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The Longest Day
George W. Bush awoke on Election Day at 6:30 a.m., padded purposefully around the governor's mansion, putting out pet food as the coffee brewed, then read a bit from his Bible. He'd gotten a good night's sleep in his own cozy bed while his opponent was racing around the country in a last, frantic search for votes. After casting his ballot, and posing for photographs as he made some last-minute phone calls to voters, Bush headed for a workout at the University of Texas gym. It was early afternoon when his phone rang. Karl Rove, his chief election strategist, had the first wave of exit polls in hand. The news, stunningly, was that Bush might lose.
"I got the smell," Bush recalled—the smell of defeat. Rove was full of "all the cautionary notes" about margins of error and possibilities. But Bush knew "it could be trouble." His workout mates—Brad Freeman; Craig Stapleton, a cousin by marriage; and Stapleton's son, Walker—noticed that Bush had become suddenly distracted. He wrapped up the exercise and rode silently back to the mansion. He didn't even bother to ask his friends to stay for lunch. "Thanks for coming" was all he said before retreating upstairs to the private residence.
There he told his wife, Laura, what the exit polls showed. Together, they replayed the race. In Bush's mind, he had done everything he could, given that he was running into the headwinds of a strong economy and contented electorate. He believed he had targeted the right states.He sensed great intensity among his own troops on the campaign trail. Now he realized that Vice President Gore had done perhaps an even better job.
Bush told his twin daughters Jenna and Barbara: "Girls, it could be a long night. Your dad may lose the presidency and the numbers don't look so good now."
* * *
That night, in a seventh-floor suite at the Loew's Hotel in Nashville, Al Gore decided that he had lost. He had watched with his family and closest aides as his victory in Florida was pulled off the board by the television networks, which were now calling the state and the election for Bush, in one of the most stunning turnarounds in American history.
"No," said his daughter Kristin as Bush was declared the winner. "That's not right. That's not what happened."
But at 2:30 a.m., Gore's campaign chairman, William Daley, telephoned his counterpart for Bush, Donald L. Evans, to alert him that the vice president would soon concede. Evans wanted to know how quickly Gore would make a public statement.
"Don, it's probably going to take half an hour," said Daley. "His kids are getting dressed, they're all crying."
"A half an hour?" Evans seemed incredulous, as Daley recalled it.
"Yes," Daley replied. "We have to travel up there, but we're getting there as fast as we can."
Gore's decision to end it had been quick and businesslike. He had retreated with Daley and senior adviser Carter Eskew into an aide's bedroom, and they had concluded that with the grand prize of Florida now in Bush's column, his lead was insurmountable. It was time to surrender.
* * *
The deadlock in Florida was an almost unimaginable fluke, like tossing a quarter and having it come to rest on its edge. The virtual tie in Florida was a once-every-few-centuries proposition, and so was a presidential election that hinged on a single deadlocked state. It was a longshot wrapped in a longer shot. And so it happened that laws and institutions built for the press of the commonplace were called on to face the extraordinary.
The election dispute in Florida went on for 36 days—a whirlwind of more than 50 lawsuits, and appeals to every possible court, news conferences, protests, speeches, public hearings, private strategies and televised ballot-counting sessions. It was an all-out war involving America's canniest political soldiers and some of its best legal minds.
Now, in the aftermath, it's possible to start sorting out the threads and peering behind the scenes. It's possible to see more clearly how the candidates reacted and endured. To see George W. Bush, steeled for a long fight, hunkering down at his ranch with friends, furious when they tuned in Saturday Night Live and its savage satires. To see Al Gore, intimately managing his recount effort while seething to friends about the enemies he believed were betraying him. He spent part of one fateful afternoon on the phone trying to find out if the mayor of Miami-Dade County had sold him down the river.
And while Gore remained doggedly optimistic, many of his most experienced advisers, including those with the greatest knowledge of recounts, were clear-eyed realists, knowing just how hard it is for any candidate to reverse the results after Election Day. Nearly four days before Gore decided to surrender, his campaign chairman told him: "Forget it."
It's possible to see the key role Gore played in shaping the perception that he had lost a race that was, in fact, a virtual tie. On election night, after the networks declared Bush the winner, Gore cemented that impression by congratulating his opponent—without ever speaking to his own grassroots operatives, who could have warned him that the race was actually too close to call.
