On that December day in 2000, though, Gore gave up his battle to be president and conceded the race to George W. Bush.
Neither he nor I anticipated this long and difficult road. Certainly neither of us wanted it to happen. Yet it came, and now it has ended, resolved, as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy... Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity of the people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.
With that, Al Gore said it was time for him to go and for a while, he left the stage, grew a beard and debated his new plans while, across the nation, we saw the clear emergence of the whole concept of red and blue states and a divided America.
This November 20, 2000 Newsweek cover ("The Winner Is..."), by the way, was voted #31 on a list of the "Best Magazine Covers" of the past 40 years by ASME, or the American Society of Magazine Editors. Did anybody else notice that when the two men's faces were merged for this Newsweek cover that the result looks a whole lot like a grown up Alfred E. Newman from Mad magazine?
Remember what it was like back then right after the vote? Even Bill Clinton got off a great one-liner saying, "The American people have spoken, but it's going to take a little while to determine what they said." Newsweek's cover article this week was called "A Whiff of Victory...But Now It's War." They began with describing one of the most surreal moments in American politics ever.
Bill Daley was in the motorcade, frantically calling Al Gore upfront in the lead car. It was 2a.m., and raining in Nashville, Tenn. The vice president was at the head of what looked like his own political funeral procession. He'd called George W. Bush to concede, and was on his way to a stage outside the War Memorial to thank his soaked supporters. But Daley, his campaign chairman, had just gotten new numbers from Florida -- the state that seemed to have put Bush over the top. Bush's lead was dwindling rapidly there: from 50,000 before the motorcade left the hotel, to a couple of thousand, dropping by the minute. It wasn't over, Daley instantly understood. But he also realized that his suddenly undefeated candidate didn't know it, and might make the wrong move once he got out of the limo. Mobile to mobile, Daley quickly got Gore on the line. "Whatever you do," he shouted into the phone, "do not go out on that stage!"
Daley, by the way, was the son of Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago who many people believe helped put John Kennedy over-the-top in Illinois in 1960 with some questionable votes. He would be asked to perform the family electoral miracle a second time but Florida was not Illinois and in 2000 lawyers from both parties were already on their planes to the next battleground.
We know what happened next. Lawsuits, court challenges, endlessly squinted at ballots, a month and a half of insanity, punctuated and ended by a 5-4 Supreme Court decison to force the counting stop where it stood -- with George Bush ahead. Finally, in December, it was over. But that was a long way off when this magazine was written. Newsweek sussed out the stakes with accuracy:
Both sides claimed a noble objective: to bestow legitimacy on whoever would be judged the ultimate winner. But the candidates' transparent posturing and legal maneuvering reminded voters of just what they disliked about each one: Gore's merciless hunger, Bush's smirking arrogance. And that, in the end, could lower the standing of whichever one lands in the White House. Each would be seen by his foes -- half the country -- in the worst light: Bush, the Accidental President, elevated by the miscast ballots of elderly voters in Palm Beach condos; Gore, the Ruthless Prince, propelled to power by spinners, lawyers, and his own guile.
We know more today than we did then, of course. We know that Bush finally got the office, that Gore gave the best speech of his life when he conceded, and that Bush Jr. was considered an "accidental" president of sorts until the events of September 11, 2001 made all that seem petty and gave him the chance to stand on his own. We also know that Ralph Nader sucked votes aplenty from Al Gore's campaign, and that Pat Buchanan's position on the Florida butterfly ballot sucked possibly crucial votes from Gore as well. But Nader was about ego and the staggered ballot was about stupidity -- and neither one of them is illegal in presidential politics.
As far as the election itself went, we know that in the popular vote Al Gore actually won by some 550,000 votes. We know that in the electoral college that George Bush actually won by a vote of 271 to 266. As for the dispute in Florida, after the Supreme Court ruling, several journalistic organizations went back and re-counted all the Florida ballots in multiple ways -- the way Gore wanted them counted, the way Bush wanted them counted, and a few others variations -- and Bush always won. Not by much, but he won Florida for real (unless we wanted to interrogate senior citizens about who they thought they were voting for). Since our constitution awards the presidency based on what happens in the Electoral College, that's advantage Bush whether you liked it or not. Photo-finish, but a finish, of sorts.
Let's close with one of Gore's final lines in that concession speech:
As for the battle that ends tonight, I do believe as my father once said, that no matter how hard the loss, defeat might serve as well as victory to shape the soul and let the glory out.
Maybe, crazy as it sounds, there was a glory to be let out in Gore's loss. His destiny was not to lead a divided nation but to help heal an endangered planet. For everybody's sake, let's hope so...