In his first interviews since conceding the presidency to George W. Bush almost two years ago, former vice president Al Gore calls the outcome of the 2000 election "a crushing disappointment" and criticizes the 5-4 Supreme Court decision that put Bush in the White House as "completely inconsistent" with the court's conservative philosophy.
"I believe that if everyone in Florida who tried to vote had had his or her vote counted properly, that I would have won," Gore said in an interview with Washington Post Magazine staff writer Liza Mundy for an article to be published Sunday. "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."
Gore told ABC's Barbara Walters, in an interview to air tonight on ABC's "20/20," that he "absolutely" believed he would become president when the Florida Supreme Court ordered a recount of all disputed ballots in the state, making the result all the more emotionally difficult to accept. His wife, Tipper, said in the Post interview, "I still believe we won."
Gore gave the interviews as part of a promotional tour for "Joined at the Heart," a book he and his wife have written about the American family, and "The Spirit of Family," a book of photographs the Gores have selected depicting American families. He will do other interviews, televised and in print, in the coming days, including an appearance on CBS's "Late Show With David Letterman" tonight and NBC's "Saturday Night Live" next month, as part of a carefully planned political reemergence.
In neither the Post Magazine article nor in excerpts of the Walters interview released yesterday by ABC does Gore answer the question of whether he will run for president in 2004, a decision he says he will make by the end of the year.
But as he began his book tour this week, Gore already was making political news. On Wednesday night, he told a New York audience he has "reluctantly come to the conclusion" that the only solution to the "impending crisis" in health care is a "single-payer national health insurance plan" for all Americans. That marks a sharp break with his past position, pushing him sharply to the left on what could be an important issue in the next presidential campaign.
In the 2000 campaign, Gore battered rival Democrat Bill Bradley for advocating a health care plan designed to move the country toward universal coverage. He said Bradley's bold plan would wipe out projected budget surpluses and damage the country.
Gore offered no details of what kind of single-payer system he favors. Spokesman Jano Cabrera said yesterday that Gore will address the issue in a speech. Cabrera called Gore's comments on health care consistent with his recent vow to "speak from the heart and let the chips fall where they may."
In the Walters interview, Gore reflects not only on the 2000 election but also on last week's balloting in which Democrats lost control of the Senate and seats in the House. "I think that it was a sweeping loss," he said. "It was a massive defeat for the Democratic Party, and we have to accept that and come out fighting as the loyal opposition, not just in name but in reality. . . ."
Gore acknowledged his shortcomings as a presidential candidate in 2000, telling Walters, "I think I could have communicated much better, more clearly and forcefully." He said his debates with Bush hurt his candidacy, adding that he wishes he had not sighed audibly during the opening debate while Bush was talking. "I was exasperated by some of the things, a lot of the things, that he was saying," he said.
Gore said he does not believe Bill Clinton's sexual indiscretions contributed to his defeat, telling Walters that voters were "plenty smart enough to distinguish between his [Clinton's] personal life and his accomplishments as president." He acknowledged that he and Clinton had a stormy meeting in December 2000 over campaign strategy. "I wanted to clear the air," Gore told Walters, adding that "it worked" and that he and Clinton remain "comrades in arms."
After the 2000 election, Gore chose to stay in the background, against the recommendations of some supporters. "I could have handled the whole thing differently," he told the Post Magazine, "and instead of making a concession speech, launched a four-year, rear-guard guerrilla campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the Bush presidency and to mobilize for a rematch. And there was no shortage of advice to do that."
Gore rejected that advice, he said, because "I just didn't feel like it was in the best interest of the United States or that it was a responsible course of action." Gore also told Walters, "I wanted some time off."
The emotional impact on Gore's family was significant. Daughter Kristin Gore called the 2000 election experience "pretty devastating," while Gore said, "I'm not saying it was easy for me emotionally. It wasn't easy." He said he and his family prayed together not to turn bitter over what had happened.
Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Gore was gearing up to challenge Bush, particularly on the economy. "I felt the economic plan that the administration had enacted was a catastrophe and would create serious problems," he told the Post Magazine. "And so I was looking forward to speaking out on that."
Instead, he embraced Bush as "my commander in chief" in a speech to Iowa Democrats a few weeks after the attacks. "I didn't have an impulse to criticize him because I felt that he did a terrific job in the aftermath of Sept. 11," he told Walters.
Gore appeared to take back comments attributed to him during a private meeting with contributors last summer, in which he suggested that he listened too much to his political consultants in 2000. "I take full responsibility for not being able to get more votes than I did," he told the Post Magazine. "I give full credit to the people who helped me in the campaign."
Gore said his 2000 running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), should run for president if he wants to, regardless of Gore's eventual decision. Lieberman has pledged publicly not to run if Gore does. "He hasn't made that pledge to me," Gore told Walters. "If he wants to change that, that's . . . his prerogative."
Gore's comments on supporting a single-payer health care system caught many Democrats by surprise. Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the only announced candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, called it "politically untenable." Dean favors moving the country toward universal coverage but by using the current employer-based system, not through a single-payer mechanism.