- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2001

The Democratic nominee for president wielded more raw power than anyone else in the nation during the five weeks after Election Day, according to "At Any Cost: How Al Gore Tried to Steal the Election" (Regnery), the new book by Bill Sammon, senior White House correspondent for The Washington Times. In the third of three excerpts, he details how Mr. Gore cast himself as victim while undermining the legitimacy of George W. Bushs election as president.

Late into the night of Dec. 12, Vice President Al Gore and his legal team pored over the U.S. Supreme Courts historic Bush v. Gore decision for any glimmer of hope that could be transformed into yet another appeal.
Mr. Gore wondered aloud whether the decision could be parlayed into some sort of massive outcry from the black community, providing political cover for one last assault on George W. Bush.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had been advising Mr. Gore throughout the post-election debacle in Florida, implored the vice president to use "every means available" to fight on, promising a "civil rights explosion."
Mr. Gore kept agonizing, Hamlet-like, until after 2 a.m. before finally instructing his legal team in Tallahassee to pull another all-nighter and draft one last batch of briefs. He figured he had conceded too early once before and wasnt going to repeat the mistake. He would sleep on it.
But in the morning, when the vice president looked over his lawyers handiwork, he acknowledged it was pretty far-fetched.
The lawyers wanted to go back to the Florida Supreme Court and try to convince the justices that the deadline for seating the states electors actually could be pushed from Dec. 12 to Dec. 18, even though lead Gore lawyer David Boies already had told the court it could not. The lawyers somehow would persuade Floridas highest court to issue uniform, statewide standards for recounting ballots.
Then, after the justices agreed to all this, the lawyers would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to essentially rescind its pro-Bush ruling that the ongoing recounts were unconstitutional.
Gore lawyer Ron Klain practically begged for permission to pursue this legal "strategy" for the next six days. When Mr. Gore demurred, some of his lawyers in Tallahassee actually wept.
The scene was reminiscent of that first morning, five weeks earlier, when Gore aides cried after learning there was no room for them on the maiden planeload of operatives bound for Tallahassee. The bizarre crusade was ending as it began — with the tears of true believers.
Mr. Gore then summoned campaign chairman William Daley, whose father was said to have stolen Illinois for John F. Kennedy four decades earlier. Perversely relishing his own role as the Rasputin of American politics, Mr. Gore told Mr. Daley he had changed his mind and was going to make one last lunge for the presidency. Mr. Daley was momentarily mortified. The vice president hastened to explain he was only kidding.
That afternoon in Tallahassee, Mr. Jackson held another angry rally to declare that Mr. Bush had "stolen" the election.
"Hell be the president legally, but he does not have moral authority," said Mr. Jackson, a married man who was concealing from the world the fact that he had sired a child by a mistress.

Accepting finality

Other Democrats were similarly embittered. Some on Capitol Hill begged Mr. Gore not to use the words "concede" or "concession." Instead, they implored him to say he was merely "withdrawing" from a race he didnt really lose. They said the election was, at worst, a tie, and beseeched Mr. Gore not to give Mr. Bush the satisfaction of knowing he had won.
But Mr. Gore ignored the advice. At 9:02 p.m., he stepped before the cameras in the vice presidents office in the Old Executive Office Building, next door to the White House. For the first time in 36 days, he publicly acknowledged the presidency belonged to Mr. Bush.
"Neither he nor I anticipated this long and difficult road," Mr. Gore said. "Certainly neither of us wanted it to happen. Yet it came, and now it has ended — resolved, as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy."
Mr. Gore still was trying to level the playing field, to equate himself with Mr. Bush as blameless in the Florida debacle. He was portraying himself as innocent bystander, coping as best he could with a great trauma foisted upon him while he was minding his own business. "It came," the vice president insisted, as if a meteor had struck the Earth. But it was Mr. Gore, not some mysterious force of nature, who caused the post-election nightmare.
"The U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt: While I strongly disagree with the courts decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome."
The man who stubbornly denied the finality of the election, pressing the fight for weeks after it became obvious he could not possibly win, was patting himself on the back for accepting finality.
Mr. Gore could have accepted finality Thursday, Nov. 9, when the mandatory recount showed he would not pull ahead and the "butterfly ballot" controversy in Palm Beach County offered no suitable remedy. He could have accepted finality Monday, Dec. 4, when Leon County Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls and the U.S. Supreme Court dealt him back-to-back defeats and Mr. Bush held all the trump cards.
"There is a higher duty than the one we owe to political party," Mr. Gore continued. "This is America, and we put country before party."
Just weeks earlier, Mr. Gore had diagrammed his priorities for senior aides by drawing four concentric circles: He put himself and running mate Joseph I. Lieberman in the innermost circle, big supporters such as Mr. Jackson in the second, the Democratic Party in the third and the nation in the outermost circle. Now he was preaching the virtues of putting "country before party."

