had stopped being just a political story and had become a very interesting news story with a lot of bizarre angles,” Roberts said of the recount. “For a reporter, covering these 36 days was like covering a plane crash every day. It wasn’t, ‘Will we cover this story?’ It was, ‘How much space will we give it?’ “

Beyond a daily stream of political and legal developments, Bruni said the Florida recount offered a glimpse of how Bush would function as president.

“The 36 days were revealing about the man who became president,” said Bruni, who spent the recount period in Texas covering the Bush team. “He’s a man who likes to delegate authority, especially at crucial times.”

Bruni noted Bush has carried other campaign practices into office, such as taking positions that are not popular in public opinion polls in order to boost his standing with the electorate in other ways.

“Even if the positions Bush was advocating were not popular in the polls, he could get points for character and leadership,” said Bruni. “He told us what he was doing. Coming out of the Clinton era, he felt people would respond to that approach, whether they agreed with the position he was advocating or not.”

Several in the audience criticized the performance of news organizations on election night and during the recount, and Goldstein asked Roberts if reporters were going to cover elections differently in the future.

“There’s a lot about that election night that will live in infamy,” said Roberts, noting that several news organizations, including the New York Times, prematurely called the election for Bush while the networks erroneously awarded Florida to Gore. “I think the country will experience a different election night in 2004. It’s going to be a much slower, deliberate experience than the one in 2000.”

But Greenhouse added that the news media’s role in determining the impact of the 2000 election was now over.

“The political system will have to decide what to make of this,” she said. “As journalists, we’re sort of at the end of our rope.”

However, Greenhouse, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for her reporting on the U.S. Supreme Court, was surprised the high court agreed to rule on lawsuits stemming from the recount.

“The more I look back, the more bizarre it is to me that the court got involved,” she said.

She also spoke about the five justices, all appointees of Ronald Reagan or his successor, George Herbert Walker Bush, who comprised the majority decision that effectively ended the recount.

“[You wondered] are they just voting their political preferences?” said Greenhouse. “At the very least, [these justices] were persuaded by the world in which they operate, which is filled with conservative Republicans who were saying the Democrats were stealing the election.”

She added that the decision is unlikely to change how the Supreme Court functions.

“The court is filled with pragmatists,” said Greenhouse. “They need to get on to the next case. The justices have to act on the premise that everybody’s vote is up for grabs on every case, so you need to get over it.”