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SPOILING FOR A FIGHT
It was 5:15 A.M. by the time I finally left the Washington Times newsroom on November 8, 2000. Having written countless versions of an ever-changing story - including one in which I authoritatively reported that George W. Bush had been elected president - I was physically and mentally exhausted. But like so many other journalists who had planned on taking some time off after the grueling, eighteen-month campaign, I was suddenly forced to scrap my vacation. The election was deadlocked and Florida was about to conduct a recount. Unable to remember the Sunshine State's capital, I asked an editor on the way out of the newsroom.
"I dunno," he shrugged. "Tallahassee?"
I stopped at home en route to the airport and stuffed a change of clothes in my briefcase. My wife suggested I pack a proper bag, but I assured her: "It's a two-day story - tops." Then I headed out the door, unaware that I would remain in Florida for the next forty-six days.
Bleary-eyed and suffering from the ravages of sleep deprivation, I found myself reflecting on the long campaign as the plane headed south. Although I had covered Vice President Al Gore almost nonstop for more than a year and a half, I kept coming back to a particular episode from the summer of 1999.
There were only a handful of us on Air Force Two in those early days of the campaign. On that particular trip, there were even fewer reporters than usual because the only public event on Gore's schedule was an environmental photo-op. Those were Gore's "earth tone" days and he wanted to showcase his new, casual wardrobe in a carefully staged canoe ride down the Connecticut River. The vice president's advance staff had even selected a site on the riverbank where news photographers would get the most flattering shot. They pleaded with their boss not to turn and smile at the cameras as he passed by, but instead to gaze purposefully ahead as he knifed his paddle through the pristine waters. The photo would look more candid that way.
At the livery, Gore clambered into a canoe with New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen and shoved off. The press were instructed to double up and follow.
"If we're short one life jacket, we just won't give one to the Washington Times guy," deadpanned Jake Tapper of Salon, a liberal online magazine.
"C'mon, Sammon, you're going with me," said Washington Post political correspondent Dan Balz.
We grabbed a canoe and pushed off before the other reporters could get in the water. As we began paddling, the bottom of the canoe brushed briefly over pebbles in the riverbed. But once we got into deeper water, we had no trouble whatsoever navigating.
It was a glorious summer day and the scenery was spectacular. At one point we passed under an old-fashioned covered bridge that connected New Hampshire and Vermont. At another point we spotted the gaggle of photographers as they prepared for their preordained photo of the day. But when Gore passed by, he couldn't resist turning to mug for the cameras with a big toothy grin. His aides and even the photographers groaned. So much for a candid shot.
Balz and I kept up a brisk pace in order to stay close to Gore. In addition to the other reporters, who were bringing up the rear, there were state officials from both Vermont and New Hampshire. Toss in the ubiquitous Secret Service and it was quite a little armada.
The four-mile jaunt seemed to end almost before it began. As we disembarked and started walking up the bank to the vice presidential motorcade, a man named John Kassel, director of the Vermont Division of Natural Resources, sidled up alongside me and struck up a conversation.
"They won't release the water for the fish when we ask them to, but somehow they find themselves able to release it for a politician," Kassel groused. "The only reason they did this was to make sure the vice president's canoe didn't get stuck."
When I expressed bewilderment, Kassel explained: The drought that had been plaguing New England all summer had slowed the Connecticut River to a trickle. Gore's advance team and the local environmentalists who organized the photo-op had fretted that there wouldn't be enough water to float the vice presidential canoe. So Pacific Gas & Electric was instructed to open the floodgates of its dam upriver at dawn that morning. By the time Gore got into his canoe, the river was plenty deep enough for the trip downstream.
"There are people on the phone right now telling them to shut it off," Kassel assured me.
As I reached the motorcade and Kassel went on his way, I pulled out my cell phone and began calling officials at PG&E. The other reporters were now milling around and I didn't want them to hear my conversation, so I did my best to remain circumspect. At length I reached a senior PG&E official who confirmed Kassel's account. I even tracked down the dam operator who had pushed the button that morning to open the floodgates.
Their story was nothing short of amazing. The drought was so severe that New Hampshire residents were forbidden from watering their lawns or washing their cars. And yet more than half a billion gallons of water had been released from a dam in order to accommodate Al Gore's environmental photo-op.
The story hit the front page of the Washington Times the next morning. As I prepared a follow-up report, I interviewed Sharon Francis, the local environmentalist who had helped plan the entire event. Francis reiterated a point I had made in my first story - that Gore himself had not ordered the raising of the river. But she also explained something I hadn't known. Francis said she informed Gore of the river-raising immediately after the canoe trip, as she and the vice president were walking to a riverbank podium to make brief remarks. How had Gore reacted to this news? According to Francis, he replied that since he was from Tennessee, home of the Tennessee Valley Authority, he was quite familiar with fluctuations in river levels. This bit of detail, while interesting, seemed of no consequence to my follow-up story.
