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|| News Item: Posted 2000-12-20

Twenty-Six Days in FLA
By Vincent Laforet, New York Times

CHAD HEAVEN, Fl. - "Mad Chads, What me recount?" "Election Dysfunction 2000," "Sore Loserman 2000," "Grandma's for Bush!" "Indecision 2000" - whatever you call it, the saga of the 2000 election was even crazier in person than on television - trust me.

I was sent down by The Times to cover the story for the final 26 days of the election and there wasn't a day that went by where I failed to ask at least one of the following questions: "Is this for real?" and "Will this ever end." I saw everything from photographers challenging each other to duels over a spot in a pool rotation, to a dog named Reagan wearing a Bush T-shirt outside the Palm Beach Emergency Operations Center. So here are a few snapshots of the unforgettable odyssey.

November 20, 2000: I had just returned from a 3 week vacation, during which I had made every attempt to completely cut myself off from CNN, my cell phone, pager, e-mail and well, pretty much the rest of the world. On my first day back, Jim Wilson, our Chief Picture Editor uttered the words every photographer dreads: "Vincent! Just the man I was looking for!" So there I was, with 3-weeks worth of unopened mail at my side, with my coat still on, making travel arrangements to Chad Land.

The first day started at 4:30 a.m. and ended at 2:30 a.m. the following morning - bad, but not too far off from the average 16-hour days that lay ahead. I had heard that the police were becoming unusually aggressive with the media. Keith Meyers, who I was sent down to relieve, had been pulled over for speeding on a highway on-ramp earlier that week.

Needless to say I fit right in with local traffic on the first day, crouching all the way down in my seat with hands held high up on the steering wheel, daring to drive 31 miles an hour at times, and signaling 2 miles before each turn. In Miami of course I didn't use my turn signals at all - I didn't want to risk being spotted as a "tourista."

The cops in Broward turned out to be outstanding - not one failed to say hello, and some even smiled. When I got to the second floor of the Emergency Operations Center in Broward, I suddenly realized what my sister's pet Goldfish must have experienced in its very short lifetime. Every single media organization in the world was working out of a room the size of my living room - and I live in Manhattan, so it's probably the size of most of your closets! There were 5 phone lines, 3 tables, and more cranky reporters than I've ever seen in one place. Loud arguments, people tripping over wires, and even snoring were commonplace.

Through 2 glass windows, we could observe a few dozen people counting ballots, each group with both a Democratic and Republican observer breathing down their necks. The scene was right out of Terry Gilliam's film "Brazil," surreal, comical yet all too real. Photographers were asked to sign up on a 20-minute rotation sheet.

So if anything "big" happened, your chances of being in the room at the right time were small. At each door, you had to have a cop sign you in and out EVERYTIME, and often you had to go through 3 sets of doors. I thought I had already seen every variation of my last name in print - but these guys were really creative. I'm convinced Americans get a surreal pleasure of mutilating foreign, and especially French, family names - but I digress.

It was wonderful to be given access to the counting, though making an interesting photograph in horrible fluorescent light of people counting ballots was a real challenge. One of the best decisions The Times made was to send me into the story coming off of a vacation - I was well rested and had a fresh eye. The second night was by far the most fascinating time for me of the entire journey. Many of the photographers had lost interest and I was one of two photographers left in the rotation.

I ended up spending close to 4 hours in the small canvassing room, where two judges, one election supervisor and a half-dozen or so lawyers were arguing on how to count dimpled, pregnant, and hanging chads - if at all. Hearing the motions and rulings first hand was a true privilege. Once in awhile one of the members of this room would leave to room to make a quick statement to the press.

As that person returned into the room, a half-dozen pagers and cell phones would go off in the room, with members of either Republican or Democratic headquarters calling - screaming - for their lawyers to go out and make a rebuttal.

And this spin control would only worsen as time went on. Lawyers even filed motions against one another - calling for disciplinary hearings etc. in the middle of the process. This was not your average divorce hearing.