It's possible to trace the long arc of the Bush strategy, which was based on the assumption that Gore's chief weapon was the Florida Supreme Court. From the first days, the Bush forces began moving to bring the state legislature and the federal courts—especially the U.S. Supreme Court—into position to thwart that advantage. The role of Katherine Harris, Florida's Republican secretary of state—and her key adviser, placed at her side by the Bush team—comes into focus. While Harris brooded over the parallels of her ordeal to that of the biblical Queen Esther, she stalled the ballot-counting so critical to Gore's hopes.
The key contribution of Bush's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, can also be seen: His legal staff, in the first hours after Election Day, moved to keep the state's biggest law firms off Gore's team.
It's possible to understand the pivotal decisions, on both sides, not to pursue an unprecedented—and legally unfounded—statewide hand count of all ballots. And to realize the importance of the Gore team's mishandling of the issue of overseas absentee ballots—a mistake that was exacerbated when Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman abandoned his ground forces on this issue, without warning, on national television. The resulting disarray allowed the Bush team to demand hurried recounts, thus padding their lead. They called this the "Thanksgiving Stuffing."
And even as Gore protested on television that his team had nothing to do with lawsuits challenging thousands of ballots in two Florida counties, his forces arranged behind the scenes for organized labor to push the cases. Meanwhile, a major Gore donor—a Silicon Valley billionaire—backed the effort with huge cash donations and a chartered jet.
These are the sort of decisions, alliances, power plays, snap judgments and personality flaws revealed when a flukishly close election is played out for staggeringly high stakes. Both sides were nimble and brilliant and occasionally shady; both sides were also capable of miscalculations, divisions and blame. The best and worst of politics were on display in those 36 days, and both sides trafficked in each. This is how it happened.
* * *
Election Day broke rainy in Nashville, and 850 miles away, in Austin, it rained as well. The long and fairly pedestrian campaign between Al Gore and George W. Bush, two sons of power—one dutiful, one prodigal—seemed headed to a soggy ending.
At 5:30 a.m., Matthew Dowd, the Bush campaign's director of polling, flicked on the computer at his home. Dowd, a former Democrat, adhered to a strict Election Day ritual. He always played golf in the morning, rain or shine. But today, he needed to see the last tracking poll results before he left for the links.
The last poll he had commissioned, three days earlier, had shown Bush ahead by five points in Florida, four in Michigan, four in Washington. History, he knew, showed that when there is no incumbent president running, the election always breaks in favor of the party out of power in the last days. Now Dowd saw the opposite thing happening on his screen. The Bush leads had vanished. Voters polled on the Sunday and Monday before Election Day put Bush dead even in Washington and Florida, down a point in Michigan.
Dowd hoped he would see something different in the exit polls that afternoon.
For Ron Klain, the day began with an odd phone call. It was not yet 8 a.m. in Nashville, and Klain, one of the rapid risers of contemporary Democratic politics, was taking his time getting to the office. For the operatives, Election Day is often the dullest day of the year. So Lester Hyman found Klain at home—not really home, but the place where Klain had been sleeping for most of the previous three or four months, while his wife and three kids lived hundreds of miles away.
Hyman, a veteran Washington attorney, was calling to relay an intriguing story he had just heard from his daughter, Liz, a former colleague of Klain's at the Department of Justice. Liz was volunteering at a polling station in Palm Beach County, Florida. She said people were streaming from the booths confused, and a bit panicked that they might accidentally have voted for Patrick J. Buchanan. That's weird, Klain thought. Palm Beach County is packed with Northeastern retirees—Democrats. It should be the last place Buchanan would do well. He filed the news in a corner of his brain and finished getting ready for his last day on the Gore campaign.
The worst months of his life were about to be over.
In the very, very fortunate life of Ron Klain, this election was supposed to be yet another triumph. Scarcely 40 years old, Klain had already been chief of staff to the attorney general and to the vice president. He had clerked for a U.S. Supreme Court justice, advised a president, counseled the Senate Judiciary Committee. His life felt blessed—always had, really, ever since the day in 1968 when Robert F. Kennedy walked into his father's plumbing supply store in Indianapolis to film a campaign advertisement. It was a fluke. His father wasn't into politics. The picture on Klain's wall captures perfectly the moment when a little apple-cheeked boy looked up at a weary, doomed, spectacular politician and glimpsed an irresistible future.
