HBO's 'Recount' Depicts Contested 2000 Election A new HBO film chronicles the dramatic battle for the presidency between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Recount depicts five weeks of ballot recounting in Florida through dramatic recreations and news footage from the 2000 election.
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HBO's 'Recount' Depicts Contested 2000 Election

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NEAL CONAN, host:

On Sunday, and again last night, a new HBO movie revisited the most dramatic presidential election in American history. "Recount" tells the story of the 2000 battle between then Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore in Florida. You remember, butterfly ballots, dangling chads, appeals to the Florida Supreme Court and finally the United States Supreme Court. The movie incorporates some news video from the time. But the candidates and their staffs are played by actors. In a moment, we'll meet two of the real political operatives, and they'll join us to review the film and their counterparts.

If you have questions about the film's accuracy or what it's like to see somebody play you on TV, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Ben Ginsberg was national counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000 and played a lead role on the legal team in Florida. He's with us in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. BEN GINSBERG (National Counsel, 2000 Bush-Cheney Campaign; Partner, Patton Boggs LLP): Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: Now, in the movie, you're portrayed by Bob Balaban. How did he do?

Mr. GINSBERG: He did great. It's an honor to have such a good actor playing you, and he did an absolutely terrific job, I think.

CONAN: There's a scene, I think the first scene where you - Bob Balaban is there at the beginning of the movie. Your character is addressing some workers in a campaign office. Let's listen in.

(Soundbite of movie "Recount")

Mr. BOB BALABAN: (as Ben Ginsberg) Now, we're all seated at dinner and everybody bows their heads for prayer. And I am sitting there thinking, what's a nice Jewish boy from Pennsylvania doing here praying with the governor of Texas? And the governor leans over and he whispers in my ear, it's about time we got some Methodist blood in you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALABAN: And I got relaxed very, very quickly. It was a lovely, lovely moment.

CONAN: First of all, did that happen?

Mr. GINSBERG: It did happen. Context was a little bit different. In fact, I have told that story as an illustration of George W. Bush's personal skills and his ability to relax people in tense situations, and certainly that was personally a tense situation and he realized that and acted quite humanely.

CONAN: So, did that happen in that context, though?

Mr. GINSBERG: The context was indeed a very formal dinner, where I had come in late because we were having a crisis with the family dog who had gotten sick, and so it was a rushed situation.

CONAN: Well, joining us now by phone from Fort Lauderdale is Mitchell Berger, senior adviser to the Gore-Lieberman campaign in 2000 and current chairman of the Berger Singerman law firm. And nice to have you with us today.

Mr. MITCHELL BERGER (Senior Adviser, 2000 Gore-Lieberman Campaign; Chairman, Berger Singerman): Pleasure.

CONAN: And how did Bruce Altman do as you?

Mr. BERGER: He did very well. He worked very hard at it, and from my friends and family, they tell me he did a very good job.

CONAN: And let me ask. Did he ever get in touch with you to find out more about you and how you talked, and how you moved?

Mr. BERGER: No. We had a little bit of time together, yes, and he did try to find out a little bit about me and a little bit about my work. And it was quite obvious that, I think, all the actors and actresses try to learn about their characters in this movie.

CONAN: And would that be the same for you?

Mr. GINSBERG: Yeah, absolutely. Bob and I spent some time together, really, after he had shot most of the scenes. But I think he did a fine job trying to capture what things were like in the context of taking 36 days and boiling it down to two hours.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers on the line in this conversation. We're talking about the HBO movie "Recount," which has been broadcast the last couple of nights, or cable-cast is the appropriate word. Our guests are two of the people who, well, found themselves being portrayed in that movie. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And let's go to Doug, and Doug's with us from Asbury Park in New Jersey.

DOUG (Caller): Hey, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: I'm good, thanks.

DOUG: I had a question about the realism of some of the scenes in the movie. I wanted to find out if the conversations that went on between Vice President Gore and Governor Bush at the time were real or if they were just used to make an example in the movie of what was going on.

CONAN: Ben Ginsberg, what do you think?

Mr. GINSBERG: Well, I was not there for those conversations. That dialogue was widely reported in newspapers at the time, and I think it was basically what was reported in the papers at the time.

CONAN: And do you agree, Mitchell Berger?

Mr. BERGER: Very much, I agree with Ben's depiction of it. I was not there either. I was flying up from Fort Lauderdale to Nashville at the time, only to turn around to come back to Tallahassee that night, but that's the way it was described to me.

CONAN: I bet there are more than a few of you in that situation. Go ahead.

Mr. BERGER: No. I think that a lot of us - as the movie depicts Ron Klain saying, we'll be there for two days - we ended up being there for 36 sleepless nights and days.