At all times, the judges had their eyes on the live broadcast. Awaiting news from the Supreme Court that could abruptly put an end to the process, and often waving to the camera when a live shot occurred.

Everyone seemed to be aware of the importance of these proceedings, while also recognizing how strange it was to have 6 people possibly determining the next president of the United States in an emergency center put in place to manage hurricane and other county-wide emergencies.

The story then expanded to both West Palm and Miami. Without fail, every time I would make a reservation for a hotel room in Miami, I would have to drive an hour and a half up to West Palm the next morning. And vice-versa. And again. I never knew whether to laugh at my misfortune, or throw my arms up in submission. I ended up checking out every morning after a few days.

In Miami I witnessed the organized GOP protest that lead to the Canvassing board's announcement that they would not continue on with the recount. That sent shockwaves through the room and probably the country. They clearly succumbed to the intimidation tactic in my opinion. The GOP gamble really paid off.

This was the first of many straws that broke the camel's back. I had been one of three or four still photographers present at the hearing and I was able to get some very nice reaction pictures from both inside and outside the room of people jumping up and down and succumbing to tears. Yet all the editors could say was: "Did you get any of those crazy protesters screaming outside?"

The problem was that they did not know that the protesters outside were apparently the same protesters that were at the Elian debacle. Rhona Wise of AFP, who had covered both of the events would shake her head when she recognized quite a few of them, coolly recalling each of their names! If there is such a think as rent-a-protester, this story redefined the term.

Photo by
November 23, 2000: On Thanksgiving Day, the Broward county canvassing board started the recount of all of the questionable ballots. I was very lucky that day. There were no pictures. Nothing we hadn't seen a thousand times before anyway. So when a recess occurred, I started to walk out of the room leaving my cameras behind.

This has burned me a few times before, so, stubborn as I have become I returned back into the room to get at least one body, in case a lawyer tripped over a pizza box. I saw about 20 TV cameras in the firing squad formation - waiting for the lawyers to make an announcement. Any announcement. Anything. Nothing was happening. So I asked the guys if any of them were shooting and they all said no.

I walked in front of them and then to the opposite side where I saw that the lawyers were standing in front of a window with a beautiful blue sky. All I was thinking of was 'silhouette.' But the one picture that I will remember from this story came out of that set of circumstances. Photography has this ability to freeze a trivial moment at times and make it into something much larger.

The first time I called the page one photo editor, he told me that he had not brought the photo to the A1 meeting because he had passed right by the photo thinking it was not a politics image. Somehow the picture made it onto the front page and I couldn't have been happier. That alone made all the first week's hard work well worth it.

Then the story shifted to West Palm. We all shot at 1/30th of a second at 2.8 on 300mm lenses at 800 ASA. The cops there were not friendly. Not friendly at all. At this point tensions clearly started to rise on all sides as everyone was becoming fed up of shooting ballots and suffering from sleep depravation. Outside protesters gathered by the dozen, and I and everyone else were serenaded with shouts of "@#@#@#@ liberal media!"

At one point a sole Democratic woman was holding up her one "Gore Lieberman" sign and the majority of the 30 or so Republicans began aggressively trying to hide her and cover up her sign with theirs. It was a strange scene, almost as strange as the grandmother who was wheeled in by her 75-year-old husband on her wheelchair, complete with oxygen tank and a "Grandma's for Bush" sign.

Only in Florida. Thank God! And yeah, that's where we also met our friend Reagan - you know the dog that voted for Bush, or so I was told.

Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times

Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times
The mood was very much uplifted when some genius decided to ship documents (the ballots) that could determine the next president of the U.S. in a Ryder truck with only two unmarked police cars and a half-dozen media cars in tow. This scene was far too reminiscent of the O.J. chase - apparently a reporter even interviewed Simpson about the similarity - O.J. said his chase was more exciting because no one knew where he was heading crazy, crazy world we live in.

