I remember talking to Katherine Harris late in the afternoon of George W. Bush’s first presidential inauguration. For Harris, the ceremony should have been bittersweet. While she had played a historic role in assuring victory for the 43rd president, it had come at a terrible political price to herself. By guaranteeing George Bush’s political future she had destroyed her own.
But Harris was the last to know then, and now.
During the 2000 recount, Florida’s Secretary of State went from being a respected politician in state government to becoming one of the most divisive figures in American politics. Harris may have achieved iconic status among her Republican base but she became equally loathed among Democrats and independents. Saturday Night Live and David Letterman turned her into a late night punch line.
“So what’s next Katherine?” I asked while we were looking down on the Inaugural Parade.
“Senator,” Harris answered without looking up.
“Really?” (Gulp) “When are you going to run?”
“In 2004. I’ll have to run for Congress first, but the Senate is where I am going to end up."
Whatever you say, Katherine.
I was shocked by her bluntness. Politicians rarely reveal their long-term ambitions any more than they admit running for one office as a steppingstone for a bigger political prize. But Harris had it all planned out.
Elect George Bush in 2000. Congress in 2002. Take over Senate in 2004.
Buy tape measure. Check out White House drapes.
While Harris was oblivious to her fate, Bush’s new White House political team was not. Their ally was radioactive. Two years later, they would find out just how badly she had been damaged in the 2000 recount when Harris took her first step toward her Senate ambition.
Despite the fact she ran for Congress in a safe Republican seat, things went so badly for Katherine that Karl Rove had to send in the shock troops to rescue her campaign.
Two years later Harris reached for the brass ring, only to have her hand slapped by a White House that realized the 2004 Florida ballot was not big enough for President Bush and Senator Harris. Katherine eventually backed down to pressure from the President’s team, but only after being guaranteed that she would be the GOP’s choice in 2006.
But as the 2006 election season approached, Harris was still a political leper. GOP leaders in Washington and Tallahassee tried to talk other political figures into running against their former friend.
But everyone, including me, said no. That left Republican leaders with no other choice but to beg Harris to drop out of the race.
Staff members quit, fundraising dried up and GOP leaders mourned. But Katherine kept marching on. Even today I really think she believes that her driving ambition to be a United States Senator will be realized. But in that dream, Katherine Harris is alone.
Friends and former aids have called her delusional, suggested that she had a drinking problem or became mentally imbalanced when rejected time and again by the White House. I just think she’s mad as hell that she put her political neck on the line for the man whose White House would spend the next six years trying to do her in.
They succeeded, and because of it, Katherine Harris will be destroyed at the polls next week. And even the blind ambition of a once-bright political star will not change that fact.