"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 10 March 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.




On 9 February Circuit Judge Lucy

Chernow Brown issued a ruling

blocking the distribution of the

newest Florida specialty license

plate. Showing two children

drawn in crayon and featuring

the slogan "Choose Life," the

plate stirred few fond memories

among graying fans of Wham! UK.

Instead, Judge Brown's decision

capped the latest in an odd,

nasty political battle between

familiar opponents. The plate's

issuance was backed by some of

Florida's more politically

active Christians; a local

lawsuit followed from the

National Organization for Women.

Judge Brown issued her

injunction in order to make a

further decision about whether

or not the plates amount to a

political statement against

abortion (as opposed to a simple

plug for mandatory sentencing



This latest dispute shows how

rhetoric surrounding important

political disagreements dances

in championship-ballroom fashion

around the core issues.

Supporters, including Florida

Governor Jeb Bush, insist with

straight faces that the plates

are "pro-adoption" rather than

about abortion, an argument

perhaps better suited to the

kind of adoption one does at a

kennel. For their part, the

bill's opponents have cited such

specious arguments as the

specter of Florida citizens

engaging in spirited roadside

fistfights, sparked by the move

of bumper sticker sentiment to

plate proper — a notion

you'd think they might embrace

as an advance over the bombings

and shootings that have

generally characterized this

particular debate.



But the heated political

discourse begs a more important

question.... license plates? How

did something as seemingly

benign as specialty license

plates put Florida on the verge

of another awkward cultural tug

of war? The current situation,

five-plus years in the making,

is less a story of good

intentions gone bad than one of

selfish intentions spinning a

bit out of control.


The 1990s were a great decade

for license plate obsessives. A

nation of collectors and

cliquish, status-conscious

joiners embraced the idea of one

of the more ludicrous schemes to

grab hold of state legislatures

in recent years. In the one

state/one plate days, political

concerns were never an issue.

The only time one heard grousing

about a license plate was when

some state made a particularly

hideous design choice or when a

radio station collected

petitions to put a local rock

hero on that year's plate.

(Indiana was once faced with a

choice between favorite sons

John Mellencamp and Michael

Jackson. The state wisely chose




Two basic models of specialty

license plate gained popularity

in the 1990s as states

instituted specialty plate

programs (Florida started its

program in '96). The first kind

are more traditional plates,

which designate membership or

affiliation; the recipient pays

for the recognition. These run

the gamut from various veterans'

plates — Purple Heart, or

the more sensible-sounding

Evaded the Enemy — many of

which have been around for

years, to those which contain

the slogan of a university or

professional sports team. The

genesis of many of these plates

is state pride in its

institutions or citizens. Most

of the veterans' plates, for

instance, have a state-centered

option such as Indiana's Hoosier

Veteran plate. State

universities compete for

popularity with license plate

recipients the same way they do

it on the football field: by

pumping their alumni for money.

These days, New York drivers can

get plates featuring several

schools across the United States

for cars driven in New York

state — a policy whose

potential benefits for the

out-of-state Hillary Clinton

should probably be examined by

the state election commission.



The second kind of specialty

plate, and the one that's

getting Florida all worked up,

is the "message" or "cause"

plate. This kind of license

plate builds on the model of the

affiliation plate. The logic

here is that if people are

willing to pay extra to align

themselves with a club or a

school, they might also be

willing to do so for something

they believe in. And if it's a

cause that might divert state

money from vital tasks like

funding professional sports

stadiums, even better. The most

prevalent of the early message

plates feature extremely broad

platforms and, not

coincidentally, easily

identifiable corresponding state

departments. Agricultural or

environmental plates are

popular, as are plates promoting

the arts, education, and

anything with the word "kid" in



As plate options have increased

and more and more causes are

represented, there have been

strange side effects. Some

causes have begun to compete for

adherents, and not just by

reiterating the appeal of their

core issues. Their discovery:

Interesting visuals move plates.

The most popular specialty plate

in Florida for three years

running features everyone's

favorite argument against the

survival of the fittest, the

manatee. In Ohio, shocked

politicians thought citizens had

suddenly become aware of water

conservation issues — until

they found people just liked the

picture of the Marblehead

Lighthouse featured on the plate

in question (the state's

response was a fevered search

for more lighthouses). Some

states have overreached

themselves on plates, such as

Virginia's back-of-the-car claim

of being the nation's "Internet

Capital" — a claim met with

a measure of hooting from

citizens of California and

Washington, Internet users in

general, and every Virginian not

living in Blacksburg or the

governor's mansion.



Missteps aside, specialty

license plates have been a state

politician's dream: a vote which

costs nothing, raises money

without taxes, and pleases a

specific, trackable interest

group. They weren't even a

significant concern — in

1998, slightly more than 8

percent of holders of eligible

Florida licenses chose specialty

plates. But by allowing

political statements of the

blandest kind, legislators

hastened the day when extremely

divisive issues started to seep

in. Welcome to Pandora's trunk.

As the managers of Messrs.

Mellencamp and Jackson learned a

long time ago, it's not the

plate and it's not the money;

it's the publicity. By their own

admission, Florida backers

expect the court to strike down

the Choose Life designation,

making you wonder just how

ardent they are in their support

of adoption.


The license plate wars have only

just begun. Supporters of the

Choose Life license have sought

sponsorship for the exact same

plate and design in other

states. Southern states that

feature specialty license plates

are all expected to deal with

requests like that of the

Virginia Heritage Group, which

is hoping for a plate that

features the Confederate flag.

While there are potential

sardonic chuckles ahead —

one can imagine prisoners

hammering out plates that urge

an end to death row appeals

— the fighting in Florida

sounds like an excuse to dredge

up already-fought battles in one

more oddball context.



It's charming, then, to find a

few private citizens engaged not

in overtly specific causes but

in politics of the most general

kind. The other license plate

news of the first part of 2000

was a California car show at the

Ronald Reagan library on the

occasion of the ex-president's

89th birthday. Visitors walking

among a variety of cars owned by

the Gipper at various phases of

his life (including a 1970 Ford

Custom Ranch Wagon once owned by

second wife and First Lady

Nancy) were presented with a

chance to join a movement for a

commemorative California state

license plate featuring Dutch in

a cowboy hat. In an age where

the most strident political

sloganeering seems inevitable

and plates bearing 140-year-old

flags fire heated debate, a

license plate featuring Ronald

Reagan's smiling face was

reportedly still 3,000

applications short of what is

needed for passage.

courtesy of 40th Street Black
picturesTerry Colon

40th Street Black