“It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting.”
--- Tom Stoppard
The hanging chad will forever be my memory of the presidential election of 2000.
The closeness of the election and the fact it was ultimately decided as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 decision only added to the overall drama.
It was only the fourth time in U.S. history a president was elected without winning the popular vote. The electoral college is the final arbiter. If it cannot muster a majority for a single candidate, then the U.S. Congress sitting as a single body and voting by state where each state has one vote makes the decision.
Finally on December 12, 2000, the court decision was rendered that all recounting was to cease. Vice President Al Gore conceded to Texas Governor George W. Bush, thus ending the zaniest and most interesting election in my lifetime.
Vice President Al Gore, like George Bush in 1988, did not get a free ride for the Democrat nomination for president. The Republican side was heated as well. And predictably, both became contentious.
The scandal filled Clinton years in office caused a mini-stampede of Democrat and Republican candidates for president.
Among the multitude were perennial Democrat presidential candidate House minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, Senator Bob Kerrey from Nebraska, far left Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, and actor Warren Beatty. All the challengers dropped out before the primaries making it Gore versus Bradley the rest of the way.
From the beginning Bradley was the one real challenger to Al Gore. The former New Jersey Senator and former NBA star and, like President Clinton, was a Rhodes Scholar. He was also quite likely the tallest candidate for president since Abe Lincoln. At least Bradley is the tallest I have encountered.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Bradley twice. Once, many years before when he was one of the leaders to cut tax rates in the senate and finally as a presidential candidate.
Of all the Democrat presidential candidates I have interviewed Bradley, on a personal level, was the most down to earth, not at all pretentious. During the four or five commercial and news brakes, he gladly talked about his experience in the NBA as a New York Knick and his teammate, Dave DeBuschere, who had been a major league pitcher with the Chicago White Sox and played for both, the Chisox and Knicks for a couple of seasons before devoting his entire attention to basketball and the Knicks. Oh yes, Bradley was on a team which defeated our beloved Celtics regularly back in the 1970s.
He asked off air if he had my vote. I said no. He asked why, I said we were on opposite sides on virtually all issues. Bradley suggested that after the election we get together and he’d straighten out my thinking. He asked why I was not challenging his views on the issues more strongly on the air and I responded he was the candidate, not me. Listeners were trying to decide who to vote for and I was not in the mix.
It was also obvious Bradley did not utilize consultants to poll on the issues before expressing opinions or taking stands. When I pushed him on that he replied, you get what you see with me. No varnish, an obvious reference to the Clinton years and his opponent, Al Gore.
His campaign centered around, as he put it, “big ideas”. He suggested the spending of the budget surpluses on various social welfare programs, campaign finance reform and gun control. Yes, Bill Bradley was a gun grabber, big time.
I expresses the opinion the slogan of “big ideas” was rather pretentious. Did he mean to imply others’ ideas were less than big, or small?
The senator did not reply. He just smiled. I let him off the hook and moved on. Suffice it to say the Ivy League in him was showing.
I was also surprised to hear him praise Ronald Reagan for elevating our spirits about America. He said he liked the former president.
Meanwhile Al Gore played the centrist card ala Bill Clinton.
Bradley placed his campaign’s future in a good showing in the Iowa caucuses by spending $2 million in the effort and a well run grass roots organization. Gore was able to paint Bradley as aloof. Gore won by a wide margin.
The closest Bradley would come was New Hampshire. The Democrats in southern tier of the Granite State are in large part Massachusetts refugees who forgot why they left the Bay State in the first place. They like low taxes but are still addicted to big brother government. Bradley won by comfortable margins along the Massachusetts border but got swamped away from there.
Iowa and New Hampshire were Bradley’s best chances at winning a single state. The delegates just kept piling up for Al Gore and his nomination was assured in the next series of primaries.
His big primary wins were tempered by Ralph Nader running on the Green Party ticket. Who else would Nader draw from than another liberal?
The Republican side was as nutty as ever. The lineup read like a Broadway playbill. The only certainty was no one needed to contend with Pat Buchanan in the primaries. He had decided on political suicide by running as the candidate of Ross Perot’s Reform Party. Sighs of relief by Republicans turned to concerns because Buchanan could have an impact in a tight race, especially in closely contested states. One or two percent could change GOP fortunes. Most had long memories of 1992 when Perot focused his attention primarily on the Republican.
For the record, here was the lineup before the game got under way listed alphabetically:
Lamar Alexander, former governor and senator from Tennessee and Secretary of Education.
Gary Bauer, religious activist and domestic adviser to Ronald Reagan.
George Bush, governor of Texas.
Elizabeth Dole, Bob Dole’s wife and former transportation secretary in the Reagan cabinet and labor secretary under Bush.