But then at lunch, I had an opportunity to question Gore about the controversy. Careful not to accuse him of ordering the floodgates opened, I instead asked him how he felt about the river being raised "on your behalf."
"I didn't know it was, until I read your story," Gore replied.
As he walked away, I realized he had just contradicted Francis. Now, instead of a routine follow-up story destined for the back pages, I suddenly had another front-page exclusive: What did Gore know and when did he know it?
That afternoon, Gore's press secretary berated me in the driveway of a swank New Hampshire home as the vice president hobnobbed with Democratic donors inside. Chris Lehane was furious that I had written the story about the canoe flap. It was picked up by CNN, MSNBC, the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, among other hot media barometers. The intended message of the day - that Gore was a better environmentalist than Democratic challenger Bill Bradley - had been utterly obliterated by the new controversy, which was already being dubbed "Floodgate." Suffice it to say that I was the least popular person aboard Air Force Two as we flew back to Washington that night.
Looking back, the whole episode turned out to be inconsequential in the grand scheme of campaign coverage. And yet the canoe flap had taught me something important about Al Gore. When caught in a jam, he reflexively resorted to deception instead of just taking his licks and moving on. He also made it his practice to dispatch staffers to attack the messenger and anyone else who dared question the message of the day. For two weeks after that canoe ride, Gore supporters furiously tried to spin the story. First they disputed the number of gallons released, arguing for days over whether it had been in the tens of millions, hundreds of millions, or even billions, as PG&E originally asserted. When it became apparent that, no matter which number was accurate, it was still an enormous amount of water, Team Gore switched to another argument: The dam routinely released water anyway. But Cleve Kapala, PG&E's director of government affairs, said this particular release was orchestrated specifically for Gore.
"It was a bit artificial, to be honest with you," Kapala said. "The river was pretty dry and no one wanted the canoes to be dragging on the bottom. Vice President Gore's people were concerned that we not raise the level too high, either, because they didn't want it to be dangerous."
He added: "It took a lot of water to get it just right."
Dam operator Dennis Goodwin said raising the river for a VIP was anything but routine.
"It's a first for me, and I've been in this job for sixteen years," Goodwin said. "But if we hadn't done it, they might have hit bottom."
Finally, in desperation, Gore loyalists fell back on the argument first raised by Kassel - that a release would be good for the fish. But even Governor Shaheen's husband, Bill, who was manager of Gore's New Hampshire campaign, threw cold water on that theory.
"When you raise the level for fishing, you have to keep it up or else the fish die," said Shaheen, who acknowledged the river receded to its low level within hours after Gore's departure.
By railing against the story instead of getting it behind him, Gore gave it legs. The Hotline, an online compendium of campaign coverage read by virtually everyone in politics, charted each Gore misstep in what was becoming a canoe saga. The Republican National Committee gleefully issued daily news releases, including one headlined "Row vs. Wade." Someone even filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission, charging that the release of water had amounted to an illegal campaign contribution. By going to war over a flubbed photo-op, Gore brought this flood of criticism on himself.
Now, fifteen months later, it looked as though Gore was digging in his heels once again. He had conceded the election to Bush, only to call back an hour later and withdraw his concession. He seemed to be hunkering down for a new fight, although no one knew, as my plane touched down in Tallahassee, just how far Gore was willing to go. At that early stage of the standoff, no one could have imagined that Gore would personally direct a smear-and-destroy campaign against Florida's top election official for simply upholding the law. In those innocent days of the automatic statewide recount, no one could have predicted that Gore would resort to disenfranchising GIs serving overseas, not to mention civilians living right there in Florida, even as he publicly pleaded to "count every vote." And not even the craziest of conspiracy theorists would dare posit a scenario in which Gore would privately consult an Electoral College expert to advise him on the possibilities of enlisting "faithless" Bush electors.
Still, as the plane taxied to a stop, I couldn't shake the sense that perhaps we were heading into a profoundly bigger and more important variation of the canoe story, in which Gore would do anything to win, no matter how bad he looked or how ugly it got.
I once spent several years uncovering election fraud in Cleveland for the Plain Dealer newspaper. I had seen how messy and imprecise the hallowed exercise of voting really was: disappearing ballots; a rigged vote-counting computer; a cat, I even found, who was registered to vote under the name Morris Feline Stuart, occupation "exterminator." In the end, there were investigations by everyone from the Ohio secretary of state to the FBI. Both Republican and Democratic election officials were forced from office.
Now I wondered if the entire nation was about to get an eyeful of the sausage-making operation known as voting in America.
Thirty-six days after arriving in Florida, most of the reporters finally went home. I remained for ten more days, traveling the state to research just how far Gore had gone to achieve his goal. In the end, when he knew all was lost, he tried to inflict mortal wounds on Bush's fledgling presidency. In the process, he all but obliterated any chance for a political comeback of his own.
In short, Al Gore had tried like, well, Al Gore, to seize the presidency - at any cost.