CONAN: Doug, thanks very much for the call.

DOUG: Thank you.

CONAN: I wanted to ask you, though, you've talked about your parts. But what do you think, Ben Ginsberg, of the film overall? Did it get the greater truth, as the writers said that they were trying to get?

Mr. GINSBERG: I think the film did an excellent job of capturing the tension that we all felt and the unpredictability of events as it came. If I were rewriting history, I think there were some significant developments that were left out. The folks who wrote the movie have been very up front about saying they wanted to depict this from the Democrats' point of view, because they felt they were the underdogs and it was more compelling cinema. In doing that, there was some developments that were left out and some character development that was not put in.

CONAN: One thing, just tell us one thing that you would have liked to have seen left in.

Mr. GINSBERG: Oh, our process was very much a collaborative process. We had an amazing array of very talented lawyers. They were the best legal team I have ever practiced with and probably will practice with. We had long, detailed, often heated and passionate, very intellectual legal discussion. That was all boiled down, as perhaps it has to be in a two-hour movie, into a one sentence pronouncement. I was a composite character. There were many, many people who deserve the credit for the work.

CONAN: You look pretty integrated here in the studio. Anyway, let me ask you, Mitchell Berger, do you think that they - what did you think of the movie overall?

Mr. BERGER: I think the movie overall factually captured the most important parts of the - of what occurred. As Ben has heard me say before, there was a November 15th call for statewide recount by Vice President Gore which was rejected by Governor Bush, which was not in the movie, which, personally, I felt was a very important event that was left out of the movie.

And as with Ben, I was a composite as well. I mean, Dexter Douglas and Rich Lucas and Mark Messima (ph) and Dan Feldman and so many others who lent their time to this were there, as well as Nike Baldick, who was a large part of the Michael Whouley character. We were all composites of so many people whose shoulders we stood upon to try and do this on both sides.

CONAN: There were also important details, like the fact that there were two Supreme Court hearings and not just one.

Mr. BERGER: I think that's absolutely right. And you know, that part was left out, as well as, you know, so many other things, and as Ben has said, you know, for two hours' worth, they did a pretty good job of capturing what wasn't really 36 days but 72 days, I think. I think Ben would agree with me on that. There wasn't much sleep involved here.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Tom, Tom with us from Tallahassee in Florida.

TOM (Caller): Hi, hello. I was - actually followed the events pretty closely when I was here in Tallahassee and I do agree that the movie did a good job within two hours. But supposedly HBO was supposed to be nonpartisan, but I felt there was a couple examples where they kind of leaned a little bit toward the Gore party to show that there the underdog. Basically whenever they showed a ballot, I think it was at, at least a dozen. It would almost always say it was a ballot for Gore and never once did I hear them say that it was a ballot for Bush.

CONAN: It's when they were counting the disputed ballots and the dimpled chads and that sort of thing. Do you agree Ben Ginsberg?

Mr. GINSBERG: Yeah, I think that was part of the movie. I think that the charters on the Democratic side were developed much more fully than the characters on the Republican side. I think there was no mention of the media recounts that took place after the election, and a point of fact confirmed that under either the rules the Gore team requested or the Florida Supreme Court rules, that George Bush still would have won in Florida.

CONAN: But it was great to see that Dan Rather describe somebody as mad as a wet rooster. What do you think, Mitch Berger? Did the film lean to the Democrats?

Mr. BERGER: Well, I think that I think the facts leaned to the Democrats...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERGER: So it portrayed that, but in terms of the statewide recount that occurred afterwards, as HBO has posted on its website, if you counted lawful votes, Gore won. There's no question that, if you are limited to the way we had to proceed, as - because of the state election laws, Gore would have lost if you only looked at the three or four counties. But if you counted lawful votes statewide, Gore would have won.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

TOM: Sure.

CONAN: There are a couple of people who were upset with their characterizations, beginning with then Secretary of State Katherine Harris, and here's a scene of Laura Dern portraying her as the Florida secretary of state.

(Soundbite of movie "Recount")

Ms. LAURA DERN: (As Katherine Harris) I have been reading my Bible quite a bit here lately and I have the feeling, this unusually strong kinship with Queen Esther. You recall Queen Esther, she was willing to sacrifice herself to save the lovely Jewish people. And that's exactly what I'm doing right now.

CONAN: Do you think Laura Dern got that right, Ben Ginsberg?

Mr. GINSBERG: I certainly was not there to ever hear Katherine Harris say something like that and in fact had no contact with her at all during the recount. So it was a very amusing performance that certainly everyone has enjoyed tremendously.

