SEPTEMBER 11, 2006
Not very long ago, the term conservatives most often used to
describe Katherine Harris was "rock star." Writing in The Weekly
Standard, John Podhoretz praised her as "a local official in
Florida who looked to the letter of the law for guidance at a time
when we needed the law the most." Among conservatives, this was one
of the more measured assessments. In the eyes of her admirers, she
was Mother Teresa, Marie Curie, and Joan of Arc all rolled into
one--passionate, deeply moral, and honest as the day is long. Not
only that, she was also smart as a whip and a looker to boot. ("In
person, Mrs. Harris comes across as brainy, ultrapetite and softly
glamorous," reported The Washington Times.)In the last few months, though, many of Harris's starry-eyed fans
have undertaken a critical reappraisal of their erstwhile heroine.
It turns out that she may not be a paragon of sound judgment after
all. Today, conservatives tend to describe Harris with synonyms for
The newfound Republican doubts about Harris spring not from a single
event, but an accumulation of small, bizarre episodes. She made a
speech about a terrorist plot (to blow up a power grid in Indiana)
that turned out to be wholly imaginary. She accused newspapers of
publishing doctored photographs of her. She has raged against her
staff, accusing aides of secretly working for her opponent. Since
2003, while serving as a member of Congress and running for Senate,
she has had four chiefs of staff and four press secretaries leave
her office. In 2006 alone, more than a dozen staffers have quit.
Many of them have described her erratic behavior and irrational
tirades to the press.
Harris's ongoing meltdown has rendered her politically radioactive.
Her November opponent, Democrat Bill Nelson, was initially
considered one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the
Senate. Yet Harris's campaign has been such a disaster that polls
show her losing by 30 points. A number of Republicans, including,
reportedly, representatives of Jeb Bush, have pleaded with her to
quit the race so the party can put up a stronger challenger, but
she has adamantly refused, insisting that God wants her to be a
senator. (This sort of rationale is notoriously difficult to
refute.) Indeed, appeals to reason by her fellow Republicans seem
only to have stiffened her resolve. Jeb Bush's efforts to recruit
another GOP challenger "drove her crazy, but it didn't take her
long to get there," former Harris pollster Ed Rollins told The
Oh, you don't say. It's gratifying to see Republicans acknowledge
that Harris is a batty, irrational megalomaniac who's in way over
her head. But some of us picked up on that quite some time ago.
When she first emerged on the national scene during the Florida
recount, Harris was known as a "polarizing" figure--one who
inspired wildly different reactions among conservatives and
liberals. That the assessment of Harris is increasingly a matter of
bipartisan consensus is all to the good. And yet, it seems that the
full historic implications of this new consensus have not been
Harris, after all, played a singularly decisive role in making
George W. Bush president. As Florida's secretary of state, she
initially forbade counties from conducting their own recounts,
delaying the process for weeks so that, when the recount eventually
started, it could not be completed in time for the deadline to
certify electors. As Lance deHaven-Smith, a Florida State
University political scientist and author of The Battle for Florida,
told The Tampa Tribune, "It would never have gone to the Supreme
Court if she had simply allowed the counties to complete their
recounts." Deadlock, The Washington Post's history of the recount,
concurred: "What is clear is that Bush enjoyed an enormous
advantage because of the presence of his brother in the governor's
office and Katherine Harris as secretary of state." Democrats and
Republicans still view the Florida recount as divergently as they
once viewed Harris. Now that a new consensus is forming that Harris
is a loon, though, shouldn't a new consensus on the recount she
The full extent of Harris's influence has faded from the public
memory because of two subsequent events. The first is the Bush v.
Gore decision, which made the Supreme Court, not Harris, seem to be
the final arbiter of the election. Left forgotten by the Bush v.
Gore controversy was the fact that several of Harris's
interventions on behalf of Bush had been deemed illegal by the
Florida courts, and they were never subsequently vindicated. These
included her insisting that recounted ballots not accepted by the
November 14, 2000, deadline were invalid and her maintaining that
she lacked the discretion to accept manual recounts. In both cases,
the Florida Supreme Court ruled against her unanimously.
What aided Harris even more was a 2001 recount of the Florida
ballots by the National Opinion Research Center, conducted for a
media consortium, which seemed to suggest that Bush would have won
even without her or the Supreme Court. The media recount came out
just weeks after the September 11 attacks, and the participating
newspapers appeared to bend over backward to avoid tainting
President Bush's legitimacy. Some press accounts asserted that a
statewide recount--which Al Gore had futilely pleaded with Bush to
accept and which the Florida Supreme Court ultimately
ordered--"would have favored Bush," as The Washington Post put it.
