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Political Football

Two crucial American events occurred last week in Tallahassee: the election drama, and the Florida-Florida State game. Florida thoroughly enjoyed them both.

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"What is this -- the women's bathroom?" cracks Barry Richard, the white-maned leader of the Republicans' Florida legal team, drawing a loud laugh from the slow-moving queue. America's most powerful political players are lined up to relieve themselves during a ten-minute recess of the Florida Supreme Court, and they're joking like guys between innings at the ballpark. Then they'll go back to fighting bitterly over the next leader of the free world.

Zip. Flllusshhhh. James A. Baker III adjusts his impeccable, custom-made navy suit and turns to wash his hands. His lordly smirk is firmly in place, even here. "Yepppp," Baker says, in the nonchalant drawl of a man who assumes that victory is a mere hour away. "It sure will be good to get away for a few days."

Weirdness and profundity crash on top of each other all week in Florida, like waves propelled to shore by a rapidly approaching storm. The high-mindedness of the Constitution collides with dirty bargains out of Robert Penn Warren and then is filtered through the absurdities of Carl Hiassen. Football zealots boot reporters out of hotel rooms; MSNBC's elegant Chris Jansing finds herself bunking in a law-student dorm by night and parsing arcane election statutes by day, live, in a howling, chill wind. Warren Christopher strides to the door of the Florida Supreme Court and is stopped by a state marshal with a clipboard: "And you are?" asks the marshal.

It is all silly, epochal, and wonderfully . . . American. Politics has a fantastic week in Florida, in both senses of the adjective. Instead of being the degradation of our democracy, as the pundit priesthood kept insisting, the recount battle, with its ugly maneuvering and its earnest argument, its big-money excesses and its paper-thin margins, is a bracing display of the ambiguity of real-life politics.

Take Baker. He wins the infighting over how to allot the Republicans' speaking roles before the Florida Supreme Court, giving Washington's Michael Carvin twenty minutes to local boy Richard's five. "The RNC is paying the bills," says another lawyer sitting at the Bush table, "so Baker gets his way."

Only to watch Carvin splutter badly under sharp questioning by the judges. And with the Supreme Court's recount extension, Baker sees himself on the verge of blowing his second Bush presidential campaign. Then Baker wins again -- maybe -- when Miami-Dade County surrenders. Suddenly I remember the pessimism of a top Gore aide from the night before. It seemed peculiar then, with so much still in doubt. "Those stories about Daley floating the idea we'll fold our tent if we don't win the recount, those are premature. The vice-president really hasn't thought about how to end this." Then the aide took a deep breath. "But Gore may have to figure it out. Very soon."

In Florida, alumni bonds mean as much as party affiliations when contracts and patronage are doled out. So on Saturday night, when Florida State meets its hated rival, the University of Florida, the skybox of FSU's president is more than a warm place to watch football. Supreme Court judges are here, and so is heiress-hack-heroine Katherine Harris.

Down on the cold aluminum bleacher seats, among the 80,000 raucous, garnet-and-gold face-painted Florida State Seminole fans, one of Harris's closest aides weaves unsteadily. The Harris aide holds his cell phone in the air, passing it around to his pals. "Listen to this -- Tom Brokaw wants me!" the aide yells with a laugh, replaying his voice mail. "And Larry King!" The media can wait; he goes back to tomahawk-chopping in unison with the other FSU fans. Four days later, when chanting Republicans riot at a Miami election office, I wonder how many got their crowd-behavior training at football games in Tallahassee.

David Boies is in a seventh-floor office at a downtown law firm that's serving as Gore headquarters. Equipment was shipped in all week, ten computers arriving by overnight mail. Even with George W. Bush's slim lead holding steady and the nationally televised Supreme Court arguments looming, the Democratic lawyers are able to laugh: Boies's team is tapping out its briefs on Microsoft software. "There are," a Boies aide says, "a lot of ironies at work down here."

On Monday afternoon, Boies leads the Gore crew briskly up the marble steps of the Supreme Court, then waits when there's a security bottleneck just outside the heavy steel doors. Boies is in a clump of about a dozen men and women, but he's the only one to turn around and slowly gaze at the carnival of protesters, media, and citizens behind him, soaking up the moment.

Inside the courtroom, in a way TV couldn't capture, the music of the voices stands out. Just as a lawyer builds oratorical momentum, the allegro rhythm kicking in, Chief Justice Charles Wells, sounding like a low-country pastor, halts the flow. Or the adagio comes from the basso inflections of Justice Leander Shaw. Then, just as abruptly, the beat races again, invigorated by Justice Barbara Pariente, her voice clipping along like a subway from her native New York.

Boies is interrupted, too, but his voice, calming like an "All Things Considered" host's, never rises or falls, comforting the judges as they search for a new path. But to where?

In court, I sit one row behind a state senator named Skip. Later that night I bump into him at Cafe Cabernet, a restaurant buzzing with cigar-smoking middle-age men and pneumatic young blondes in leather pants. Newsweek's Monicagate star, Michael Isikoff, huddles over dinner with Bush lawyer Ted Olson, who the next day will petition the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule Florida's judges.

At a raised cocktail table, Skip sits with two old pals, Big Sugar and Sally. He's a heavyweight cane-industry lobbyist. She's a Sharon Stone look-alike and a lobbyist who is vague about her clientele. "You ain't seen nothing of the way Florida works," Big Sugar bellows. "How long you packed for? A week? Sheee-it. In a week I could show you things about this state you wouldn't ever believe. But I don't think you could handle it."

Skip laughs. "The sugar business, Gore, Bush -- this is all just politics," he says. "And what's so bad about that?"


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