Oh, Waiter! One Order of Crow!: Inside the Strangest Presidential Election Finish in American History

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Few people know the absurdities of American politics better than Jeff Greenfield, CNN's award-winning political and media analyst. Now for all those millions of Americans who are still trying to figure how we got there, Greenfield takes us behind the scenes to explore Election Night 2000, the campaign that produced it, and the tumultous weeks that followed it, and their surreal glory. From the long election battle itself ("between a candidate who spoke to us as if English were his second language and a candidate ...
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Overview

Few people know the absurdities of American politics better than Jeff Greenfield, CNN's award-winning political and media analyst. Now for all those millions of Americans who are still trying to figure how we got there, Greenfield takes us behind the scenes to explore Election Night 2000, the campaign that produced it, and the tumultous weeks that followed it, and their surreal glory. From the long election battle itself ("between a candidate who spoke to us as if English were his second language and a candidate who spoke to us as if English was our second language") to November 7 and its famous media flipflops ("Oh, waiter!" Greenfield proclaimed aloud. "One order of crow!") to its hard-fought finale, he leads us through an Alice-in-Wonderland world of butterfly ballots and hanging chads; Nader factors and newsroom hysteria ("You know the woodcut? Munch? The Scream? That's what it was like"); deadlines, Doomsday scenarios, and "Dukakis states"; lawyers, recounts, spin doctors, Skutnicks, glitches, Zones, bad numbers and botched assumptions ("There was no thought - none - given to the possibility that Gore might win the popular and lose the electoral vote," said a Gore insider).
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Readers who think that they couldn't bear another word about the butterfly ballot election should sample a few pages of Jeff Greenfield's new 2000 election extravaganza. CNN's political and media analyst brings the unforgettable presidential contest into sharp, indeed surreal relief. Enough to make a spin doctor dizzy.
Larry King
...he (Greenfield) gives us a page-turning look at what went wrong at all the networks.
USA Today
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Breezy, witty, urbane, sophisticated and erudite all describe Greenfield's "You Are There"-style chronicle of what it was like to be at the CNN anchor desk election eve 2000. He flawlessly matches laugh-out-loud humor with genuine insight into the factors that shaped the Bush-Gore contest for the presidency and the bitter political trench warfare that was the fight for Florida. Making ample use of satire, skewering members of the working press, legal scholars of the left and right, and most satisfyingly the political establishments of both Republicans and Democrats, Greenfield captures the sublime and the ridiculous of this history-making election, although there is (perhaps necessarily) a heavier helping of the ridiculous. Greenfield takes readers through each of the pivotal moments in the campaign and its aftermath, specifically highlighting the primaries, the conventions, the debates, the recount battles and the court arguments and decisions with a characteristically unpretentious approach that will be familiar to readers who have followed his career as a political commentator for ABC and CNN. And although the touch is light, the analysis is never lightweight. Among the many strengths of the book is the attention it devotes to the primary campaigns of both Bush and Gore, depicting in detail why the internal dynamics of the Republican and Democratic parties respectively made it impossible for either John McCain or Bill Bradley to mount successful challenges. This is a valuable political commentary wrapped in a wonderfully entertaining package. (May) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Greenfield's 1995 novel, The People's Choice, centered around a constitutional crisis launched by the president-elect's death. A longtime television political commentator, Greenfield was election-night anchor when CNN twice prematurely called the winner in last year's presidential contest and so became a character in a plot as incredible as his novel's. In this "memoir-on-the-run," Greenfield describes what it was like to preside over the events of that evening (and morning), analyzes the campaigns that brought us to deadlock, and freely offers more general comments along the way about our politics and media. Brisk and funny in style, his analysis of the Bradley, McCain, Bush, and Gore campaigns is the book's best feature. Greenfield's humor, while often sharp, sometimes overreaches, and his insider's look at such things as political operatives and exit polls will mainly interest the political hard core. Even so, this is a good choice for public libraries and for academic collections strong in media and politics. Robert F. Nardini, Chichester, NH Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780399147760
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 5/17/2001
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.75 (w) x 8.75 (h) x 1.31 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeff Greenfield
Jeff Greenfield

Jeff Greenfield is the CBS News senior political correspondent, and a veteran of CNN and ABC News. A four-time Emmy Award winner, he is the author or coauthor of eleven books.

