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Webitor Paul Joseph - Associate Dean for International and External programs -  teaches constitutional law, torts, and criminal procedure at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 

Chris Corcos is Associate Professor of Law at the
LSU Law Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  She teaches mass media, computers
and law and research methods




This film plays with our perceptions of reality, suggesting that politics, like the moon landing (Capricorn One), not only can be but is created for the benefit of its practitioners  outright).





 by Christine Corcos and Paul Joseph


The stunning series of body blows delivered to the American body politic by the courts and elected officials responding to the debacle of the 2000 presidential election in Florida may now be grinding to a close as the United States Supreme Court, in a closely divided opinion, essentially said that time had run out–that there was no time to fix the recount problems. There will be a new President but many will forever doubt that he actually received the most votes in Florida.

There will be many attempts to explain what went on in this ill-starred election. One recurrent theme will undoubtedly be how far-fetched and unlikely it all was. "Nobody could have foreseen this." Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing, was recently quoted as saying that if he had created a show with this plot, he couldn’t have sold it "to the fantasy channel." Yet, Hollywood, perhaps because it combines an infinite imagination with a willingness to assume both the best and the worst about human behavior, has managed not only to predict something similar to this morass but also to foreshadow a number of other political and other disasters. It turns out the entertainment industry has been writing scripts that presage the 2000 election since at least 1948. In that year John Huston filmed Key Largo (script by journalist Maxwell Anderson), which explains Florida election politics succinctly.

"Let me tell you about Florida politicians. I make them. I make them out of a whole cloth just like a tailor makes a suit. I get their name in the newspaper, I get them some publicity and get them on the ballot. Then after the election we count the votes and if they don't turn out right, we re-count them and re-count them again until they do." (Edward G. Robinson to Humphrey Bogart).

Hollywood both draws from real events and weaves fantasy extrapolations in ways which have presaged the future. For example, the same corruption scandals which plague real politics have already been scripted in a number of films. A Lion is in the Streets (1953) in which a barefoot boy from the bayou rises to political prominence, is based on a novel by Adria Locke Langley. Lion doesn’t simply echo Huey Long; it predicts some of the accusations leveled against bayou-born Edwin Edwards, 4-time governor of Louisiana, who was finally convicted of a crime after the government’s fourth attempt. And it looks as though he’ll get a new trial on that case, based on a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The South will rise again.

In 1979's The China Syndrome Hollywood postulated that corruption in the nuclear power industry could cause an atomic meltdown. Three Mile Island made the meltdown, if not the reason, come true. 1990's By Dawn’s Early Light suggested that the presidential succession statute might lead to an unprepared Cabinet member (the Secretary of Agriculture) becoming President and then refusing to give up power. That succession statute has received a much higher level of popular scrutiny since newscasters and politicians have speculated on who might take over in January if neither Bush nor Gore wins the election outright.

Of course, much of the scandalous material that underlies films like these comes from the wealth of underground knowledge that insiders of any profession have and are willing, for a price, to reveal. Coupled with the "what if" scenarios beloved of many of us, this knowledge leads to exciting but theoretically unbelievable stories. Consider the comments of NPR reporter Bob Mondello. "Two politicians locked in a battle that is, as Dan Rather might say, 'tighter than Spandex.' The popular vote goes one way, the Electoral College is leaning the other and the whole shebang hinges on a single state. Not a bad Hollywood setup as these things go....But just then ... the screenwriter adds about five too many plot twists... He has to make the governor of that state the brother of one of the candidates, like anyone's going to believe that. And then he puts that brother's candidate ahead by a razor-thin margin, then he adds a recount...on top of which he piles questions about the way the ballot was laid out...[and] missing ballot boxes. And just to complicate things... he throws in a newly elected Congress divided so evenly that you'd have to be a soothsayer to guess how things would come out. I mean, come on... Talk about the tail wagging the dog..." (ALL THINGS CONSIDERED (9:00 PM ET)November 10, 2000, Friday).

Wag the Dog (1997) features a Hollywood director who creates a war in Albania in order to cover up a presidential sex scandal. The story was unbelievable until the Monica Lewinsky story bewitched us. This film plays with our perceptions of reality, suggesting that politics, like the moon landing (Capricorn One), not only can be but is created for the benefit of its practitioners (shades of Plato’s Cave!) Small wonder that large parts of our population believe in conspiracies surrounding the deaths of JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Princess Diana (see link

Increasingly, the line between media fantasy and what passes for reality almost seems to blur. Coverage of real trials, such as the trial of O.J. Simpson, are presented as media spectacles competing with television judges such as Judge Judy (now there’s a judge who really knows how to cut to the chase and get things done). Recent coverage of the election 2000 lawyers have sometimes treated them almost like sports figures–even going so far as to compare their "won-lost" records. Remember, on any given Monday, any legal team can beat any other legal team.

In a world where Ronald Reagan becomes President (a fact which is met with
stunned disbelief in the film Back to the Future) and Fred Dalton Thompson
(currently a Tennessee Senator who rose to national attention as Senate
minority counsel during the Watergate hearings) could continue his acting
career after his 1994 election (Baby's Day Out, 1994), maybe we should ask
Hollywood to script an end to the 2000 election. We’ve already provided the filmmakers with terrific raw material and, as Pedro Calderon de la Barca told us four centuries ago, life is a dream. Even the butterfly ballot shouldn’t have surprised us. As Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu pointed out, it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether you are a human being dreaming you are a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming you are a human being.


Posted December 15, 2000

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