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Review: 'Down and Dirty' mild and overreaching


By L.D. Meagher
Special to CNN

"Down and Dirty: The Plot to Steal the Presidency"
By Jake Tapper
Little, Brown & Co.
352 pages

(CNN) - Before picking up "Down and Dirty," Jake Tapper's tale of the 2000 presidential campaign, the first question the reader must ask is: "Do I want to go through it all again?"

If the reader isn't prepared to relive the up-and-down, back-and-forth, ins-and-outs of the Florida recount, the best advice is, "Stay away from Jake Tapper."

Tapper, a political writer for and a panelist on CNN's "Take 5," was in Florida from Election Day to the bitter end, covering the unprecedented events that surrounded that state's balloting for president. In "Down and Dirty: The Plot to Steal the Presidency," he chronicles the events surrounding the recount step-by-step, hour-by-hour, occasionally minute-by-minute. The result is ample fodder for those already cynical about the U.S. political system.

No one, in Tapper's view, was playing it straight during the recount - not the operatives of George W. Bush nor the operatives of Al Gore, not the officers of the Florida state government nor the crowds that gathered outside county offices. The only exceptions he finds are few and far between. He barely admits that some of the beleaguered local election officials seemed to be trying to the right thing. After all, the results, he concludes, were disastrous.


Neither Bush nor Gore, nor any of their surrogates, Tapper asserts, ever spoke the truth during the 37 days following the election. Sometimes they spoke a bit of the truth, but shrouded it in misinformation and misdirection.

"It seems to escape at least a few of those following this whole mess," he writes, "that it has now become a war between thieves. Perhaps it always was. Bush doesn't want any recounting of ballots, and you don't need to be a politics junkie to know what that means. If you're confident you scored the touchdown, you're not going to worry too much about the instant replay. But Gore, barring a few offers he knew would be rejected, hasn't exactly wanted an instant replay, either. He's only wanted to review a select chunk of Florida where statistically he should clean up."

This attitude of "a plague on both your houses" pervades "Down and Dirty." Tapper isn't shy about making judgments as to what motivated the players. He tells much of the story in the first person, recalling encounters with lawyers for one side or the other in restaurants and bars, chatting with the "outraged Florida voters" who stormed the Miami-Dade County canvassing board (and identifying many of them as employees of Congressional Republicans from other states).

No evidence

What Tapper doesn't do is justify the title of his book. The tactics employed by both candidates may have been something short of pristine ethically, but the author offers no evidence of "dirty" dealings by either side. Did political convictions color their actions? Of course. Did they break the law? Probably not.

Was there a conspiracy by one candidate or the other to gain the White House by theft? If there was, Tapper offers nothing to prove it.

He does uncover one tidbit much more unsavory than anything that was seen on television during the recount. Citing a single source, he asserts that a post-election conference call among GOP "operatives" included a discussion of how to pump up the military absentee vote for Bush:

"According to a knowledgeable Republican operative, in the course of the conversation they discussed having political operatives aboard and near military bases encourage soldiers who had registered to vote - but hadn't yet done so - to fill out their ballots and send them in. Voter registration ID made it so they could identify not only which soldiers, sailors, and airmen were Democrat and which were Republican, but which were black and which were white. They would target the right ones."

If such an operation was carried out and the ballots were in fact included in the final tabulation, then laws were broken. But Tapper offers no evidence that anything came of the conversation. He even admits, in a postscript, that he didn't make his case: "Whomever you think the subtitle of the book applies to, we [Americans] are the ones who let him try to steal the presidency."

Such assertions are disingenuous, at best. Tapper does a credible job of exposing some of the shenanigans that were played by all parties during the Florida recount. But he jeopardizes his credibility by making a promise he can't keep. He isn't going to unveil "a plot to steal the presidency," and he knows it. That makes him, at the end of the day, no better than the politicians, elected officials, lawyers and judges he excoriates in his book.

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