Politics can be a nasty and capricious business, though. Klain's chance to help steer Gore's presidential campaign evaporated early, in the glare of Gore's weak beginnings. In 1999, the candidate turned to one of the party's trench warriors, Tony Coelho, a former member of Congress, to shape things up. And Coelho pushed Klain out of the picture.
Nothing like that had ever happened to Ron Klain. He wasn't used to getting the short end of any stick—let alone the sharp end of the knife. It was devastating. Months on the outside were an unending agony. The worst moment came on Super Tuesday, early in March 2000, when Gore wrapped up the nomination. Klain felt he had done as much as anyone to help Gore get there, but he wasn't even invited to the victory party.
Then Coelho dropped out of the campaign, citing illness, and William Daley, an equally tough but far less jealous man, took over. Daley brought Klain in from the cold, but by that time—July, with the conventions looming—all the real jobs were taken. Klain moved to Nashville, but he found little there for him to do.
He wouldn't say this to many people, but he was happy to be finished. Nearly finished. One more day—and so he walked through the doors of Gore headquarters shortly after 8 a.m. to get started. Klain stopped by the Boiler Room—so named because it was the sweaty heart of the campaign machinery. Campaigning is not glamorous or chit-chatty in the Boiler Room. It is very simple: the finding and delivering of votes. The chief engineer was Michael Whouley. The night before, he had jazzed up his troops by reciting from Shakespeare's Henry V, perhaps the greatest pep talk ever written: "Who sheds his blood with me will be my brother!"
Had a weird call from Florida, Klain told Whouley. People are confused in Palm Beach. Think they may have voted for Buchanan when they meant to vote for us.
It was the first Whouley heard of a problem.
Otherwise, Election Day was "pretty boring," Klain later recalled. At least, it started out that way.
* * *
Gore ended his race in Florida because a win there would finish the Republicans off—it was that simple, or awfully close. Bush chose to end the campaign precisely the way he began it: at his own steady pace (some in his party called it lackadaisical), to his own muffled drumbeat. His tour of five states in the last two days of the campaign seemed tame compared to the nonstop circumnavigation of the Democrats. Gore's moods, high and low, were always right on the surface, but Bush gave the same speech at the same rate with the same afternoon exercise break no matter what. He traveled with his own down pillow.
The day began, and Bush went dutifully through a few Election Day rituals. He and his wife were photographed voting at the Travis County Courthouse. Then the cameras were invited to catch Bush placing a couple of get-out-the-vote phone calls, one to a guy in Orlando, the other to a woman, Tina Gerhart, in Detroit. Gerhart asked Bush to say hello to her teenage son. Sure, Bush said agreeably. "Phillip?" Bush said a moment later, "George W. Bush. You may have heard of me.... I've now heard of you, `cause of your good mom."
There was a perfunctory feel to it. His heart was more evident in a call that morning to a former business partner, Tom Schieffer. Schieffer found Bush upbeat, eager to game the race, speculating on which states he would win. The apparatus of his campaign would do what was needed, just as it always had. When Bush needed tens of millions, his campaign raised the money. When he needed to crush the insurgency of Sen. John McCain, McCain was crushed. Now he needed some 51 million votes, and he was confident his campaign would find them. He figured he was good for 300 to 310 electoral votes—and 270 was enough to win.
Early in the afternoon, in Austin, Bush went to the University of Texas gym to work out. Since giving up alcohol more than a decade earlier, Bush had become a fitness fanatic, a regular jogger who saw a political campaign as a sort of marathon. The race would not go to the fastest man, but to the one with the steadiest pace and greatest endurance.
Rove's telephone call, with news of the first wave of exit polls, made clear to the candidate that at best, it was going to be a very long night. At worst, Bush was going to lose.
Key states that he had hoped were in his column were coming up dead-even. His dream of winning California was shot. And the worst news of all, the thing that ruined his mood, was the news from the Deep South. States such as North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, which ought to be in the bag, were disconcertingly close.
The afternoon was cold and gloomy as Bush rode in his motorcade down the hill past the Texas capitol dome. Sheets of rain fell on the plaza, where thousands of hearty Bush supporters were gathering for mariachi music and sausage wraps and hot chocolate.