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Read an Excerpt


Chapter One


• AT TWO MINUTES

after five o'clock on the

evening of November seventh,

2000, Judy Woodruff

turned to me on the anchor

set at CNN's World Headquarters

in Atlanta for my

first words of wisdom.

    "Jeff Greenfield, our senior

analyst, this is the kind of

election those of us who love

politics have been living for."


    "Judy, and folks out there," I said, "if you've ever longed for those nights that you've heard about, when people waited late to find out who their leader was, pull up a chair—this may be it."

    Who knew?

    Well, to be honest about it, we did—sort of. We just didn't know quite how late it would be.

    We knew because, in one sense, every Election Night is a ritual of concealment. Hours before the networks take to the air, the first wave of exit polls starts flowing into the headquarters of Voter News Service, then to the television networks, and then—almost instantly, in flat violation of solemn contractual pledges—into the ears of every decently connected campaign operative, journalist, campaign contributor, and kibbitzer from one end of the country to the other.

    ("No kidding ... a wipeout in Illinois? And the whole California rumor was nothing, right? What about Ohio? ... Yeah, I figured that....")

    For the last twenty years, those early exit polls had pointed to a decisive outcome—sometimes in striking contrast to the last preelection surveys(Reagan romping over Carter in 1980), sometimes reflecting those surveys (Reagan demolishing Mondale in '84, Clinton putting away Bob Dole in '96). So, by the time the TV networks hit the air, every anchor, reporter, and analyst knew what the voters had done—not only nationally, but in most cases state by state. The roles of the game, however, strictly forbade us from reporting to our viewers and listeners the facts that all of us knew, thus turning the whole Election Night into something of a dramatic re-creation—a little like reporting the World Series after learning how every key moment of the game would turn out.

    "You know, Bernie, I'd keep a close eye on Bill Buckner down at first base in the late innings; he's not the best in the world at picking up a slow ground ball rolling right at him—just the kind of nubber a guy like Mookie Wilson could hit."

    For an analyst like myself, this early-warning system had clear advantages; back in 1992, for example, the sure and certain knowledge that Bill Clinton was going to win New Jersey provided plenty of time for remarkably thoughtful instant analysis of Clinton's ability to lure suburban Jerseyites back to the Democratic Party, thus ending the Republicans' string of six consecutive triumphs in that state. Long before sunset in that same year, we had prepared our comments about the Reagan Democrats in Michigan, secure in our understanding that Clinton had reclaimed Michigan as well—because the exit polls had told us so while the sun was still high in the sky.

    But this time? This time the exit polls were telling us exactly what we had been reporting all weekend long: This one was up for grabs.

    At 4 P.M. on Election Day, a few dozen staffers jammed into a conference room in the Executive Corridor, one floor above the cavernous CNN newsroom in Atlanta—a 16,500-square-foot room jammed with 136 workstations, thirty-five edit bays, fifty-two computer pods in the satellite-feed areas, and close to 200 people, all of which forms the background behind the Atlanta anchor desk. Bill Schneider, the owlish, genial academic-turned-TV-analyst, sat at one end of the conference table, armed with a yellow legal pad.

    "Well," he said with a small smile, "remember we told you it would be close? It's going to be very close." How close? Well, the national popular vote was splitting right down the middle—48 percent to 48 percent.

    Some parts of the picture were clear: Bush's late sweep through California, which had cost him seven days and more than ten million dollars in television and radio advertising, had been a fool's venture—Gore was going to win California without breaking a sweat. He was winning comfortably in New Jersey as well, another state where Bush had made a late foray, on the heels of reports that he was "closing fast." And Illinois, once considered a key battleground, was also safely in hand for the Democrats. In other states that Gore desperately needed, however, there was potential trouble brewing. These were the "Dukakis" states—half a dozen won by the hapless 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, and assumed during the early stages of the campaign to be solidly in Gore's column.

    ("If Dukakis can win a state," the mantra went, "no Democrat can lose it.")