Steve Forbes, Forbes Magazine heir and 1996 candidate.
John Kasich, Ohio congressman and conservative pretender who was part of the gun control crowd. [He did say he loved hunters, whoopee.]
Orrin Hatch, Utah senator and spiritual advisor of Ted Kennedy.
Alan Keyes, former assistant Secretary of State and failed candidate for the U.S. Senate from Maryland in 1988 and 92. Later he was the candidate versus Barack Obama in Illinois. Keyes was the only African American running in either party and the most solidly conservative of all candidates in either field.
John McCain, Arizona Senator and along with George Bush, the last candidate still standing after the first weeks of the primaries.
Dan Quayle, former vice president and former senator from Indiana.
Robert Smith, a New Hampshire favorite son. He dropped out of not only the primaries, he denounced the Republican Party and ran for the nomination of the U.S. Taxpayers Party. (That move later cost him his U.S. Senate seat.)
Newt Gingrich had expected to be a force in the primaries but changed his mind when he ran into some ethics problems of his own and retired from public office.
Alexander, Dole, Kasich and Quayle dropped out before the Iowa Caucus. Forbes did poorly from the start and dropped out early.
The race became a three way affair with Bush, Keyes, and McCain going head to head. Keyes remained in the race to offer conservatives an alternative. His presence forced Bush further to the right than he really wanted to go.
Elizabeth Dole was the biggest surprise in the race, doing far more poorly in the polls than expected. Many (including me) thought she would be Bush’s main competition.
I publicly supported John McCain in the primaries because I felt the White House needed a thorough cleansing and McCain was the man for the job, character did matter. I had differences with McCain on campaign finance reform, but on the major issues of taxes, spending, the size of government, defense and abortion, McCain was a classic conservative.
McCain drubbed Bush in New Hampshire by a margin a about 60-40.
His loss a week later in South Carolina turned the tables. Many Republican friends I have in South Carolina said the race was the dirtiest campaign they’d witnessed is a long time. Both sides had whispering campaigns going for them. Somehow McCain was able to attract large numbers of independents and students to his campaign. He did well in states where there were open primaries where independents could vote in either primary. He carried Michigan, Massachusetts, Arizona, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Vermont.
McCain was attacked almost daily by Rush Limbaugh, who seemed to be totally committed to anything Bush, going back to the first Bush administration.
George Bush became the candidate of the Christian Right with most of the religious based organizations supporting him. His big day came in the South Carolina primary. McCain forces charged dirty tricks by Karl Rove. Whatever the real reason, McCain's loss in South Carolina stopped his momentum cold.
Although McCain won a few additional primaries, Bush took the majority and, with the support of the party's super delegates he handily won the nomination at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.
Senator McCain finally endorsed Governor Bush and gave one of the most inspirational speeches of that convention. The hatchet seemed to be buried between Bush and McCain.
At their respective conventions the candidates selected their running mates and Al Gore and his wife participated in the longest kiss in political convention history. It was probably the most memorable moment of an otherwise boring gathering in Los Angeles.
Senator Joe Lieberman was Al Gore’s choice for vice president. At first it was not evident why Gore selected Lieberman. However, since Lieberman spent a significant amount of time in Florida the strategy became clear. The Jewish precincts in areas where many people of the Jewish faith from New York are retired and reside there. Florida had been noted early on by the Democrats as a critical state for both candidates.
Jeb Bush, president Bush’s brother, is Florida’s governor. The Republicans took Florida for granted and didn’t campaign hard there until the waning weeks before the election.
The Republicans gathered in Philadelphia and their nominnee was a foregone conclusion before then.
George Bush, like Al Gore, selected a running mate older than himself in the person of Dick Cheney. He had been defense secretary in the administration of George H.W. Bush and chief of staff under Gerald Ford.
An old word became a new fad because of the Cheney nomination. “Gravitas”. Dick brought gravitas to the race. I have not heard the word used again since.
The dictionary defines gravitas as “high seriousness”.
Every single liberal in the news delivery system and lefty columnist and all the Democrats used the word over and over and over and over.
John McCain was asked to speak at the Republican convention and overshadowed most of the other activities of the convention with a strong endorsement of George Bush. Senator McCain also made a renewed call for putting personal interests aside for the sake of the country. “I say to all Americans, Republican, Democrat or Independent, if you believe America deserves leaders with a purpose more ennobling than expediency and opportunism, then vote for Governor Bush.”
Other speakers that first night were Condoleezza Rice and General H. (Stormin) Norman Schwarzkopf from the deck of the Battleship USS New Jersey.
Heading out of the convention the Republicans went with what they thought was their strong suit, foreign policy and military preparedness.
There were three debates in 2000. In the debates George Bush surprised all and Al Gore disappointed many of his supporters by his deportment more than anything else.