The media gush

"As for what Ill do next, I dont know the answer to that one yet," Mr. Gore said. "I know Ill spend time in Tennessee and mend some fences, literally and figuratively."
This was taken as a poignant acknowledgment of Mr. Gores failure to carry his home state, which he had represented for 16 years in Congress. If he had won in Tennessee, he would not have needed Florida to win the White House.
His pledge to return to his rural homestead proved empty. Mr. Gore moved directly from his mansion at the Naval Observatory to a private house in Arlington — just outside Washington, the city he always considered home.
"As for the battle that ends tonight," he said, "I do believe, as my father once said, that no matter how hard the loss, defeat may serve as well as victory to shake the soul and let the glory out."
The man who once claimed to have invented the Internet now credited his father for Edward Markhams poem, "Victory in Defeat."
Mr. Gore barely had stepped away from the podium when the media gushing began. ABCs Peter Jennings actually choked up on the air. So did Chris Matthews, the Democratic host of MSNBCs "Hardball."
Virtually every journalist in America praised the address as spectacularly gracious, nothing short of "the speech of Gores political life." In reality, it had been the speech of Mr. Gores political death.
It was as if his seven minutes of magnanimity somehow made up for the previous 36 days of relentless political selfishness. The cad who had tried to disenfranchise GIs serving overseas and civilians living in Floridas Seminole and Martin counties was celebrated as a perfect gentleman.
The ruthless politician who personally directed a smear-and-destroy campaign against Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris for daring to uphold the law was practically likened to Lincoln at Gettysburg. The Nixon-like figure who had obsessed over enemies, real and imagined, ranging from the Democratic mayor of Miami-Dade to the Republican "rioters" outside the elections office there, was enshrined on the loftiest pedestal of statesmanship.

The defining moment

All was forgiven by an adoring press, which never held Mr. Gore responsible for trying to achieve the outcome that most of them had wanted anyway.
And yet he never apologized for what he had done to the nation or its institutions. He never said he was sorry for pre-emptively savaging Mr. Bushs legitimacy by insisting that he himself would have won if only all the votes had been counted. In this respect, Mr. Gore was truly Clintonesque.
The post-election debacle was the defining moment of Al Gores 24-year career in politics. For five weeks, he unquestionably was the most powerful person in the United States.
In fact, he wielded more raw, unadulterated influence over the nation for those 36 days than he probably would have as president for four or even eight years. For that matter, he was more powerful than Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton or any other president in an era when the influence of the White House gradually was being diluted by the forces of globalization.
For one blinding burst of chaos at the close of the 20th century, a solitary man held sway over the entire American political process. Mr. Gore alone had the capacity to keep the standoff going. Mr. Gore alone had the capacity to end it.
Mr. Bush was always left awaiting Mr. Gores next move. Mr. Bush, as the de facto winner who never fell behind in the Florida contest, could not be expected to concede. As far as most Americans were concerned, the question wasnt even on the table.
By contrast, the public pressure on Mr. Gore to step aside was immense from the outset and grew only stronger. But he single-handedly kept the nation on tenterhooks for five long weeks. It was his moment of maximum influence. Mr. Gore the loser — not Mr. Bush the winner — dictated the entire agenda.

Injecting race

And yet the post-election mess was portrayed widely as a struggle between two men who bore equal responsibility for this unprecedented period of political angst. In the early going, the press vaguely intoned that one would have to step aside for the good of the nation.
But Mr. Bush had won the election and Mr. Gore had lost, even when the votes were recounted many times. Mr. Gore always was the antagonist, even when it became painfully obvious that he could not possibly prevail.
Even so, the press steadfastly refused to assign any moral or ethical weight to the relative positions of the two combatants.
This posture had the added benefit of seeming vaguely impartial. Yet if the positions of Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush had been reversed, would the press have provided as much cover to the Texas governor for 36 days?
When it finally ended, Democrats resolved to turn Mr. Gores defeat into a powerful political weapon. They decided to never let go of the Florida story, but rather to constantly repeat and even embellish it until it attained the status of legend.
Mr. Bush had stolen the election, pure and simple, the Democrats argued. He was aided in this colossal theft by right-wing extremists on the Supreme Court and racist storm troopers in Florida Gov. Jeb Bushs political machine who systematically barred blacks from the polls.
It was important to inject race into the story line, even though there was virtually no evidence that blacks were turned away, because the Democrats desperately needed to reclaim the moral high ground after Mr. Gores unseemly power grab. So they tried to transmogrify the Florida election into some gigantic civil rights abomination. They ranked it up there with slavery, lynch mobs and the assassination of Martin Luther King. The most strident elements of the Democratic Party practically branded Mr. Bush a white supremacist.
But while Democrats were embittered by Florida, Republicans were emboldened. Mr. Gores audacity during those 36 days had a galvanizing effect.
Never known as particularly activist, conservatives staged impassioned, spontaneous demonstrations from Miami to Washington. Having hungered for the White House for so long, only to see it nearly snatched from their grasp by yet another Clinton-Gore scam, Republicans roused themselves from slumber and began waging the kind of hand-to-hand political combat that Democrats long ago mastered.
Close calls have a way of changing ones outlook on politics. And Florida was the ultimate close call. It was also a searing, defining experience for an entire generation of conservatives, a great battle from which they emerged victorious.