    Now, it was clear, that assumption was in doubt. Yes, New York, Massachusetts, Hawaii, the District of Columbia, these were safely in Gore's column. The only way that Gore could lose any of those would be to appear on national TV with horns sprouting out of his head, chanting "All praise to Satan!"—and even then, New York would only shift to "Undecided." But some of those "Dukakis" states were precisely those where Ralph Nader could be costing Gore precious votes—Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington. No, Nader would not be getting that 5 percent of the national popular vote, which would entitle his Green Party to millions of dollars in future federal funds—but he could still turn out to be a key player. And then there was West Virginia, a reliably Democratic state, but one where a lot of Democrats mined for coal and hunted with guns. Here, Gore's passion for the environment evoked images not of pastoral hills and valleys, but of shuttered mines and food stamps. West Virginia was in play on this Election Night, and in a race this close, even those five electoral votes could be decisive.

    And what about Florida? Too close to call, Schneider said, but Gore does have a three-point lead in the exit polls.

    "We may be up late with that one," he said. By the way, he added, almost as an afterthought: Hillary Clinton is going to be the next United States Senator from New York. Some afterthought: the first lady of the land elected to the United States Senate from a state she'd never lived in, less than two years after her husband was impeached for being sexually serviced by a young woman just outside the Oval Office—and in large measure, because of what her husband had done. Helen of Troy may have possessed the face that launched a thousand ships, but Monica ...

    Forget it: another entry in the "Book of Thoughts You Will Never Hear From Me on National TV."

    Bill Sehneider's briefing ended with a quick survey of what we did know, which did reveal one intriguing example of newsroom partisanship, although not the sort that media critics might assume. When he announced that Democrat Jon Corzine would likely win the open U.S. Senate seat in New Jersey, there were groans of unhappiness. Corzine, a onetime Wall Street whiz, had been banished from the executive suites with some four hundred million dollars. He'd decided to spend as much of it as he and his cost-plus operatives thought necessary to win a Senate seat—some sixty-two million dollars, as it turned out. The spending was so extraordinary, so record-shattering, and at times so duplicitous, that it raised the eyebrows of a press corps whose usual response to such excess was that of a Gallic shrug at reports of widespread marital infidelity.

    (My favorite example: Corzine had showered some $650,000 on churches and community organizations during the primary season; a fact he had stoutly denied at the time. When the facts came out, shortly before the November election, Corzine explained that he hadn't given any money to these organizations—his foundation had done it.)

    Finally, someone asked Schneider, what of the possibility, much talked about in the last week of the election, that Governor Bush could win the popular vote, but lose in the Electoral College.

    Actually, Schneider answered, the popular vote is so close, and there are so many states in play, that either of these guys could win the popular vote and lose the Electoral vote. And with that, we adjourned, for the more urgent task that awaits anyone of middle age preparing for a long night in front of the camera: makeup.


• The Electoral College? Could This Be the Election When ...?

    Among those of us who have spent our lives immersed in covering American politics, every election brings with it a fantasy or two. I am not talking about the fantasy where a stunningly attractive campaign worker or reporter knocks on your hotel door late of an evening, clad only in high heels, garter belt, and fur coat, clutching a bottle of Champagne and murmuring, "You know, I find you oddly yet compellingly attractive." At this point in my life, my late-night hotel room thoughts in Iowa or New Hampshire drift more toward fantasies of late-night room service.

    No, I am talking about fantasies of political upheaval, high drama, even melodrama. Early in the process, during those first caucuses and primaries, when half a dozen candidates crowd the race, the fantasy goes like this: Maybe two or three candidates will battle it out all through the primary season; maybe there'll be no clear front-runner, and we won't know even when the last primary ends in June; maybe we'll go to the convention without knowing who the nominee will be, and there'll be rules challenges, and credentials fights, and bitter arguments and motions from the floor, just like in 1952, and we'll go to a second ballot, and ... and ...

    And then the spring comes, only one candidate is left standing, and we start guessing who the vice-presidential nominee will be.

    For me, and for a handful of others, Election Nights past have brought with them a different fantasy: What if one guy wins the popular vote, and the other guy wins in the Electoral College? What if the country wakes up to find out it doesn't really pick the president at all?

    I have a vivid memory, back in 1976, when I was still working as a political operative, of looking at election returns and realizing that My God, Carter is a million votes or more ahead, but if Ford can pull it out in Ohio and Mississippi, he's going to win the White House! I remember, in 1988, looking at the early exit polls and thinking, Bush is winning the South by a landslide, but if Dukakis had run just a few points stronger in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, and California, he could have won the Electoral vote. Imagine how crazed the country would be if that ever happened. Imagine what would happen if a few of those electors decided to go their own way.

