"It was a crushing disappointment," Gore says, in case there's any doubt how he felt about losing. Actually, Gore does not call it losing. He does not call it winning. One of his favorite stand-up lines is to say, "You win some, you lose some, and then there's that little-known third category." Like most of his jokes, it's a way of managing the conversation, deflecting the issue, avoiding a serious answer about what he really thinks happened. How does he perceive the election? Does he think he won? Does he think he lost? "I believe that if everyone in Florida who tried to vote had had his or her vote counted properly, that I would have won," he says. "I strongly disagreed with the Supreme Court decision, and the way in which they interpreted and applied the law. But I respect the rule of law, so it is what it is."
"Look, the other guy was sworn in," he says. "End of story."
Tipper shares his viewpoint. "I believe we won. I still believe we won," she says. Actually, she does say, once, "When we lost," but immediately corrects herself to say, "I mean, we didn't lose. When we had to concede," and then, refining her thought: "When we had to abide by the rule of law." Asked what phrases she uses in casual conversation, she has to think. "I usually say, 'When we won but the Supreme Court decided we couldn't serve.' But that's too long." She tries "the outcome" and finally settles on "the election," if it's understood that "that doesn't just mean the election; that means that whole process."
Al Gore does not pretend that any of this was easy. "I'm not sure I'm able to find the words to describe what I was feeling," he says of the whole debacle, beginning, of course, on election night when he first thought he'd won, and then thought he'd lost, and then thought--well, who knew what to think? The 36-day post-election period felt, Gore says, like "hand-to-hand combat." You have to understand--his staffers explain this most clearly--it was a period of not only intense confusion but intense fatigue; the final weeks of the campaign itself had been so exhausting, and then you woke up the morning after Election Day and it wasn't over, it was like thinking you'd finished a marathon only to be told that you still had 15 more miles to go. And then there was the incredible fog of battle, the Florida explosion during which nobody really knew what was going on. Much of this time, Gore directed the engagement while secluded in the vice president's house at the Naval Observatory, talking on the phone and e-mailing on his hand-held wireless. He was surrounded by Tipper and their four children--the adult children, Karenna, Kristin and Sarah, had converged on the house, and Albert, the teenager, was still in high school--who alternately played cards, worried, hoped and tried to distract one another. Outside, protesters were shouting things like "Get out of Cheney's house!" Tipper pushed boomboxes to the windows, pointed them at the hecklers, and played whale sounds and nature noises. "What are we going to do?" she says now. "Leave?"
Some Gore staffers say, looking back, they see now they never had much of a chance; when the networks called it for Bush, the Gore camp was put into a hole too deep to dig out of. "Had the recount gone forward and had we been announced as having taken a lead; had the tally screen shown Gore is now up by 100, 200, 300, then there would have been a change . . . Then it would have been, the Republicans are stealing this from Gore," says Gore's longtime friend and former chief of staff, Roy Neel. But it didn't happen. The Florida Supreme Court did grant Gore a statewide recount of disputed ballots, but then the U.S. Supreme Court took the case of Bush v. Gore and halted the recount, something that Gore still clearly, strongly, disagrees with.
"I was surprised that they took the case," he says. "I was shocked because the philosophy that had been followed by the conservative majority on the court was completely inconsistent with a decision to take the case away from the state court. After the shock and surprise, I just shifted into trying to respond in the most effective way I could, with the right legal talent, adequate resources. I don't know. I'm kind of task-oriented. I sort of focused on how to overcome."
"I held out every hope that the court would do what I personally felt was the right thing," he continues, meaning he hoped the count would proceed. Even so, "I had tried to prepare both myself and my family for the eventuality that it would not come out our way . . . We had prayed together frequently as a family that we would not be vulnerable to bitterness. We tried to reach out for a higher plane." On the evening of December 12, the Supreme Court ruling came down. The decision--as near as anybody could make out immediately after it was announced--had gone against Gore. "Initially I was consumed with conference calls, consultations, to see if there was any daylight toward which I could move. And reluctantly came to the decision around 3 o'clock in the morning that it was simply not reasonable to imagine that they had left any escape route." So, he says, he went to sleep, got up, and funneled all of his emotions into writing his speech. On the evening of December 13, the family went to the Old Executive Office Building and said one more prayer. Tipper's main concern, she says, was that the children make it through their father's concession speech without crying on camera.
What followed was one of the most surreal defeat parties ever. The ruling came in the midst of a round of obligatory holiday gatherings the Gores were hosting for vice presidential staff and supporters, one of which was scheduled for the evening of Gore's speech. Attendees glumly watched the concession from a tent on the Naval Observatory grounds; within the tent, remembers Roy Neel, it felt like a death had taken place. When Gore returned, though, the atmosphere picked up: A hired band was there, but so, somewhat bizarrely, was the singer Jon Bon Jovi, one of several rock stars who had campaigned for Gore. At some point Bon Jovi was chatting with Michael Feldman, Gore's traveling chief of staff. "Jon and I and a couple of people were at the bar," Feldman remembers. "There was talking about what had happened, and at some point Jon said, 'This is a great party, but couldn't you get a better band?' I said, 'Why don't you play?' He said, 'Can I borrow your cell phone?' "
Bon Jovi called some "friends" who were in town to play for a charity fundraiser. Presently the gates opened and Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty, and John Popper of Blues Traveler entered the grounds. They borrowed the band's instruments and jammed; Tipper played percussion; Tom Petty played "I Won't Back Down." "You were dancing, you'd bump into someone and you would turn around at it would be Al Gore, getting down," says Philippe Reines, a member of Gore's communications staff.
