How Intellectuals Blew the Election “Crisis”

Last week, the Emergency Committee of Concerned Citizens 2000, an ad hoc group of intellectuals, entertainment industry figures, and others took out two ads in the New York Times concerning the post-election tumult in Florida. The first ad said … well, it didn’t say very much at all. The second ad said something that at least four people whose names appeared on the ad didn’t agree with. The combined cost of running these ads was $125,795, or enough to purchase a four-year college education at almost any public or private university in the United States. To view the first ad (“The Election Crisis”), click here. To view the second ad (“We the People”), click here.

The ad campaign was the brainchild of Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton. Wilentz believed that the presidential election’s failure to produce a clear winner threatened a constitutional crisis. In the middle of last week, he wrote up some language and sent it to Cass Sunstein, a professor of law at the University of Chicago. Sunstein suggested some changes, and Wilentz circulated a revised draft among 10 to 20 people. These people passed it along to other people, and in no time at all, Wilentz says, “signatures were pouring in.” (There are now about 4,000, of which 2,646 can be viewed by clicking here.) Further revisions were made. A few anonymous donors (likely suspects include Joan Bingham, Robert DeNiro, Paul Newman, Harvey Weinstein, and Rosie O’Donnell, all of whom signed) agreed to pay the cost of running the statement as a full-page ad in the New York Times. Wilentz sent out an e-mail that said:

This will run in tomorrow’s Times as a full page ad. (The text may get revised a bit before press time). Sign. And get me as many famous names as you can to sign it by 1 p.m. TODAY. EXTREMELY URGENT. Conservative names good if you can, but not essential. Mainstream. Famous/recognizable. With titles. HELP

The full-page ad appeared in the Nov. 10 New York Times. It began, “The outcome of last Tuesday’s election is threatening to produce a constitutional crisis. This threat must be addressed with utmost solemnity and fairness to sustain the legitimacy of our national political process.” True! It said that there was “good reason to believe that Vice President Gore has been elected President by a clear constitutional majority of the popular vote and the Electoral College.” Also true! It said, “Governor George W. Bush has conducted himself honorably, with the laudable goal, shared by everyone, of ensuring that the election is settled as quickly as possible.” This was politic, and probably not deeply felt. The text went on to say, “He has also proceeded, in some of his statements and actions, as if his election is assured. This is premature.” True, and probably more deeply felt. There was a call for a “definitive conclusion” and some mumbo-jumbo about a bipartisan commission that was set up in 1876 to resolve the Hayes-Tilden fiasco. Then, all in capital letters, the ad called on the Florida Election Commission “TO EXPLORE EVERY OPTION, INCLUDING SCHEDULING AND SUPERVISING NEW ELECTIONS IN PALM BEACH COUNTY, AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.” This was slightly risqué, because many people (including many signers of the letter) were unsure about whether a revote in Palm Beach County was really a wise idea. But since there was never much likelihood that the Florida Election Commission, whose members may or may not read the New York Times, would act without at least giving momentary consideration to the idea of a revote in Palm Beach County, even this portion was essentially meaningless. Among those whose names appeared in the ad were Paul Berman, E.L. Doctorow, Harold Evans, James Fallows, Todd Gitlin, Bianca Jagger, and Michael Walzer. Placement of the ad in the Times cost $94,878.

The ad appeared on a Friday. On Saturday, a second ad (cost: $30,917) surfaced on the Times op-ed page. This ad occupied just a quarter of the page, which meant it had to be rewritten to fit the space. According to Wilentz, the rewrite man was Harold Evans, who in addition to shortening the text sharpened it considerably. “Harry didn’t think he had changed the meaning,” Wilentz told Chatterbox, “but he had.” It’s probably more accurate to say that Evans considered the original ad’s only logical purpose–to call for a revote in Palm Beach County–and made it easier for the reader to grasp. This is what Evans, as an editor, is trained to do.

Unfortunately, many of the people who had signed the original ad in a rush of adrenaline had never fully reconciled themselves to the idea that a revote in Palm Beach County would be desirable. As time wore on, their distaste for the idea grew. (Al Gore was going through a similar mental process around the same time.) Sunstein was furious when he saw the op-ad. He told Chatterbox today that he no longer considers a revote worthy of “serious consideration.” He had already experienced mild butterflies on viewing the first ad because he hadn’t known he was joining something called an “emergency committee,” and he didn’t really believe the nation was in an emergency. Still, he’d stood by the first ad. He couldn’t stand by the second. “I wouldn’t have signed it, I don’t agree with it, and I was very upset to see my name associated with a position that I reject,” Sunstein told Chatterbox.

Sunstein’s dismay about the op-ad was shared by two other law professors whose names appeared in it: Ronald Dworkin of New York University and Bruce Ackerman of Yale. The three of them wrote the following letter to the New York Times, which has not yet been published:

We did not see or approve, and do not approve of, the Saturday advertisement on the op-ed page of the Times, which included a number of alleged “signatories,” including us. The advertisement calls, far too prematurely, for new elections in Florida. We never saw the text and would not have signed it if we had.

Chatterbox checked in with a couple of other people whose name appeared in both ads. One of them, Todd Gitlin, said he was mildly irritated that he hadn’t been consulted on the rewrite but didn’t disagree with what it said. The other, James Fallows, indicated in an e-mail to Chatterbox that he did disagree:

My understanding of the original ad was that it called for paying big-time attention to this Florida problem, with steps “up to even a revote” or something like that. I signed on for two reasons: at that moment, it seemed worth paying attention to the general predicament of Florida (remember, this circulated about a day after the election); and it seemed to me to call for various redress attempts, including possibly a revote, but NOT EXPLICITLY a revote. I understand all the reasons a revote wouldn’t work. At the time I saw it, I was more in favor of the general cause of saying “Hey, look at Florida” than I was upset about the revote call, because obviously that would never happen. … If it had been stated as “revote or nothing,” I wouldn’t have signed up. …

What lessons may we draw from this fiasco? One is the need for important people to distrust the Get-Me-the-Guy-in-Charge impulse when it surges forth in moments of high national drama. It is born more of self-importance than of reason. We all experience it, but big shots are able to act on it in a very public way that they’re apt to regret. Another lesson is that the value of intellectual opinion–that it reflects greater knowledge and depth than you typically hear from a talk-radio caller–is lost when intellectuals shoot from the hip. Yet another lesson is that on all matters but those of the starkest simplicity, intellectuals look like asses when they attempt to make group pronouncements. Their combined brainpower is reduced, not enhanced. A final lesson is that there has got to be a better way to spend $125,795.

Conflict-of-interest note: Chatterbox is a former employee and friend of James Fallows. He is also a former employee of Harry Evans, whose wife employs Mrs. Chatterbox. Evans and Chatterbox experienced some friction two years ago over Fallows’ firing as editor of U.S. News & World Report. This resulted in Chatterbox’s own departure from U.S. News. Chatterbox considers this ancient history now and presumes the other parties feel the same way.

Click here to read a reply by Paul Berman, who also signed the ads and defends them as “a smashing triumph.”