    And then Carter won Ohio and Mississippi, or Dukakis lost all the close states, and the fantasies went away for another cycle. Well, a few years ago, I did turn one set of fantasies into a political novel, but in that account, I simply killed off the newly elected president, leaving the electors free to go their own way. Hollywood even came calling but, in the end, decided that the idea of an Electoral College gone amok was simply too far-fetched to turn into a movie. I thought of that rationale this year, when I saw The Contender. The plot of this widely praised film turns in part on the eagerness of an incumbent president to nominate for vice president a confirmed atheist who has expressed open contempt for organized religion. Further, the nominee—to the complete amazement of the crack White House staff and FBI investigators—had been at the center of a widely publicized sex scandal while in college, and had had a widely publicized aldulterous affair with her Senate campaign manager. Much more plausible, guys.

    In past years, whenever I would raise this fantasy of a split popular/Electoral vote with the number crunchers in a network polling unit, one of the cooler heads would be dispatched to explain to me, in a tone not unlike that of Al Gore talking Medicare with senior citizens, why my fantasy was so unlikely to become reality.

    It's a matter of statistical probability, they would say. Once you get past one or two points in the popular vote spread, it's highly unlikely that a close state will break for the popular-vote loser. Maybe if we fell back into a kind of regional politics, where the vote in the South was at wide variance with the national vote, it could happen, but as long as the popular vote isn't close to a tie, it's just not going to happen.

    But you know what? This time, this fantasy was being taken very seriously in two other places: the campaigns of Al Gore and George W. Bush.

    Not publicly, of course. Publicly, the two campaigns were dismissing the likelihood of anything so bizarre happening. On the day before Election Day, CNN's Jonathan Karl asked Gore on camera about this possibility.

    Said Gore, "I think it's unlikely to happen ... but in all such cases, we are fortunate as a people to have a Constitution that resolves all doubt as to what would happen in that situation."

    Gore had good reason to praise the machinery of the Electoral College. It was the strong conviction of his inner circle that Election Night could well end with the vice president winning a majority of the Electoral vote, while finishing behind Governor Bush in the popular vote. In fact, days before the vote, Jack Quinn—a former chief of staff to the vice president—had flown down to Gore headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, at the request of Campaign Chair Bill Daley. Quinn came armed with a binder filled with materials covering just such an outcome. Quinn's materials included background facts prepared by the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress that explained the workings of the system. He also brought state-by-state rules on whether electors in the key states Gore needed were or were not bound by state law to vote in accordance with their pledged intentions. (They were, one source says, particularly concerned about states with Republican governors and legislators, where the laws did not specifically bind the electors.)

    Quinn also had with him a list of electors in many states. A near-universal reaction to that list from within Gore's inner circle was: "I never heard of these people—who are they?"

     In all this preparation, there was one contingency that no one in the Gore camp ever raised. As one insider put it, "There was no thought—none—given to the possibility that Gore might win the popular vote, and lose the Electoral vote."

    That possibility of a "split decision" was very much alive in the Bush camp—not publicly, of course. Karl Rove, the Bush campaign's top strategist, was a strong advocate of the "inevitability" school of campaigning. The more you could project an image of serene confidence, the more likely it was you could pick up voters who wanted to be with a winner. On the TV talk-show circuit, he was predicting a margin of about five points in the popular vote, and a "minimum" of 320 Electoral votes. Bush's late swing into California and New Jersey was part and parcel of his "inevitability" strategy. Even if Bush had no real chance in those states, the sight of the campaign dumping millions of dollars into a Gore stronghold would at least demoralize the Democrats. ("If those guys are spending that much money in California, either they know something we don't know, or they're so confident of winning elsewhere they're willing to spend millions of dollars just to make the local Republicans feel good.")

    On Saturday, November fourth, three days before the election, Rove appeared on CNN's Evans, Novak, Hunt, & Shields—one of the few television programs that sounded as if it should be a prominent New York law firm.

    Asked about the possibility of an Electoral-vote loss despite a popular-vote win, Rove—who possesses a near-encyclopedic knowledge of American political history—dismissed the possibility.