Farther down the hill, in the Congress Avenue headquarters of the Bush campaign, policy guru Josh Bolten suggested a road trip to the bowling alley.
* * *
Joe Lieberman wanted a nap. During the last days of the campaign, he went flat out; his jet sped in an enormous loop from Florida to Nevada to New Mexico to Oregon to Washington to Wisconsin to Minnesota to New Hampshire to Maine to Pennsylvania and then back to Florida. He loved every grueling minute.
Then the first exit poll results arrived in Whouley's Boiler Room. Whouley had been saying for months that this would be "the closest election since 1960," that Gore would win but "win ugly," and it appeared to be coming true. With key colleagues, Whouley began dissecting the numbers in Iowa, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania—and they concluded almost immediately that they were on the knife's edge of the 270 electoral votes that would deliver the White House. They decided to pour on the steam.
Laura Quinn, a communications staffer from party headquarters, jumped on the telephones and began calling radio and television stations in crucial states, offering last-minute interviews with the Democratic candidates. There would be no naps. The candidates took the news dutifully. For Lieberman, the entire campaign had been a delicious blessing. On the day he was named to run with Gore, Lieberman practically levitated from the stage in Nashville. It was a hot, muggy morning, and the running mates' shirts were soaked through, but neither seemed to care. The choice of Lieberman was daring—he was the first Jewish candidate on a major party ticket—and sent a much-needed jolt through the Gore effort. Lieberman launched that day with a joke, and a prayer of thanksgiving, and he played the whole campaign in that same key.
So he was pleased to sit before a single camera with a wire in his ear and an aide reminding him of the names of the anchors chatting with him by satellite. Then he hit the radio. Lieberman was prospecting for votes one by one—he felt like he was running for the state legislature again.
About 5:30, Lieberman went on the air with a popular liberal talk show host in Palm Beach County, Randi Rhodes. He had scarcely started his get-to-the-polls pitch when Rhodes cut in. "You've got a very confusing ballot in Florida, have you heard? I'm not sure if I voted for you and Al Gore, or Pat Buchanan and Ezola Foster."
"Wow!" Lieberman answered. "Now, there's a big difference. You've got to be careful."
Rhodes mentioned that a major law firm—it was the Florida powerhouse of Holland & Knight—was already collecting reports from voters who had trouble with the ballot, and Lieberman immediately picked up on the idea.
"The affidavit idea is very important. Because if the election is close, there's going to be contests all over America."
Gore, too, was on the phone and in front of the cameras all afternoon, and into the evening, chasing the vote-rich afternoon drive-time audiences westward with the setting sun. His wife, Tipper, and oldest daughter, Karenna, also got on the phones to reach friendly talk show hosts, and in every call the message was the same—this is very close, every vote will count, go to the polls, go to the polls.
Data kept rolling in from the field. When the numbers told them a very late push might capture Missouri, Gore loyalists rushed to court to force the voting booths to stay open in St. Louis. A sympathetic judge agreed to three extra hours in the heavily Democratic city, but a higher court almost immediately reversed the ruling. In New Mexico, Democratic activists driving sport-utility vehicles plowed through a snowstorm to knock on the doors of potential voters and offer them rides to the polls. They called unregistered voters in Michigan, where it's possible to register and vote the same day. Other Gore phone banks aimed thousands of calls to union households in Iowa. The Democrats trolled the street corners of Milwaukee, where, two days earlier, they had been caught in a brief scandal—it was revealed that party activists were offering cigarettes to entice homeless people to vote absentee.
There was a lot of campaign experience in that Nashville headquarters, but no one could remember a day when so many victory scenarios were in play. The race was so tight, in so many places. You could put a winning jigsaw puzzle together a lot of different ways. The simplest, by far, was built around three states: Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania. Sweep those into Gore's column, then add his huge sure things—California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts and most of New England—and he would be within a few votes of 270.
Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida—victory.
|Prologue: The Road to Deadlock||3|
|1||The Longest Day||19|
|4||Counting in Casablanca||115|
|Epilogue: What If?||243|
|President Bush on the Florida Recount||255|
Posted March 31, 2001
I had already read excerpts in the Washington Post, and I was riveted. True behind the scenes footage of what happened those 36 days. I couldn't put the book down.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.