Until the St. Louis debate, Gore had a lead beyond the margin of error in most of the polls. After the debate their positions changed.
While Bush was responding to a question Gore began to sigh repeatedly. During one exchange, he left his lectern and walked directly toward Bush in an attempt to disturb Bush’s response. Both actions placed Bush in the driver’s seat.
At the next debate in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Bush was slightly more aggressive while Gore was noticeably restrained.
By then Bush had the momentum.
The third and final debate in Boston should have been an opportunity for Al Gore to “put Bush away”. However, because of his two poor showings Gore needed a knockout punch which he didn’t get.
Attempts were made to hurt Bush with the strong military types. Democrats tried to question George Bush’s patriotism claiming he used connections to get into the Texas Air National Guard, possibly with his dad’s influence.
The Gore people resurrected the old charges made against former vice president Dan Quayle four years earlier, that he used the National Guard to avoid the Vietnam War? Was Bush a closet draft evader?
The attacks didn’t stick.
Heading into the final days of the election it appeared it would be Bush by a comfortable margin. Many polls had him ahead by five to as much as ten percentage points. He also led by narrow margins in some states Republicans seldom win.
Throughout the campaign Governor Bush had been hounded about rumors of drug use in his past. He would only respond he had done some things as a young man he regretted. He further said he was clean of drugs and alcohol.
Then lightening struck in a place he did not expect.
In 1976 he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol near his parents’ home in Kennebunkport, Maine. Bush was 30 at the time, pleaded guilty, paid a $150 fine and his driving privileges were temporarily suspended in Maine. It came from a Democratic National Convention attendee and Democratic activist Tom Connolly, a Kennebunkport, Maine Democrat activist.
The story was peddled around for a day or so to a number of news organizations. There was nervousness on their part to “go” with the story on the Wednesday before the election, November 1st. On Thursday night Carl Cameron broke the story on Fox News before any other national news organization ran with it. They had cross checked the information and were abler to confirm the DUI had indeed occurred.
I wondered at the time: What if this had been a mainstream media news organization with similar information regarding Al Gore? Would they have broken it nationally at the eleventh hour.
One of the big questions on WRKO the Saturday morning before the election was why Bush had not put that issue to bed early in the campaign. When questions about drugs and drinking were being asked, he could have made a public confession.
The issue would have ceased being an issue within a day.
There was no logic in holding that back, after all it was on the public record and surely, someone would recall the incident and break it.
There was debate on the effect it had on the race. Most thought it would not matter very much because it was nearly a quarter of a century before.
However, there was a tone from some of Bush’s supporters, particularly the evangelical types who gad been very supportive, his not revealing this information voluntarily much earlier was more important than the event itself.
The thinking by the Bush operatives was the impact would be limited. Only a small percentage of Bush supporters would stay home.
The worst case scenario did take place. In some of the states the Bush campaign expected to win, such as Wisconsin, Oregon, Iowa, and New Mexico, all of which were settled by less than 0.44%, many of his core supporters sat on their hands on election day. Bush had comfortable leads in each of those states before the DUI story broke.
Those four states accounted for thirty electoral votes. If Bush had won those Florida would not have mattered.
I’ve never heard or read anything from the Bush 2000 campaign discussing the effect of the DUI revelation on the election. It required only a small percentage shift in voters or voters staying home to make what would have been a comfortable electoral victory and even have given Bush a popular election win as well. Less than 0.5% percent separated the candidates.
After accepting responsibility as having been the source of the story, Connolly denied that it was an eleventh hour attempt to smear Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush. Members of the Bush campaign have pointed to the story as a desperate attempt by Gore campaign to sway undecided voters in the final days leading up to November 7. It may have been. But that didn’t matter, it almost elected Al Gore.
Even the Florida fiasco may never have been a reality had only a few hundred of Bush’s ardent religious based voters come out. They later did in 2004 when the president comfortably carried Florida.
Election night, November 7, 2000 was only the opening shot of big time politics. First Vice President Gore was declared by all the networks to be the winner of Florida shortly after the Florida polls were all thought to have closed. The networks agreed to withhold the results in any given state until that state’s polls had closed.
No one at the networks news desks was literate geographically. Florida is one of a few states with two time zones. South Florida is basically Democrat and the central marginally Republican. They are in the Eastern Time Zone. The panhandle is in the Central Time Zone and has a heavy military (retired and active) concentration which is largely Republican. When the declaration of a Gore win in Florida was made it is thought many didn’t in the panhandle didn’t bother to go out to vote. Ordinarily a few hundred votes or even a few thousand in a state the size of Florida doesn’t have an effect on the outcome. As it turned out, Bush and Gore were separated by less than 0.01% of the vote there. That amounts to one voter in every ten thousand (1/10,000). Not much room for error and the basis for recounts.