    "I just don't think it's going to happen at all. I mean, the last time that it happened was 1888, and what it took to make it happen was an extraordinary set of circumstances. You had a highly polarized election, where the northern states voted for the Republican candidate and the southern states voted overwhelmingly for the Democrat candidate ... [this year] I think this is all hogwash. It's not worth the time."

    However, added Rove, in what would prove to be a major theme of Bush's post-Election Day argument, "if all we cared about was the popular vote, then the presidential candidates would not campaign in a broad number of states. They would campaign in large metropolitan areas in the big states, and we wouldn't have a truly national contest."

    Backstage, however, the Bush campaign was looking very hard at just such a possibility. The week before Election Day, on November 1, New York Daily News columnist Michael Kramer reported that some senior Bush advisors were seriously considering a postelection challenge to Gore in the event that he won in the Electoral College while losing the popular vote.

    "The one thing we don't do," said one of Bush's senior aides, "is roll over. We fight." We will, the aide said, hit the radio talk shows hard, arguing that such a victory would be illegitimate—"We'll have ads, too—and I think you can count on the media to fuel the thing big-time. Even papers that supported Gore might turn against him because the will of the people will have been thwarted."

    The point? To put pressure on Gore electors from states with a strong Republican presence—exactly the scenario the Gore campaign was trying to arm itself against.

    In the days after November seventh, the Bush campaign would dismiss Kramer's article.

    "I saw it," said Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker, "and I couldn't find a single person in our campaign who had talked to the reporter."

    Maybe she wasn't looking all that hard. On Election Night, the networks summon to their cameras a wide assortment of commentators and analysts—some, like myself, the soul of detachment and fairness, others who are specifically booked because of their identifiably political leanings. These commentators often check in with the campaigns they support in search of "talking points"—themes of the day, compelling statistical or anecdotal nuggets, persuasive turns of phrase. At least two conservative commentators were specifically briefed by the Bush campaign shortly before taking to the airwaves about the line of attack to be taken in the event that Bush wound up losing the Electoral count despite a popular-vote lead. And that line of attack was clearly pointing to a post-Election Day challenge to the legitimacy of a Gore victory.

    "It was part of the talking points," Ken Duberstein says. A former White House chief of staff, and one of the best-connected Republicans in Washington, Duberstein recalls that by Election Day, "They did think they were going to win the popular vote; they were concerned about the Electoral College. It wasn't something that they thought they could win, but they could certainly make an issue of moral authority."

    Why the concern? Because by Election Day the Bush campaign knew, in the words of one top aide, "It was clear we were in a deteriorating situation. We were seeing deterioration in the key states, and clearly in the national polls. We suffered some damage on the basis of the DUI [the late-breaking story about Bush's old drunk-driving arrest]. And we did not close as strongly as Gore did. Gore did a better job of closing, working twenty-four hours a day. That had clear impact on the markets where he went."


• There is no single way to prepare for eight or ten or twelve hours of continuous coverage. Some of my colleagues spend Election Day working the phones, calling old contacts around the country and inside the campaigns. Others assemble enough research material to complete a doctoral dissertation on the campaign. (My colleague Judy Woodruff invariably arrives on the anchor set with a mountain of five-by-eight cards that contain the names, ages, family and political histories, and blood types of every candidate for every office in the land. Then the live coverage begins; someday, she has promised me, she will actually get to look at one of these cards while we are on the air.) My own practice is to go over as many facts and anecdotes as I can possibly cram into my head. Once they are more or less locked in, I reduce them to a word or two that I can jot down on a note card next to the name of a state. I then list the states in order of their poll-closing times, and go over this list so often that I don't need to look at the written notes once we hit the air.

    On some Election Nights, all the preparation in the world won't provide more than a moment of genuinely interesting analysis, except for the hard-core political junkies—the folks who watch C-SPAN 2 for erotic arousal. In 1996, for example, the Clinton-Dole race—and I use that term loosely—never really changed from April to November. Viewed over time, the polling data looked like an EEG of a brain-dead patient, as flat as the Kansas horizon. But on this Election Night, I had come loaded for bear. You want historical ironies? On an election night in 1970, exactly thirty years earlier, the fathers of both Al Gore and George W. Bush had lost their races for the United States Senate. You want a dramatic contrast? On his fortieth birthday, Al Gore was a United States senator who had competed in the presidential primaries and was a clear contender for future national office. On his fortieth birthday, George W. Bush was a moderately unsuccessful businessman with a losing race for Congress behind him who awakened to the knowledge that he had a drinking problem.

