Thursday, November 9, 2000

How It Looked in Austin

'Too close to call' was too close for comfort.

Posted By on Thu, Nov 9, 2000 at 4:00 AM

AUSTIN - I'm out of the closet. I can't report objectively anymore. I was a Gore girl, albeit by default, and even here, in the middle of this state fair-like brouhaha in the Texas capitol, I have yet to catch Bush fever. More and more votes are pouring in for the Texas governor. States are falling all over the electoral map. The television pundits are declaring George W. Bush a winner.

Eardrum rattling techno music angrily competes for my ear drums with aspirited mariachi band. I am sitting on a curb, my butt half on a pile of cables that allows reporters to file their stories and, according to Southwestern Bell flacks, could “wrap around the state capital building 200 times!”

Well, of course they could. It costs $270 to plug in my laptop to file this story, not including the $12-a-minute phone line connection. Take your connection and shove it, Telephone Man. It1s cold and rainy and grey. Bring on the blues, Jimmy Vaughn. Play on, sir, no matter how much you're banking for this gig. I'm tired of writing down how much it costs to get a coffee inside the event tent ($4.50).

Images form on a Bush/Cheney jumbotron screen directly in front of me. There are probably more than a thousand people turned toward the screen. They are packed shoulder to shoulder, in poof-balled winter hats and scarves, pawing steaming cups of whatever will keep their faces from freezing in the unusually frigid night. Ah, the communal American experience -- watching on big television what is being televised on smaller televisions. The theme to Rocky is loud enough to vibrate teeth. It's background

soundtrack for the governor of Texas on videotape, kissing babies from New York state to the Golden Gate. He's reading-- oops, showing pictures—to school kids in North Dakota, shaking hands with an elderly man in a diner, talking to undecided Floridians, pecking at corn on the cob in Iowa. And then, the weirdness.

“That's one small step for Bush, one gi-unt leap for Ameracuns!” booms the voiceover. The sound of a space rocket firing up thunders from the Jumbotron’s speakers. “This is Cap’n Bush. Git ridda fur the ride of yur lahf! We will be pros-pers and go forth with ger-rate expectations! We have ger-rate expectations!”

The crowd cheers, taking in this gimmicky SNL-like skit. Following the Starship muzac was a zippadee-doodah Texas cheerleading techno version of “Who Let the Dogs Out?” People snapped pictures of the Jumbotron. Others laughed and gnawed on their sausage-on-a-stick or funnel cakes. Two elderly women wearing matching nylon jogging suits, Reebok tennis shoes, and glittering "Bush 2000" glasses, embraced and then took pictures of each other taking pictures. A supernova flash of light erupted near the high bleachers reserved for broadcast journalists. A Texas A & M student who had volunteered, along with hundreds of his buddies, to work security bragged to me that they had assembled the pyramid-like structure. I hoped they hadn't modeled it after the college's infamous log bonfire.

A note about security numbers:

Number of checkpoints around the state capitol, according to Austin police: 73 .

Number of times I had to turn on my laptop at checkpoints to perform an “electronics monitor” 7

Patdowns: 2

Times asked to show picture ID, media credentials, plus other form of ID: 4

Number of minutes it took me to convince a security guard that my bottle opener keychain is not a Ninja weapon: 2 minutes

Number of jokes it’s smart to tell about having a bomb: zero

Body cavity searches: None, but it might have been too cold for that.

The security hold-ups and Russian bread-line waits did not slow down the Bush supporters. They had one objective -- to get close to the capitol building, swathed for some unknown reason in a heinous green light, where Bush was scheduled to make a speech sometime, well, tonight.

Most of the reporters-- and there seemed to be at least two for every citizen-- appeared stoned from fatigue, particularly one I spoke to who hadn't been home in a year. She'd been traveling with Gore and was telling me in a crazy, quadruple-espresso tone that playing checkers with the Veep was the highlight of her journey. You laugh, but it would inspire any young journalist, wouldn't it? I was reminded of the night before, which I had spent with several prominent national pundits, getting sloggered and pulling the rip-cords on our mouths.

I mentioned to them that I was staying with a student at University of Texas and that she was considering not voting at all, that she was disgusted with the two party candidates padding their pockets with corporate bribes. To her, the defining slivers of distinction were entrenched in social issues, particularly the conventional wisdom that a Gore ticket would better safeguard legalized abortion, affirmative action, and the environment. Those who did vote this election -- as Gore and Bush apparently have given us a cliffhanger for the ages -- might feel for the first time Wednesday morning that their vote did indeed count.

Earlier, boos had erupted from the crowd -- which ballooned to nearly 25,000-- when the networks prematurely announced that Gore had captured Florida. But the networks back off of that call and it becomes apparent as the night wears on that the final results are anything but final. Florida remains "too close to call" into the wee hours, and into the next day. Irony of ironies, the Sunshine State becomes the focus of the nation, a prom date tease for Dubya from his brother Jeb. Could one governor/brother deliver for another? On this night the answer never came.

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