Less than one half of one percent triggers a re-tabulation of the votes.
Hence the famous hanging chad and butterfly ballots became legends.
County government plays a large role in Florida politics and statewide elections as well. Election boards are set up by each county and the process and overseeing of the voting and counting afterward is a county responsibility.
The names Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties would make Florida the laughing stock of the nation. Floreedaah became the state’s nickname on most talk shows.
Beginning the day after the election I was on air each nightly Sunday through Friday and Saturday mornings. I even did some Saturday nights and Sunday mornings. During that time we talked about nothing but the election and the different developments.
Some of the things that occurred gave us a chuckle.
For reasons beyond explanation, Pat Buchanan received over 50,000 votes on Broward County. That was about ten times the amount he expected and was a significantly higher percentage than he received anywhere else in Florida.
In Broward County instructions were given to Democrat voters by their own party on how to vote, which hole to punch. The information was incorrect. Many voters were confused by the butterfly ballot as well. The ballot had been devised by the county and the board was overwhelmingly Democrat.
The next biggest factor was Ralph Nader. Just as Ross Perot sank the 1992 election of George Bush, Nader elected the other George Bush.
Florida was invaded initially by Democrat lawyers. The Republicans were slow to respond so the public relations battle went to the Democrats during the early days of the various recounts.
Cases were brought to every level of court in Florida, including the Florida Supreme Court. The Federal courts were next, including visits to the Eleventh Court of Appeals in Atlanta and finally the United States Supreme Court.
We covered everything and missed nothing. It was also an opportunity for listeners to vent.
We even broke one national story before anyone else.
Mike Jones of Washington , D.C., and originally from Cape Cod in Massachusetts, is in public relations and a consultant to many large companies, took about a year’s sabbatical starting late in 1999 and extending through much of 2000.
We had seen a story in the Washington Post describing the work done by Jones as head of a group sanctioned by the Republican National Committee called Republicans Abroad.
Though he was very successful and had made a large income, Mike was a young man still in his twenties at the time. He was a guest of hours every other night starting a night or two after the election. On November 17th he talked to us on his cell phone from the parking lot of CNN’s studios in Washington. He was scheduled to be on the Larry King Show and our producer caught him just as he got out of his car.
He said he had no more than five minutes but had something hot for us but he had to go on the air on WRKO then and there.
We had him on the air in seconds.
Mike Jones said he was about to break a story nationally on CNN but was going to give it to us first:
“Moe, I just learned Republicans from overseas have sent in a record number of ballots. The Republican Party had neglected overseas voters for too long but our efforts this year are paying off. The Los Angeles Times has just reported Republicans are winning sixty percent of the overseas vote. That’s the good news.
“Now the big story….and this is sad Moe…..I’m going to break this in a few minutes on Larry King….
“I just got a call from the Republican Party in Florida with news that disturbs me and will probably disturb you.
“The Florida Democratic Party has sent out a five-page document explaining to their volunteers around the state how to protest military ballots, and it even includes a protest form. This is an orchestrated effort on behalf of Al Gore. They’ve seen the ballots from abroad breaking for Bush so they’re trying to block as many overseas ballots as possible, targeting military ballots in particular. Their memo describes how to tell which are military.
“Al Gore, who wants to be commander-in-chief of the armed forces, wants to deny the rights of military personnel to vote this November. I’m shocked.”
Mike excused himself and hung up.
Our producer monitored the Larry King Show and sure enough, Mike had it on Larry King and nationally before anyone else had the story nationally.
When he got back to his office a couple of hours later Mike Jones called in to apologize for cutting us short but he was on a tight schedule.
Jones repeated his comments.
During the previous year, Mike Jones had met with hundreds, possibly thousands of servicemen all over the world. He acknowledged he was not a veteran but that he had developed a strong respect for the job they were doing for our safety. They earned his respect and thanks for their service. He returned with a renewed faith in our men and women under arms everywhere.
He also left information on how to make certain they were registered to vote back home and how to obtain, mark, and return their ballots.
It pained him to see an organized effort to have their ballots singled out for special challenges.
Mike has returned to live in Massachusetts. He ran for congress in 2004. We’ll tell you more about that later in the book.
The Supreme Court finally put a halt to the recounts in Florida. Time was of the essence. Florida needed to be ready to select its electors to the Electoral College and time was running out.
The era of fighting over hanging and dimpled chads was over. And George Bush became president.
Many independent counts were done by newspaper groups. The complete analysis of the various recounts invariably gave Bush an even greater margin of victory in Florida.
The United States Supreme Court did not award the election to George Bush. The voters of Florida and the other forty-nine states plus the District of Columbia did that.