    I also came prepared to drop in short "factoids" about each state, once we were able to project a winner—little gems to illuminate the greater meaning of the numbers, preferably within ten or fifteen seconds. My producer-assistant Beth Goodman and I gathered these items under the "iceberg" theory of preparation. Just as eight-ninths of an iceberg never appears above the surface, the great majority of what I gathered would never see the light of day—but you could never tell before the fact what elements would be useful. Here's part of what my checklist had to offer:


• No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Illinois.
• No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio.
• Missouri has voted with the winner in every presidential election in the twentieth century, except for 1956 (it went for Stevenson that year by two-tenths of 1 percent of the vote); Delaware has voted with the winner ever since 1952. These two states have a legitimate right to be considered bellwethers. (I also checked Safire's Political Dictionary to make sure I knew what the hell a bellwether was—it's a male sheep, who leads his flock into and out of pastures—often wearing a bell around his neck.)
• If Gore in fact lost Tennessee, that would make him the first candidate to lose his home state since George McGovern lost South Dakota to Nixon in 1972. If he won the presidency despite that loss, he'd be the first victor to lose his home state since Richard Nixon in 1968 (who claimed New York State as his residence then).
• If Gore won Michigan, talk about the classic New Deal-New Frontier state, the place where Democrats once began every fall campaign in Detroit's Cadillac Square, where blue-collar union workers rallied to the cause. Democrats lost the state to Nixon in '72 over busing, lost to Reagan in '80 over recession and inflation and crime. Bill Clinton regained it for the Democrats, and if Gore holds on, note the power of good economic times. Remember to mention that the United Auto Workers' contract made Election Day a paid holiday from work. If Gore lost Michigan, have that quote handy from his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, where he calls for the elimination of the internal combustion engine—and note how many of those UAW members liked to hunt.
• And speaking of guns, note how much money the National Rifle Association spent on issue advertising in places like Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia; note how energetically NRA President Charlton Heston campaigned in those states.
• For the Senate races, too, there was ammunition ready to fire at the drop of a projection. When Hillary Clinton was declared the winner in New York—something we would probably do the moment the polls closed at 9 P.M.—have ready the story of Eleanor Roosevelt. Shortly after FDR died, one of his closest aides, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, had implored Mrs. Roosevelt to move back to New York and run for the United States Senate. She declined. Now, more than half a century later, aided by the son of Harold Ickes, the First Lady, who was said to have communed with the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt, was about to claim that seat for herself.
• When Jon Corzine was projected as the winner in New Jersey, talk about the successes and failures of deep-pocket candidates of the past, and note how a twenty-four-year-old Supreme Court decision about campaign-finance laws encouraged the emergence of multimillionaire candidates, past and present. In Minnesota, department-store heir and perennial loser Mark Dayton looked like he would win a Senate seat; in Washington, dot-com millionaire Maria Cantwell might knock off Senator Slade Gorton. (If that happened, give a capsule history of Gorton's career—he won in 1980, lost his seat in '86, won the other Senate seat in '88, cruised to reelection in '94, and lost in '00—the first politician ever to win and lose both Senate seats in his state.)
• If seventy-nine-year-old Delaware senator William Roth fell to Governor Tom Carper, talk about the rhythms of political life: Roth had won his Senate seat thirty years ago because the incumbent senator, John Williams, had retired at age seventy, having advocated a Constitutional age limit on senators—a plan Roth had strongly supported. Now, his age was his undoing; a fact dramatized when he had briefly passed out in front of the TV cameras while campaigning.
• And then there's Missouri, where Senator John Ashcroft might wind up losing to a dead man: Governor Mel Carnahan, killed in a plane crash just three weeks before the election. The acting governor has promised to appoint Carnahan's widow, Jeanne, to that seat if more people vote for Carnahan than Ashcroft, and she has agreed. Ashcroft had built a small lead in the closing weeks of the campaign, but how the hell do you run against a widow who has just lost a husband and a son? Missouri was also the state where almost twenty-five years earlier, a young Congressman named Jerry Litton, on his way to claim victory in a Senate primary, was killed along with his family in a plane crash.


