Katherine Harris was ready for her close-up.
It was two days after the 2000 election between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore broke down in Florida gridlock.
As Florida’s secretary of state and the person responsible for the votes about to be recounted, the wealthy socialite stepped up to the microphone with the world watching.
“She knew so little about the law that she answered few questions,” wrote legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin in “Too Close to Call: The Thirty-Six-Day Battle to Decide the 2000 Election.”
With little of substance to make headlines, the focus turned to her appearance, and her heavy makeup was immediately lampooned that weekend on “Saturday Night Live.”
“I think the makeup was almost like armor,” said actress Laura Dern, who won a Golden Globe for playing Harris in “Recount,” an HBO movie. “But it was so extreme, as we all can reflect.”
With President Donald Trump demanding a recount in Wisconsin and possibly in other states, memories of the chaotic Florida effort overseen by Harris two decades ago are flooding back.
The 2000 recount drama in Florida featured a cast of characters and power players almost unparalleled in American politics.
There was former Secretary of State James Baker, Bush’s point man on the recount. (The British actor Tom Wilkinson played him in “Recount.”) There was Washington fixer Ron Klain, who was Gore’s point man. (Kevin Spacey played him.) There was Jeb Bush, George’s brother, who was also conveniently the governor of Florida.
And then there were the bit players who would later emerge on the big stage of public life.
John Roberts, then working as a Bush attorney, became chief justice of the United States of America. Amy Coney Barrett, then just out of law school and also working for Bush, just joined the Supreme Court, right behind another Bush legal aide back then, Brett Kavanaugh. Ted Cruz, now a U.S. senator from Texas, was also part of the Bush legal team.
But nobody captured the surreal nature of the recount — and, in general, the peculiarity of Florida — quite like Harris.
“Harris is as close to royalty as they come around here,” wrote Washington Post reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia. “Her granddaddy, Ben Hill Griffin, was one of those prototypical Florida tycoons whose endless orange groves and cattle ranches produced one of the state’s great fortunes.”
Already rich, Harris married a succession of businessmen, worked in the local arts scene, and then successfully ran for state senator.
“Her one-term legislative career was marked principally by her effort to find a higher office to seek in 1998,” Toobin wrote.
Which was secretary of state, a position she won and then later used to travel around the world seeking business deals for Florida.
But Harris did have a plan in mind, according to Toobin’s book — leverage her international connections and close ties to Jeb Bush into an ambassadorship in a George W. Bush presidential administration, though she has denied that was her aim.
She openly supported Bush and campaigned for him with Jeb, including during the winter in New Hampshire.
“A fourth-generation Floridian, Harris neglected to wear socks and nearly got frostbite,” Toobin wrote.
On election night, Harris went to bed like much of the country thinking Bush had won the election. But in the middle of the night, as Gore rescinded his concession to Bush after the Florida vote totals unexpectedly tightened, Harris was awakened by a phone call around 4 a.m. from Bush’s campaign manager and Jeb Bush.
Harris was confused, but she quickly got dressed and raced to her office.
Like secretaries of state before her, Harris had paid little attention to the job of running elections, leaving that to career bureaucrats.
Harris, who was clearly on the side of both Bush brothers, made several key decisions in favor of the Texas governor, including certifying the election votes — in his favor. Gore sued to force a recount but later lost. After the Florida Supreme Court overturned that decision, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to halt any recount.
Bush became president.
Harris became a celebrity.
“People gawk when she passes by,” Roig-Franzia wrote in The Post. “They lean across restaurant tables, pointing.”
Of course, some of those people pointing had voted for Gore.
“There is absolutely no middle ground with Katherine Harris,” Roig-Franzia wrote. “People love her or they hate her.”
The woman later called “the Richard Nixon of Florida politics” used her fame to win a seat in Congress. She ran for the U.S. Senate in 2005 but lost, later retiring from public life.
This year’s election, and its razor-thin margins in several states, has put her in the public eye again, with recent appearances on Florida and national TV news broadcasts.
Harris has stressed the importance of patience while awaiting results.
“When you are an elected official,” she told one Florida news station, “you take a vow to follow the law.”