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What 37 days, ten years and a sheriff taught me about America
This November it's been ten years since the bizarre events of the Florida Recount changed the face of Tallahassee for 37 days, and possibly the tone of America's civic discourse forever.
On November 8th, the world showed up uninvited on our doorstep for what was to become a trip down the rabbit hole the likes of which even Alice couldn't fathom. Turning on CNN suddenly provided the same scenery for us as a drive to downtown Tallahassee might have.
For me there was one particular eye-popping transposition of normal life with history-in-the-making when I happened upon the very same yellow Ryder truck stuffed with to-be-recounted ballots all of America had just watched amble the length of the state of Florida via press pool helicopter.
One day when news broke that the Florida Supreme Court had just handed down a critical ruling in the recount, I took my kids straight into the melé for a U.S. government lesson.
Croquet balls turned hedgehogs and hookah-smoking caterpillars had nothing on the visuals of competing camps of angry protesters flanking the Florida Supreme Court building, a media tent-city cascading down the steps of the Capitol, and satellite trucks lined up off into the horizon like some odd breed of alien had invaded from outer space.
We saw a line that snaked up to the front doors of the Supreme Court, which turned out to be for the 50 hard copies of the ruling the Court would provide the public, a nice reminder during some of the less auspicious recount moments that however ugly, this was government by and for the people.
We risked our lives and waited for a copy.
At the head of the line was a Leon County Sheriff's Deputy controlling the flow of people into the building to grab their piece of history. He was whistling, breezily chitchatting and handing out candy to the children. His mood was sharply out of step with the stakes, the seriousness, the anger and the unhinged partisanship of the street scene (and the nation) around him.
When we made our way up to him, I asked him why.
"If this were any other country on earth in similar circumstances" he mused, "I'd be holding a machine gun. And I'd probably have to use it."
In the ten years since, I haven't been able to shake the deputy's words. I suspect it played a part in the genesis of the concept behind The Village Square, that this republic of ours is resilient and can take a good contest of ideas after all. Turns out Barry Richard, the Tallahassee attorney who argued George Bush's case in Florida, had been doing some thinking of his own in those ten years, and our "Recount Reunion" Dinner at the Square was born.
In preparation, I went looking for the recount story in pictures without much success, 2000 still being the digital Stone Age. An opportunity was born: Why don't we – the hometown of the 2000 recount – dig up our photo albums, break out the scanners and produce the definitive photographic scrapbook of the recount ourselves? With that, our little photo contest was born.
Perhaps what made the bizarre visuals of the recount so powerful was that they represented a lack of clarity in the transition of power America had been lucky enough to avoid until then. For those of us who prefer to pull the lever and go home, the recount was too close a look into the sausage factory of democracy. Its legacy seemed dangerous and terrifying.
But maybe there is a recount story yet to be told, one about what a daunting challenge to stability our form of government was able to overcome. And maybe one day, if we put our minds to it, the story can become about how American neighbors keep right on talking even when we really disagree.
Tallahassee could be just the hometown to tell that story.