The most hilarious part of the trip, besides the fact that the Ryder truck got stuck in a 15 minute rush-hour traffic jam at the tollbooth with 6 helicopters hovering in place for a total of $1,100 flight time, was the SWAT Team escort. To be honest, we never could confirm it, but all of us up above swore that the Dunkin' Donuts truck that followed the Ryder truck all the way to the turnpike was filled with heavily armed, pot-bellied SWAT Team members seemed logical to us. Well we all laughed real hard in the choppers, almost as much as when the truck passed a sign for the store "Babies R Us!"

So the ballots were on their way up to Tallahassee and I was ready to go out for a day of scuba diving! Nah, up to Tallahassee I went. And the story went seriously downhill from there. Tensions were even higher, and all we had to shoot for two weeks were lawyers, spin doctors, and court proceedings. What aggravated the situation was that everything became pooled.

Collin Hackley, the Tampa Tribune staff photographer based in Tallahassee was a saint. He took upon his shoulders to organize the pool, while also trying to cover one of the biggest stories of our careers. And boy did he get an earful from unhappy people. He is a Saint and deserves all of our thanks for keeping us sane.

That careful balance and camaraderie between photographers was brought to a breaking point when a scene right out of "The Water Boy" occurred on the night where Judge N. Sander Sauls delivered his judgement- probably the biggest hearing to date at the time.

Remember how Adam Sandler broke into this high-pitched squealing run everytime someone pushed him just a little too far? Well, apparently, a photographer (who shall remain nameless) ran past the security guard straight through the court doors as soon as the gavel made contact. He then ran past the lawyers and proceeded to shoot an important photo of lawyers from both parties shaking hands - blocking the two POOL photographers who were responsible for getting the photo.

Therefore NO ONE except that photographer's organization had the photo. And that organization, refused to make it a pool photo. His/her organization criticized the pool photographers for being too slow on the draw. In reality they had to wait for Judge Sauls to walk down from the bench, before leaping out of the jury box right in front of him in order to get the photo. I have rarely seen tensions run as high as that night.

Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times

Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times
We, and especially that photographer, were lucky that no physical confrontations occurred. It was really that bad. From then on, it is safe to say that the teamwork and camaraderie was gone. And it was everyone for themselves. This was the last thing we needed on such a big story as this, where every little thing can become very important, and where access, or the lack thereof, is such an issue.

Although there was often not that much to shoot, everyone was on pins and needles at all times. Stories broke very quickly with no warning, with at times 4 cases going on at the same time, any of which could become the determining factor in the presidency. No matter how much you studied the cases, even lawyers would privately admit that they really did not know where this would end.

This story never seemed to end as appeal after appeal was put into action. Every time you thought the big decision came down, you realized it was already being appealed, and now just another piece of the puzzle. Every time you thought it was over, you were dead wrong. People were constantly being quicked out of the hotel rooms because their reservations ran out.

All of the nice hotels were completely booked by the media, lawyers, campaign staff, and football game crowds and graduation families. A neat trick: in Fla. and Ga. you cannot be kicked out of your room by law even if your reservation runs out.

You can stay, but may become subject to paying the housing costs of the parties you displaced. If you don't wanna move, it may cost you, but you can stay. Very nice to know;) Plus every hotel ALWAYS has extra rooms available not matter what they tell you.

Tensions continued to grow when the magazine pool declared that they would work everything out on their own, following their own rules only to find out that they couldn't agree on a single thing amongst themselves. At one point a photographer was seen eating a sandwich in the jury box, right in the middle of the hearing, and transmitting his/her pictures from the courtroom on a cell phone- both of which had been clearly forbidden.

The next day another photographer was seen walking all around the courtroom like a rat on crack (we were specifically told to take our seat and NOT mover around) and to top it off s/he was doing so wearing only his/her socks. Apparently s/he had forgotten a film bag and decided to put all of the shot rolls of film in his/her shoes. The judge had to send a bailiff to tell him to sit still.