CONAN: We're talking with Ben Ginsberg, who was on the Gore team - excuse me, on the Bush team - Bush-Cheney team in Tallahassee in Florida during the recount. And of course, with Mitchell Berger, who was on the Democratic side in that contest. And you're listening to Talk of the nation from NPR News. There are also characterizations of the two leaders of the two various teams, and they are the former secretaries of state, James Baker on the Republican side and Warren Christopher on the Democrat side. And let's listen to a little clip of Tom Wilkinson as James Baker and John Hurt as Warren Christopher.

(Soundbite of movie "Recount")

Mr. TOM WILKINSON: (As James Baker): Now listen, people, this is a street fight for the presidency of the United States. I'm told they have a well-oiled operation just waiting to clobber us. It ain't going to get more political than this.

Mr. JOHN HURT: (As Warren Christopher) We want to proceed as if this is a proper legal process, not a political street fight.

CONAN: And I'm told, Ben Ginsburg, that in fact, James Baker was so pleased with this film that he's had a screening of it for his friends and family down in Texas.

Mr. GINSBERG: He did have a screening of it. Secretary Baker was certainly our leader in Florida. I think, as with all of us, there was some degree of composition in all the characters, but Secretary Baker, he did indeed have a screening at his library at Rice University.

CONAN: And I'm told, Mitchell Berger, that Warren Christopher was rather more upset with his portrayal as somebody who wanted to take the high road and not engage in a fight.

Mr. BERGER: Well, I think that that's one of the parts that the movie kind of leaves compressed, from the Democratic point of view, a little bit too rapidly. I think both Ron Klain and Warren Christopher wanted to engage in the high road initially, but the movie sort of - but not quite - captured that after George Bush sued in federal court on Saturday morning after the election, after Volusia County sued to have its votes counted.

And after Vice President Gore's call for a statewide recount, which was not in the movie, happened, that's when, on the Democratic side, you saw the transition from what I'll call the Warren Christopher view to the Michael Whouley view, and Ron Klain became the character that transformed from the Warren Christopher view to the Michael Whouley view, and that sort of was in the movie.

But having lived it closer, I kind of saw that transformation occur during that week. So Warren Christopher definitely did not want to engage in a street fight for the presidency. There's no doubt about that. He wanted to find a consensual way to resolve the problem. And Ron Klain initially was of that view. But as those other three events occurred during that first week, that's when that transformation occurred in Ron Klain, and he did emerge with a battlefield commission, as they say, and did lead us quite well after that.

CONAN: Ben Ginsberg, some of us back here in Washington were following things pretty closely as well. I, as it turned out, broadcast of a lot of these events live, the Florida Supreme Court hearings and those moments where the clerk came out and read the pronouncements of the Florida supreme Court, and to tell you the truth, I had totally forgotten about that, and it was flashing back in my mind very heavily as I saw the film last night. Was there stuff in that film you didn't know, or that you'd forgotten?

Mr. GINSBERG: There wasn't so much that I had forgotten. I think that those...

CONAN: Pretty vivid in your mind?

Mr. GINSBERG: Pretty vivid memories. I think one of the things that I found most striking about the movie - and it's really an omission that is probably my biggest objection to it - is the notion that somehow the Democrats were playing this very pure game at first. Within the first couple of days, they had decided they were only going to count votes in the four most Democratic counties in the state. Three of the four had partisan Democratic election boards on them.

So to the extent that the Democrats thought they were trying to, indeed, count all the votes, they were only trying to count some of the votes. They tried to exclude the absentee ballots, all the absentee ballots in two Republican counties, Martin and Seminole, and of course, there was the famous incident about trying to exclude the overseas military ballots, all three instances directly contradicting the count-all-the-votes mantra that they were spouting at the time.

CONAN: And Mitchell Berger, let me ask you, and I know you'll want to come back out hat, but nevertheless, were there any scenes there that were hard to watch?

Mr. BERGER: I think, certainly, the riot in Dade County, certainly the scene where the spokesperson for the Florida Supreme Court is deciding whether or not to put a bulletproof vest on to come out to announce the court's pronouncement. These are things that actually did happen and things that we must all think about, as to why Warren Christopher did not want to have a street fight for the presidency, and instead, wanted us to try to obtain a higher plane in terms of how to do this.

With respect to our desire to count all the votes, we did want to do that. The election machine, as the movie depicted, was not in our favor to do that, and as said in the movie, in order to request 67 counties to count the votes, it would not have occurred without some consensus by the deadline that we were all acing.

CONAN: I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. Mitchell Berger was a senior advisor to the Gore-Lieberman campaign in 2000, now chairman of the Berger Singerman law firm, with us on the phone from Fort Lauderdale. Ben Ginsberg was national counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaign and played a lead role on the legal team in Florida, now a partner of the law firm Patton Boggs in Washington, with us here in Studio 3A. This is NPR News.

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