There were other matters to consider as Election Night began. Some were of great moment—past elections filled with Electoral-vote melodrama, like the John Quincy Adams—Andrew Jackson battle of 1824 (the last time the son of a former president had won the White House). Some were of a more personal nature. For instance, I took great satisfaction from the fact that Larry King would be along every hour for a short interview segment. Not only was he the most familiar and popular personality on CNN, but those segments would afford ample time for a bathroom break, and/or a chance to bolt down food or drink. Speaking of which: Once again I had neglected to bring a change of shirt and tie with me—an omission that made any attempt at refreshment during the night an excursion into danger. I happen to be the victim of a condition that renders me at times all but incapable of bringing food from plate to mouth without a substantial fraction of sustenance winding up on my clothes. And these times generally coincide with moments when I am about to appear on camera.

    One short vignette from my past will illustrate this: In 1985, I was one of a group of ABC News reporters assigned to produce pieces during the three-hour-long Super Bowl pregame presentation. A few days before the event, we were told to come to the stadium wearing the outfits we'd be sporting on game day, in order to record the opening shots for the pregame show. On my way to the stadium, I spotted a colleague enjoying lunch at an open-air Mexican seafood restaurant. I joined him, carefully covering myself with so many napkins that I resembled a papier-mêché dummy. I finished my meal, paid the bill, removed the protective covering—and spotted one last tempting bite of seafood enchilada. I picked it up, put it in my mouth ... and World War III exploded. Only the providential presence of a nearby While-U-Wait dry cleaning establishment prevented me from appearing on national TV disguised as a Jackson Pollock painting.

    (One of my exasperated producers once said to me, "Greenfield, the next time we have a lunch break during a shoot, either order melba toast or bring along a full-body condom.")

    There was, finally, one other question on my mind: Just how long would we be here? We were committed to staying on the air until we knew who the president would be, and what the makeup of the new Congress would be; but the House and Senate were both in play, and we might well have to wait until the West Coast results were in to know how those battles would come out. Similarly, with the presidential race up for grabs, we might well have to wait until Oregon and Washington reported in to learn who'd won. In the last close presidential contest, the Ford-Carter race in 1976, the networks had to wait until after five o'clock in the morning, when Mississippi finally went for Carter by fewer than fifteen thousand votes, until signing off. That wouldn't work for me at all; my plan was to get off the air, get back to my Atlanta hotel, throw my things together, and catch a 6:30 A.M. flight back to New York. Why? So I could join my friends for our regular Wednesday lunch. No one can accuse me of lacking a sense of priority. As I sat down to join Bernie Shaw, Judy Woodruff, and Bill Schneider at the faux-oak anchor desk, I hoped we would know the outcome well before five o'clock in the morning.

    As I said: who knew?


• As a matter of fact, even with the exit polls telling us that the election was up in the air, even with so many states way too close to call, we knew a pretty fair amount before we ever went on the air. Given what happened with and to the television networks on Election Night, this may sound silly—but in the first hour or so of reporting, before the polls in any of the states had closed, there was a lot of first-rate reporting and analysis going on that gave viewers a remarkably good picture of what to watch for. It's just that it kind of got washed away in the later hours, when we began awarding Florida to everyone except Kathie Lee Gifford.

    Consider, for example, the first reports from the competing camps. John King, CNN's senior White House correspondent, had been following Vice President Gore on his attempt to recreate the Bataan Death March in the campaign's final days. It had ended at 1 A.M. on Election Day in Tampa, Florida, "because Florida may well be the state that decides the outcome of this election.... If Florida goes Republican," King concluded, "the vice president would have to win most of the remaining late-campaign battlegrounds: Washington and Oregon

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Interviews & Essays

Exclusive Author Interview

Barnes & Noble.com: Do you think we'll ever know who won the election?

Jeff Greenfield: We'll never know who got the most votes in Florida. A mathematician, John Alan Poulous, wrote that "the margin of error is greater than the margin of victory or defeat" when the spread is less than a thousand votes out of six million cast. I do believe the ballot confusion in Palm Beach and Duval Counties cost Gore 20,000 votes or so -- the Florida papers are pretty convincing about this -- but there was never a real remedy for this screw-up. Consider that months later, the news consortium that re-counted votes could not give a clear answer to the "who won?" question.