Gore describes the party as "cathartic," the final release of months of pent-up stress. "I didn't realize how cathartic until I saw the pictures," he says with a laugh, referring to photos that showed up in the press. Asked how he felt when the guests left, around 2 o'clock in the morning, Gore says, "I remember thinking about the old cliche: Today is the first day of the rest of your life."
That day dawned acrimoniously; once the catharsis ended, the air was by no means clear. The Gores were dealing not only with their own disappointment but with that of staffers whose own futures had just dissolved. Tipper describes little bitterness and a lot of consoling, but others remember anger that was exacerbated by exhaustion. "You have to understand, everyone was unprepared for what happened," explains Mike Feldman. "They were prepared for defeat or victory, but not for this. The campaign had a very nonnatural end. It wasn't a neat end. People who came out of that came out angry, but not necessarily at the right people."
Gore, some say, was one of them. Staff and friends report that Gore cautioned them not to go around complaining, and did little of it himself, with them. But one donor saw him not long after the speech, and said that Gore was quite voluble in putting his own spin on the election. "Which basically involved a fair amount of blame for a number of other people and institutions, starting with the Supreme Court, and then a little bit Clinton, and so on and so forth."
"Fond as I am of him," says the donor, "there was not a lot of self-criticism."
Press reports revealed that the anger spilled over into a meeting between Gore and President Clinton, in which Gore finally unloaded his frustration with having to deal with the baggage of the Lewinsky affair, which had put him in a bind for more than a year, unsure of whether to distance himself or display loyalty, finally trying a little bit of both. Clinton, in turn, complained about having been excluded from the campaign. Gore will not comment, but Roy Neel implicitly acknowledges that the meeting took place when he says, "Oh, everybody had angry sessions, that was just one of a thousand of them, at every level. Everybody was screaming at everyone . . . I mean, there were a lot of heated conversations. Like the morning after a Dallas-Redskins game, you know, when you lose by one point in a double overtime on a questionable call in the end zone. The best analogy I can think of is something like that: a disputed call by the referee on the home team's field."
Al and Tipper took a short vacation to St. Thomas. One of the people he called from the Caribbean was former vice president Walter "Fritz" Mondale, who ran for president, and lost, in 1984. When Gore took office in 1993, he had called Mondale for advice about the vice presidency. Now he was calling for advice about the not-presidency, to find out whether it would be possible to get beyond his current mood. "He answered the phone, and I said, 'Fritz, how are you DOING?' " says Gore, laughing so hard that his face gets red, hahahahahaha HAHAHAHA. Mondale laughed, too, Gore says, and replied that he was doing well. Tipper overheard Al ask how long it took Mondale to get over the loss.
"Twenty years . . . so far," Gore recalls him saying.
Mondale did give him two pieces of serious advice. "He said, 'Be sure to get out of Washington. Get back home. Don't take the first [job] offer that comes along. Just be patient.' "
It was impossible, though, to follow Mondale's first piece of advice. Home was Washington, for all intents and purposes, and had been for years. As vice president, Gore still worked in Washington--where, the Gores knew, they were being intently watched. They made a point of going to parties, Tipper says: "We were saying, 'We are here; we are fine.' " Occasionally, though, the toll would show. "The first time I saw him afterward was at a party" a few days after the concession, says one Gore fundraising activist. "He really looked like walking death. It sounds like a cliche, but I was standing at a certain position, just by coincidence, and I saw him as he came around the corner, before he got to the party. You could see the look on his face when he thought he was alone, and when he turned the corner, you could see the effort it took to look like he was alive."
Agonizingly, Gore couldn't get out of the public light. He didn't go into the White House much, but he had to perform a number of ceremonial duties, including going to Congress to swear in the new members and to read the official tally of each state's presidential electors. This meant reading aloud, for inclusion in the Congressional Record, the fact that the state of Florida had gone to George W. Bush. It meant reading that the state of Tennessee had gone to Bush. "That," says Tipper, "was a tough day."
Gore says he consoled himself with the fact that he was performing a duty assigned him by the Constitution. "It certainly did not escape me that there was considerable irony in my presiding over my own defeat in the counting of the electoral votes," says Gore, who has such an ironic, detached, self-aware temperament that he seems able to perform a role and, at the same time, watch himself performing it. "But that irony couldn't hold a candle to the honor of discharging the constitutional duty. And besides, there wasn't any doubt about the outcome." Which is not to say he had no feelings. While he was reading the count, a hard-core band of Democrats made a noisy, last-ditch protest of the election. "I was secretly very grateful to them," Gore acknowledges. "At one point, when I had to gavel them into order, I just looked at them and said, 'Hey.' I've always felt there was more in that particular hey than any hey I've ever heyed."
Even after the inauguration, Gore couldn't get out of Dodge. Instead, after the ceremony the family was driven to Tipper's childhood home in south Arlington, where they would settle. Albert was in his last semester of high school, and Tipper's mother was terminally ill and could not be moved out of the area. On January 20, Gore was everyboomer, the personification of the sandwich generation. He had a dying mother-in-law to help take care of; his lastborn would soon be leaving for college; his career had hit a midlife plateau. He hadn't gotten the promotion he wanted, and he had lost his job.
Fortunately for him, he had Tipper, a vibrant woman whose background in psychology--and, one senses, her own personal experience with depression, which she has acknowledged--enabled her to know that strategic measures should be put into place. "You use tools," she says--tools like distractions, and staying busy, and going incognito to movies, and having friends over for dinner. The Gores renovated, extending their backyard deck to create a leafy retreat, installing a fountain so as to have the sound of moving water. Gore eventually bought a big-screen TV and turned an upstairs bedroom into a surround-sound viewing room, a sort of entertainment lair stocked with everything from "The Godfather" to "The Story of Grand Canyon National Park" to "Caddyshack."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company