Chasing what ifs

Having made the whole post-election debacle possible through bogus and biased coverage of election night, some journalists spent the next 36 days rationalizing every Gore offensive. Afterward, they did their best to fan doubts about President Bushs legitimacy. News organizations began recounting ballots in Florida themselves, often adopting more liberal standards than the canvassing boards employed.
Whenever these tallies showed Mr. Bush gaining ground, they were downplayed by much of the press. Whenever they showed Mr. Gore overtaking Mr. Bushs lead, they received extensive coverage. Never mind that seven out of nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that selective hand recounts were unconstitutional.
If the media truly wanted an accurate recount, they would tally by hand all 100 million ballots across the nation. Perhaps then Mr. Bush would win some of the states he narrowly lost, such as New Mexico.
But even such a colossal undertaking would amount to nothing more than an academic exercise. These meandering journeys down hypothetical paths are known in the news business as "what if" stories. A truly fair and objective press would entertain other, more plausible what ifs.
For example, what if Florida felons had been prevented from casting thousands of illegal ballots that overwhelmingly favored Mr. Gore?
And what if the networks had not robbed Mr. Bush of an estimated 10,000 votes in Floridas western panhandle by prematurely and erroneously giving the state to Mr. Gore?
Finally, what if the networks had not deprived Mr. Bush of a nationwide victory in the popular vote by declaring the election over when it was still very much in progress?
But none of these what ifs got much play. Reporters returned again and again to just one hypothetical — the endless recounting of ballots in Florida.

Defining 'steal'

In the midst of the standoff, a journalist asked Mr. Gore whether Mr. Bush was trying to steal the election. Instead of simply saying no, Mr. Gore cleverly replied that he had chosen not to use that word.
The implication was clear: Of course Mr. Gore believed Mr. Bush was trying to steal the election, although the vice president was too polite to resort to such incendiary rhetoric. Mr. Gores top aides and followers, however, had no such aversion — during or after the standoff.
Did Al Gore try to steal the election? That depends on the definition of the word "steal." The dictionary defines it as the taking of someone elses property, especially by unjust means. By that definition, it certainly can be argued that Mr. Gore tried to steal the election.
After all, official results always showed Floridas 25 electoral votes belonged to Mr. Bush. In order to take them away, Mr. Gore resorted to measures that were ruled unconstitutional by seven justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.
He sought the disenfranchisement of soldiers and sailors serving overseas and of civilians living in Seminole and Martin counties. He secretly consulted an Electoral College expert in hopes of discovering "faithless" electors. He directed a smear-and-destroy campaign against Floridas secretary of state for daring to uphold the law.
All the while, Mr. Gore openly placed his own interests above those of the nation.
If these are not unjust means, it can be argued, then what are?

'Opportunity to unite'

Democrats openly predicted the Bush administration would be hobbled from the outset by questions of legitimacy. Even Republicans braced for the worst.
But then something unexpected happened. During Mr. Bushs first months in office, most Americans closed ranks behind their new president.
Though Bill Clinton had stumbled at the start of his administration and disgraced himself at the end, Mr. Bush demonstrated a sure-footedness that reassured Republicans and Democrats alike that an adult was in charge.
The new president deftly cultivated a bipartisan bonhomie that silenced most cries of illegitimacy. Many centrist Democrats, not to mention virtually the entire American mainstream, were anxious to move on.
"I always felt that our nation, once we got beyond all the counts, recounts — five different counts or whatever it was, revotes —would be anxious to seek a higher ground," Mr. Bush told this reporter. "That there is such a goodness about America, that that would enable me and others who are there for the right reasons in Washington — Republicans and Democrats, by the way — to prove the skeptics wrong. To seize upon the inherent spirit of America and move forward.
"And so, in kind of an interesting way," the president said, "the house divided turned out to be an opportunity to unite."
Even liberal Democrats like Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts affirmed Mr. Bushs legitimacy and marveled at his success in restoring civility to Washington. They likened the new Bush era to the days when President Reagan and House Speaker Tip ONeill enjoyed a close personal friendship even while disagreeing over public policy.
"I believe that theres a spirit, a positive, can-do spirit that is now beginning to take hold in the nations capital," Mr. Bush said in the interview. "I believe we can have an honest discussion on issues, and an honest disagreement, without name-calling and finger-pointing and needless divisive rhetoric, which discourages people around the country. Im so pleased with the progress being made — not for my sake, but for the sake of our country."
The Florida ordeal served to strengthen the new administration, not weaken it. The press, which had predicted Mr. Bush and his vice president, Richard B. Cheney, would get off to a shaky start, once again was proven wrong.
"Its been a hell of a ride," Mr. Cheney told this reporter, sitting in the ornate office where Mr. Gore had delivered his concession speech. "Who could have scripted something like that? Nobody could."
Mr. Bush was equally philosophical about the 36-day ordeal.
"I was in an interesting perspective," he said. "I had just finished running the ultimate political marathon and was coming down, kind of adjusting from a grueling process.
"There were moments during the period of time that I wished it would have ended," the president confided. "But thats just not the way it worked out. And Im a more patient person for it, by the way. Really."
Maybe we all are.Part I: Networks' early call kept many from polls

Part II: Suppressing the military vote

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