Vice President Gore gave finality last night to an election contest that had been mired in anger and ambiguity, with a concession speech in which he bowed out of the presidential race without hedges or protests and called on supporters to join him in accepting the validity of George W. Bush's presidency.
A day after the U.S. Supreme Court ended his hopes for overturning a narrow loss in Florida, Gore stood with his family and running mate Joseph I. Lieberman in his ceremonial office in the Old Executive Office Building to declare, "While I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it."
The seven-minute speech was woven with self-deprecatory lines, and began and ended on humorous notes. He said he had called Bush moments earlier to formally concede, and, recalling his election night embarrassment when he rescinded a concession, joked that, "I promised that I wouldn't call him back this time." He signed off by revising the phrase he once aimed at Bush's father in 1992, "It's time for me to go."
In between these light moments, Gore sought to put the brutal 36-day post-election battle on a more elevated historical plane: "In one of God's unforeseen paths, this belatedly broken impasse can point us all to a new common ground, for its very closeness can serve to remind us that we are one people with a shared history and a shared destiny."
Most poignantly, he recalled a line his father, Sen. Albert Gore Sr., delivered precisely three decades ago this autumn when he was defeated for reelection. "No matter how hard the loss, defeat might serve as well as victory to shape the soul and let the glory out."
This line hinted, however indirectly, at the question dominating Washington political circles: Does Gore have a future in national politics? "As for what I'll do next, I don't know the answer to that one yet," he said.
Before he spoke, however, there was universal consensus that this speech was critical to launching the next phase of Gore's political career. The question--hanging over not merely this speech, but his future prospects in the public arena--is whether he will be defined more prominently by grace or by grievance.
This is not an entirely simple question, said several leading Democrats, including some who advise the vice president. Gore of course needed to follow the classic American ritual of congratulating the winner and pledging cooperation. But--one more odd twist in this odd election--an abiding sense among Democrats that Gore was victimized in Florida has made the vice president for some people a more compelling figure as loser than he was as candidate.
This sense of Democratic grievance could fuel another presidential run for Gore.
"I don't think Gore ought to be any more gracious than he has to be," said political consultant James Carville. "Does this enhance his status as a political figure? Yes. . . . He's a bigger person as a result of what happened, and people will be reluctant to say no to him" if Gore decides he wants another shot at the presidency.
While Gore intends to be "statesmanlike" during Bush's presidency, said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo, a regular Gore adviser, he likely will never speak of "losing" the election. "He will not say something that is not true," Cuomo said.
Demonstrating this point, Gore opened his speech by noting he had congratulated Bush for "becoming the 43rd president"--the word "elected" notably absent.
"[Gore] won the election," Cuomo said. "If he wants to run again, he's got total standing."
There are many dissenters to this view--and they reside particularly in President Clinton's inner circle. Once the dust settles from the Florida controversy, the larger reality will again be clear: In a roaring economy, with more popular issues, Gore lost the election, and even managed to lose his home state.
The themes that occupied the vice president on the night his 2000 quest ended--how to find valor in defeat--are familiar ones for him and his family. It was a quandary Gore spoke of two years ago, in what many feel was the best speech he ever gave--the eulogy at his father's funeral. He recalled his father's election night words: "The truth shall rise again."
Yesterday's rush of events left little time for composition or rehearsal. Gore made phone calls, to lawyers, President Clinton, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and many others. And, astonishingly, with the speech just a couple of hours away, Gore last evening played host to a holiday party of a few hundred supporters--including rock singer Jon Bon Jovi and film director Rob Reiner--at his Naval Observatory residence.
He gave his guests a preview of the speech, his voice choking with emotion as he spoke. An hour later, though, his style was composed and conversational.
Like he does on most important speeches, Gore did most of the work himself. He spent much of the day writing out thoughts in longhand, later tinkering with drafts on his laptop, aides said. Family members, especially his wife and daughters, helped with speech preparation.
In some ways, it spoke to almost inhuman single-mindedness of the capital's political culture yesterday that, after a physically and emotionally draining campaign that has consumed the past 18 months, the chatter was focused so intently on the next race: Is Gore viable?
Rep. Norman Dicks (D-Wash.), who came into the House with Gore in 1976, said the vice president has ensured himself a political future through how he has handled this political contest. "I really believe he'll have another day," Dicks said.
The reviews, particularly among Republicans, were strong for Gore's performance. Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) described Gore's speech as "very generous," applauding his humor as "the best way to heal wounds." Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, "He's a good and decent American."
There are certainly examples of politicians enhancing their stature with an effective exit. One of the most famous was written by Gore consultant Robert Shrum: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's concession speech to President Carter at the Democratic National Convention in 1980. "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die," Kennedy said.
But this example may highlight the perils to a Gore revival: His candidacy was always viewed by many Democrats as more an expression of his own ambition than of a larger ideological cause. While Gore might yet have more life in presidential politics, said Democratic pollster Doug Schoen, in 2000: "There was no sense of a Gore persona. And while he had themes, he didn't have as strong a rationale for his candidacy as he could have."
Whatever his deficiencies as a candidate, however, even Gore's harshest critics could scarely deny the human dimension of this year: A candidate who had worked so hard for so many years saw his goal elude him so narrowly.
"I know that many of my supporters are disappointed," Gore said. "I am too."
After posing for still photographers behind the lectern, Gore turned and hugged his wife, Tipper. Then the pair, holding hands and smiling, followed family members and the Liebermans out of the room.
In a moment that felt more like victory than defeat, a large crowd cheered as he left the Old Executive Office Building and climbed into his limousine for the short ride home. Greeting him there, the pro-Bush protesters who for weeks had chanted "leave Cheney's house" were now cheering, "Thank you, Al!"
In the end, the concession speech in history that may best fit Gore's situation was delivered by Democrat Adlai Stevenson in 1952, telling a story Abraham Lincoln told about what it feels like to lose an election: "He said he felt like a little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark. He said that he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh."