Al Gore's former spokesman swears he saw this coming. He knew it just as soon as he saw the former vice president half naked in a hot tub.
It was just a few minutes into "Saturday Night Live," during a skit about the "courtship" of Gore's prospective running mates in 2000. And there was Gore snuggled close to Joe Lieberman, played by "SNL's" Chris Parnell. Gore was played by . . . Al Gore himself. He was earnest and dewy-eyed, clinking champagne glasses with Lieberman. It all sent a signal: Presidential candidates simply don't do this.
"As soon as he got into that hot tub, I knew he wasn't running," said Chris Lehane yesterday. He was Gore's ubiquitous media proxy during the 2000 presidential campaign. "I turned to my wife and I said, 'That's it.' "
He knew then what he and others had been wondering for almost two years. Like so many of Gore's most devout believers, Lehane has been looking for some indication of whether Gore would run again for president -- some sign of how the limbo of Lehane's own presidential focus would be resolved. And when Gore made his decision official on Sunday, the news -- while generally surprising in its timing -- was met with a mingling of relief, pride and sadness by the people who were closest to him in 2000 and who still tout him fervidly today.
"Mostly sadness," said Elaine Kamarck, Gore's senior policy adviser in the Clinton administration and during the presidential campaign. It brought back the ordeal of two years ago, an experience that still haunts many within Team Gore. Such anger was stirred anew by Gore's announcement, and was easy to elicit yesterday. "This brings back the fact that we were robbed two years ago," Kamarck said of the contested election loss to George W. Bush. "You never quite get over that."
As with any Big Decision of this kind, Gore's resolution provoked a brand of Washington self-aggrandizement among some Gore loyalists: a rush to take some responsibility for the decision ("I advised Al to do this"); some claim of advance knowledge ("Al called me just before he went on '60 Minutes' "); and some hint of enduring influence ("I haven't decided who I'll support now").
Even so, Gore's announcement also set off a blitz of electronic therapy. There was a constant procession of e-mails, phone calls and BlackBerry messages Sunday and yesterday -- except for a hiatus during the press conference that Gore held late in the afternoon.
"You would have thought there was a funeral going on," says Donna Brazile, Gore's campaign manager in 2000. She is referring to the calls she received all day, beginning with one at 7 a.m., from the distraught vice chairman of the Seminole County (Fla.) Democratic Party. Brazile's voice mail was clogged by messages from all over the country, "half reporters and half real people," she said.
The disappointment felt by Gore's inner circle about his decision follows on a continuum "the permanent sadness about Election Day 2000," said Gore adviser and Democratic strategist Bob Shrum. "You live with that. That sadness is always there."
But relief also abounded, a sense from some Gore aides that they are now free to seek fresh political allegiances without an obligation to the bitter past. Two advisers interviewed for this story say -- not for attribution -- that they were dreading the conversation in which Gore told them he was running again in 2004 and that he wanted their help.
"He was the elephant in the tent," said Gore friend and adviser Tony Coelho. "We all had to deal with the possibility of him running again." Coelho said he is "extremely happy" for Gore, and noted that he left at a time when his voice was particularly strong. Coelho also said that among Democrats, Gore was one of the first and most forceful to speak out against Sen. Trent Lott's remarks in support of Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential candidacy, as well as to challenge the Bush administration's policies on the economy and against Iraq.
Al Gore is at his most likable when he is saying goodbye. One of his finest public moments came when he conceded the 2000 race to Bush 36 days after the election. It was widely considered a show of grace, ease and humility, one that was generally seen as lacking in Gore's campaign persona. He was praised then for bringing "closure" to a tumultuous national chapter, just as closure was yesterday's operative notion -- from Gore himself, and from his devotees.
"This might be projecting my own feelings onto his, but I feel a sense of relief" for Gore, said consultant Carter Eskew. "It's a relief that [Gore] can move on, that there's some finality to this."
Meantime, Chris Lehane was at his new home, in San Francisco, where he has started a "crisis" public relations firm that serves political and corporate clients. He was observing "an Irish wake" over the prospect of not working for Gore in 2004. But the uncertainty of Gore's plans were like a "brooding omnipresence," he said, invoking Oliver Wendell Holmes. He would have worked on a Gore campaign in 2004. Now he's not sure who he'll support. What's certain, he said, is that, like Gore, he has moved on from 2000 -- at least more so than he had three days ago.