This conclusion, however pleasing to the national psyche, was
totally false. (See "Count Down," November 26, 2001.) It rested on
the assumption that only ballots that had registered no vote at
all--those pesky hanging chads--would have been counted. In
reality, several counties were examining ballots that had been
initially disqualified for registering two votes. There turned out
to be a large net gain for Gore in such ballots, which typically
included a vote for Gore as well as a write-in vote for Gore. The
voting machines initially disqualified these votes, but a hand
examination counted them because the intent of the voter was clear.
And, if those votes had been included, Gore would have carried
And yet, both the Bush v. Gore decision and the media recount
prompted Harris and her supporters to proclaim loudly she had been
vindicated. (Democrats, meanwhile, eager not to be seen as sore
losers, mostly held their tongues.) As a result, the initial,
correct impression that Harris had steered the recount toward Bush
faded, and her self-proclaimed role as neutral arbiter of the law
stood mostly unchallenged.
Harris remained an icon among conservatives until very recently, and
the degeneration of her image from wise public servant to nutbag
has been abrupt. Most Republicans have chosen to treat her
eccentric displays as a sudden and unforeseeable outbreak of
delirium--ones that happened to coincide with the moment that she
became a strategic liability for the party. After Harris floated
unsubstantiated rumors that Joe Scarborough (a former GOP member of
Congress whom Harris viewed as a potential primary rival) may have
killed one of his interns, Scarborough noted, "That was the first
clue that something wasn't right with Katherine Harris."
In fact, there were plenty of clues to that effect from the very
beginning. One such clue was Harris's oft-stated belief that she
was the modern-day incarnation of the biblical heroine Queen
Esther. ("If I perish, I perish," she would proclaim dramatically,
perhaps confusing Esther with Jesus.) During the recount, Harris
made this analogy to her staff so frequently that, as the Post
reported, her underlings finally begged, "No more Esther stories!"
Or there was the time, during the heat of the recount, when Harris
told reporters, "I dreamed that I would ride into this stadium [the
site of the Florida/Florida State football game] on a horse,
carrying the FSU flag in one hand and the [election] certification
in the other--while everyone around me cheered." Some of us took
this statement as another fairly strong clue that Harris was
something less than the dispassionate, ultra-professional public
servant her supporters made her out to be.
Harris's many confidence-shaking displays as a Senate candidate
really ought not to come as such a surprise to the GOP. When it
first became clear, immediately after the 2000 election, that
Harris would be directing the process that would determine the next
president, Republican leaders panicked. In her first press
conference, two days after the election, she was vague and ill-
informed and didn't evince a sense that she would, or could, take
control of the recount as the Republicans desired. "Harris knew so
little about the legal and procedural issues that the chances of
this kind of hesitancy from her were even greater," reported
Jeffrey Toobin in Too Close to Call, a history of the recount.
Republicans close to Bush dispatched J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, a
veteran Florida Republican lawyer well-versed in election law, to
serve as Harris's close adviser. From that point on, decisions
became more decisive and uniformly pro-Bush. When asked by the Post
if he was coordinating his decisions with the Bush campaign,
Stipanovich tellingly refused to offer a denial. Certainly,
Harris's adversaries did not see her as the brains of the operation.
Ron Klain, a lawyer for Gore's recount team, recalls that, every
time his side would raise an objection to one of Harris's decrees
in a face-to-face meeting, she would reply, "Thank you, but I've
made my decision." "She couldn't defend her position," says Klain.
Today, of course, it is the Florida Republican Party experiencing
the frustration that once only Gore's legal team knew. As Harris
likes to tell supporters, by way of defending her suicidal Senate
campaign, "I have a little bit of a history of sticking to my
Florida may be the last remaining taboo of the Bush presidency.
Conservatives have questioned Bush's domestic record, his foreign
policy, even (in the recent case of Scarborough) his intelligence.
None have bothered to reinterpret Florida. But the bedrock
assumption of the conservative interpretation of Florida is that
Harris is a sober, competent, and upstanding public servant. If you
assume that Harris is none of those things, then the whole
denouement of 2000--and, by extension, the very legitimacy of
Bush's presidency--takes on a strikingly different cast.
What do you say, conservatives? Now that some of you are willing to
contemplate that Bush has been a disappointment--or even a
disaster--is it too much to consider the possibility that he never
should have become president in the first place?