Apparently that message didn't quite reach him and the media coordinator had to go physically pull him back to his seat. He was barred from all courtrooms and our pool access was further limited as a result.

I bring these points up not to embarrass anyone - but to remind us of how important it is for us to respect the privileges we are given and to work together in a professional manner. We became our own worst enemies on this story.

Here we were given relatively good access to historical proceedings, yet we almost succeeded in having those privileges abruptly taken away. It was embarrassing. As embarrassing as another photographer's uncanny ability in picking a fight with almost every single police officer or official he ran into. He had been there for all of three days and gotten into a dozen or so fights, destroying three weeks of the hard work others had put into developing relations with these officers.

As a result of the tighter restrictions put onto the pool, the number of pool photographers was further limited, and a rule was made that all pool photographers MUST have a digital camera and share all of their photos without restrictions. I can't tell you the brouhaha this caused with the magazines. A lot of angry phone calls were exchanged in N.Y. Friendships tarnished forever. The irony was that all of the problems mentioned above were caused by magazine photographers - and they unfortunately ended up paying dearly for it.

Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times

Photo by Vincent Laforet/The New York Times
The last thing I want to mention is that 24-hour cable television is probably the single worst thing that has happened in our media's history. Political pundits, spin doctors, eager lawyers and anchor people where all too willing to speculate on a regular basis. The same protesters would come out every morning, only raising their signs where a camera light was projected on them.

Huge organized protests would be planned days in advance, with people bused in from all around Florida. And what struck me is that as soon as the protests were over, and the television cameras and still cameras were put down, all of the passion seemed to completely disappear.

I'm sure many of the protesters where passionate about their views - but in my humble opinion they were not in the majority. Winnebagos where omnipresent at every media site. GOP supporters wearing secret service style headsets and wearing "W" baseball caps handing out "Sore Loserman" T-shirts and signs to all the eager protesters.

The spin was unbelievable and disturbing, even to journalists already very aware of the behind the scenes maneuvering in all news events these days. TV does not seem to care about what they are showing to their audiences, as long as they have something to fill the airwaves with. I guess I should be happy with this in a way, perhaps that's why people still read newspapers.

The journey ended just as abruptly as it had started, just as our entrees about to be served. My pager went off: "Decision imminent," just as I was eagerly awaiting the amazing seafood boil at the Cypress restaurant we were drawn to almost every night. I dropped my credit card on the table and left telling the others of the news. Chang Lee, another Times photographer, and I drove to the "Spin" room as we called it, the Senate press conference room.

James Baker was about to deliver the Bush camp's reaction to the Supreme Court's decision that would ultimately bring closure to the 2000 Election. I am but a humble observer, but there were very few sober people in that packed room. We all had been enjoying that one meal of the day at 11:20 p.m. when the decision was handed down.

Baker himself appeared a little tipsy and made what turned out to be a 30-second announcement before hurrying off the stage. My 30 seconds of fame came when I was broadcast live on CNN being escorted from the right of the press stage to the left, walking backward all along, by a member of Tallahassee's Best. Five of us were told, quite randomly that we couldn't sit to the right of the stage (although we had been doing this for close to three weeks,) and were "convinced" by force to go to the other side

Two of the photographers who had decided to forego another podium shot and stay at the restaurant to finish their meals apparently saw me on TV and burst out into uncontrollable laughter when they saw me on the tube.

I must admit it was pretty darn comical. And yeah, a lot of other people across the U.S. saw me and my lieutenant friend engaged in our uncomfortable dance.

The most disappointing part of the story for me was the last night. My national picture editor told me to go have the most expensive meal I could find in town. I passed out that night on my bed without even ordering room service.

Well, it's over. Yet as any photographer who covered this story will tell you, this story will not be over to us until we see "W." with his hand on the Bible being sworn in on January 20th, 2001.

(Vincent Laforet is a staff photographer with the New York Times. He formerly worked for Allsport in Southern California.)

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