B&N.com: How badly did Ralph Nader hurt Al Gore's chances?

JG: Ralph Nader got 97,000 votes in Florida. The most conservative possible estimate is that Gore would have gained 25,000 votes net, if Nader hadn't been on the ballot. So: Florida is the one state where Nader clearly made the difference -- and that state, of course, would have given Gore the White House. By the way -- in my view, it's the first time in modern history that we can say flatly that a third-party candidate changed the outcome of the election.

B&N.com: Do you think the election system will be fixed by the next presidential election?

JG: Florida has allocated money to fix its electoral system. I think Wisconsin has, also. But most places simply don't want to spend money for a process that happens once or twice a year. So the prospect for more ballot confusion is still very much alive.

B&N.com: Why do you think the Democratic camp was relatively passive during the Florida recounting process, while the Republicans seemed to use every tactical ploy they could think of, including staged riots?

JG: Republicans wanted to win more than Democrats. Why? First, they'd been out of the White House for eight years. They were hungrier. Second, they had for eight years been outdueled politically by Bill Clinton, whom they did not simply disagree with, but (many of them) hated. Gore would have been Clinton's final triumph, and they could not bear that. They saw Gore's post-Election Day challenge as another Clintonian "dirty trick." Third, Gore had never built the kind of personal relations with Congressional Democrats he should have; they were not personally close to him, and many also thought he'd run a poor campaign. Fourth, once the first count ended with Bush a bit ahead, the Democrats' argument was "count the votes." The Bush people were saying: "We Won. You guys are trying to steal it!" The intensity was stronger.

B&N.com: Care to predict what will happen in the 2004 election?

JG: Predict the next election? We couldn't even call the last one right when the folks had voted. No, thank you.

B&N.com: What changes (if any) do you envision the networks -- including CNN -- making in their future election night coverage?

JG: CNN -- and all the networks -- will be a lot more restrained in "calling" close races. And no one, I think, will call a state where any polls are still open. But the decision to stick with Voter News Service as the one source of information for everyone -- a financial decision -- means we'll still be at the mercy of probabilities.

B&N.com: How do you think George W. Bush is doing so far?

JG: Bush began by acting as if he had won a mandate. This was politically smart, since a president who begins by compromising will end up compromising even more. The fact that his tax and budget bills got almost every GOP vote was a tactical success. And asserting a strong agenda was also the shrewdest way to sweep aside the contested nature of the election. But the Jeffords defection shows another side to this: With an essentially tie vote, it doesn't take much to upset the balance of power. In a political sense, Bush enters what will be, by far, the diciest stage of his presidency so far.

B&N.com: Imagine an alternative universe in which Gore had been declared the winner in Florida. What do you think would have happened in Washington in the first 100 days of a Gore administration?

JG: Gore would, I think, have had a much tougher time of it. The GOP majority in the House -- which would have done all it could to stop his election in the first place, by challenging the Florida electors and trying to throw the election into the House (where Bush would have won) -- would have seen Gore as illegitimate. I believe they would have gone to the mat to block any of his important legislative achievements. It would have been a very rough first six months, with no honeymoon.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2001

    A Question of Credibility

    This is a well written, humorous provocative account of the 2000 election and a good read. Unfortunately it is too glib for a serious analysis of the question and hence appears somewhat superficial. This glibness raises a question about the account's credibility. This doubt is reinforced by an interview Greenfield gave to Brian Lamb about 'Oh, Waiter! One Order of Crow'. In an evident effort to be provocative when asked by Lamb who he regarded as the worst political leader in his time he named Nelson Rockefeller who he identified as potentially dangerous because of his nuclear thinking. As one who has followed national politics quite closely over the years I had never heard this charge before and was as shocked as if Greenfield would have named Hitler in response to a question about the most thoughtful politician of the century. Nelson Rockefeller, in fact, was one of the more thoughtful political thinkers of our time as reflected in his Godkin Lecture at Harvard in which he proposed that what was most needed were creative international political structures involving the American principle of federalism, not nationalistic military competition.

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