The Story Behind the Near-Concession
By Sandra Sobieraj
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2000; 6:06 p.m. EST NASHVILLE, Tenn. Al Gore set aside the stoic valedictory written for him by an aide and picked up the phone. George W. Bush did not take his call happily. "You don't have to get snippy about this," Gore spat.
The acid of their yearlong fight character assaults and name-calling, layered onto the Clinton-Gore defeat of Bush's father in 1992 boiled over as Gore, in an underground office at the War Memorial, insisted that Florida's decisive 25 electoral votes remained in limbo.
"Let me make sure I understand," protested Bush, his victory speech in hand. "You're calling me back to retract your concession?"
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, chastened on Election Night when it appeared Bush had lost the state, had just assured his brother it was a done deal. And the TV networks had already declared Texas Gov. George W. Bush the 43rd president of the United States.
"Let me explain something," Gore lectured in a stony tone, "your YOUNGER brother is not the ultimate authority on this."
The conversation, quoted to The Associated Press by two of the 20 or so people in the room with Gore and confirmed by a Bush aide, ended abruptly.
Outside, thousands of supporters, sick from the night's roller-coaster drama, shouted "Stay and fight!" and "Recount!"
While campaign chairman William Daley announced, "Our campaign continues," the vice president marched unseen from the Memorial through a side exit. Stranding dozens of friends, family and VIPs in the drizzle, he ordered his motorcade back to the hotel suite where no more than 60 minutes earlier he had telephoned his congratulations to Bush.
"He's fine," said Gore's brother-in-law, Frank Hunger, on the sidewalk and looking for a ride.
President Clinton called Gore to second his decision, praise him for a good night and note consolingly that Gore had won the nation's popular vote.
On Wednesday, the picture of morning-after confidence, Bush invited news photographers into the dining room of the Governor's Mansion as he, wife Laura, running mate Dick Cheney and Cheney's wife, Lynne, sat down to a lunch of chilled soup.
He recalled his exchange with Gore: "I felt like I was fully prepared to go out and give a speech and thanking my supporters. ... I thought it was an interesting comment he made and listened to what he had to say and didn't have much to say."
Gore and most of his family stayed in bed well past noon then waited out the day at a hotel across from Vanderbilt University, where years ago he enrolled in Divinity school to sort out inner conflicts over the five months he served as an Army journalist in Vietnam.
Son-in-law Drew Schiff slipped out with the vice president's 16-month-old grandson for some air. "It's been so emotionally draining," Schiff said.
With most of his aides barred from the ninth floor, cordoned off for the family and under watch as always by the Secret Service, no one knew for sure what Gore was thinking or planning.
Chief strategist Carter Eskew announced Gore would go to headquarters to thank the crew then escape to nearby Center Hill Lake while lawyers sifted through the Florida recount. Press secretary Chris Lehane and others said nothing had been decided. The Secret Service ordered a hotel banquet room cleared for bomb-sniffing dogs and an imminent Gore news conference. They called it off within minutes.
At mid-afternoon, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, summoned to help oversee the Florida recount, slipped toward the elevators and up to meet with Gore, running mate Joseph Lieberman and Daley.
They monitored recount reports from the legal team dispatched to Tallahassee, Fla., by charter jet that morning, and prepared press statements delivered before the Secret Service had a chance to redeploy their aborted security sweep.
"Because of what is at stake, this matter must be resolved expeditiously, but deliberately and without any rush to judgment," Gore said from an armored "blue goose" lectern brought from the White House but missing its presidential seal.
He left without taking questions, the comforting and approving hand of Lieberman on his back.
The night before, it was a pager vibrating on the belt loop of Gore aide Michael Feldman that set the Election Night drama careening toward dawn: "Call switchboard. Call holding with Mike Whouley. ASAP."
Feldman was several vans behind Gore's limousine in the "mournful motorcade" to the vice president's concession speech. On his cell phone, Feldman patched Whouley through to Daley in yet another van.
Hunkered down at headquarters, in a command central dubbed The Boiler Room, field commander Whouley was watching the Florida election commission Web site. Gore's 50,000-vote deficit in the decisive state had suddenly narrowed to 900 votes, then 500.
For a seemingly interminable space of minutes, the VIP entourage huddled beneath the Memorial's towering stone pillars while Daley conferred with Gore in a small office.
"We had no TVs. Everyone was on their cell phones," recalled policy adviser Greg Simon. "People were calling us from everywhere, telling us, 'Don't concede.'"
© Copyright 2000 The Associated Press