EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in the December 4, 2000, issue of National Review.
Election Day in Austin dawned dark and stormy.
Well, it did. The previous day, Monday, had been beautiful–a touch of Texas fall. But this was a gloomy, ominous day.
I went in to work around noon–no sense coming in earlier, I’d been told. Election Morning is always a funny, jittery period–there are little rumors, little anecdotes (“My Aunt Bess said turnout was big in Rochester”), but nothing solid. Nothing even remotely solid.
I’d been in Austin since mid September, having taken a leave from National Review. Had come to write speeches. And I was hopeful we were going to win. In fact, I thought we were going to win, and pretty comfortably.
Besides which: Bush was going to make a fine president–maybe even an extraordinary one. If for Social Security reform alone, it was important that he win. Then there was respect for the rule of law and all that.
When I got to the office, people were in a state of nervous anticipation. At about one o’clock, we got some preliminary figures: Neck and neck in Florida. (“That’s good! The Panhandle votes late–and they’re our people.”) Three down in Pennsylvania. (“That’s good too!” I wasn’t sure why, but I trusted it was.) Badly down in Michigan. That, we’d expected. We’d been going south there for the last few days.
Stupid Michigan (my home state).
By late afternoon, it was clear we wouldn’t have a blowout–maybe a nice, solid win, but not a blowout. Nothing of (senior) Bush 1988 proportions, which I’d anticipated–though quietly.
Of course, I’d been worried about the Zogby poll. On Election Eve, he showed Gore up, by two points. Some of us were thinking that Zogby’d be embarrassed, tarnished, on Election Day–”the Chicago Tribune of 2000″! (That paper, of course, had been the one that blared “Dewey Defeats Truman.”) Boy, would he have egg on his face! And wasn’t he polling in the daytime, when people–our people, working people, people busy doing useful things–weren’t home?
Yeah, but he wasn’t an idiot, Zogby. I mean, he could adjust for that. And he might be right.
Before long, we could see that the election was very, very . . . “tight.” That was our word for it, the word of the night: tight. Michigan was still bad; Pennsylvania didn’t look so hot; but Florida was okay, and that was the ball game. We’d have preferred a triumphant march through the states, but, hey: As I’d heard Jack Germond say a hundred times on The McLaughlin Group, when you win, you win–mandate, schmandate. No one remembers the margin. There’s a winner and there’s a loser–and the winner governs.
We had a couple of things on our schedule that evening: a reception for staff and friends, at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel, a few blocks from the (beautiful, majestic, red-granite) capitol; then the outdoor celebration in front of the capitol, where Governor Bush–no, President-elect Bush!–would give his victory speech (a model of humility and graciousness). We–certainly I–expected the speech to come shortly after ten o’clock, our time, after the polls had closed on the West Coast.
Decency would at last return to Washington. The Clinton-Gore poison would finally be flushed out.
Not wanting to hang around the office–just being nervous with colleagues and glancing at television–I headed for the reception at the hotel–to be nervous with colleagues and glance at television. The place was packed with celebrants, or would-be celebrants; a dozen TVs were spaced around two rooms, tuned to various channels.
As the returns came in, I began to wonder what had gone . . . you know: wrong. Well, not exactly wrong, but not exactly swimmingly. Someone said that the “late-breakers”–those voters who made up their minds at the last minute–had gone heavily to Gore. A substantial portion of them cited as their reason: DUI.
That stupid drunk-driving thing. This was the Democrats’ ultimate dirty trick (if you don’t count stealing the election, but more on that later). The report was true, of course: Bush had been pulled over in 1976. But it was still a dirty trick, as every sensitive mind realizes. A friend of mine put it this way: On the Thursday before the election, you spring on the public that your opponent, 24 years ago–a quarter of a century ago, is the other way to put it–saw a psychiatrist. (Shades of Eagleton.) He is perfectly well now. Moreover, he has spoken repeatedly of his past troubles, though in a fairly general way, and of his gratitude at overcoming them.
Your report is true. But is it also a dirty trick? Sure.
We also heard that there had been an immense black turnout, making the difference in several states. When, I wondered, would Republicans learn to talk to black voters? And what should they say? Same thing they say to everyone else, I should think. I would fall over dead–of joy–if some candidate, somewhere, spoke to a black audience about . . . missile defense. Why not? They’re Americans, too, and they’re presumably interested in being protected from nuclear attack.
Of course, we had faced the most hideous tactics the Democrats could scare up. Their ads all but accused Bush of lynching a black man in Texas. Gore went around campaigning with the dead man’s sister. (Our vice president knows that subtle politics is for fools.) He suggested that our judicial philosophy was a throwback to slavery. Janet Reno–in a reprise of her 1998 trick–pretended that Republicans were about to suppress the black vote. You know: We were just sitting there at the polling places, waiting to demand of black voters that they guess the number of beans in a jar.
Again, hideous stuff: but entirely predictable. Democratic race-baiting, especially in late October, early November, is as given as the sunrise. And Gore’s people–Bob Shrum, Donna Brazile, Gore himself–are hardly amateurs; indeed, they wrote the book.
Speaking of Brazile: I had long worried about her “ground game.” She was always boasting of it. What did it mean, exactly? I mean, I understood, vaguely, that it had to do with turnout. But what did it involve, specifically? Simple, innocuous phone calls and knocks on doors–or cheating? We knew one thing: Gore volunteers from New York were enticing the homeless to the polls with cigarette packs.
Great. Didn’t Gore sort of oppose tobacco? Something about a dead sister?
Yet another sinking feeling: Social Security. When Bush had proposed his reform, back in May, I thought it magnificent and laudable–but, of course, politically risky; perhaps even suicidal. Why give the Democrats a chance to accuse you of rounding on old people? But then, they’d do it anyway–and if you’re going to get clobbered, you might as well get some reform out of it, on the chance you get in.
Bush had been fantastically responsible–even heroic–on Social Security. And now the Democrats were making him pay for it. Just as they’d promised.
And then there was our old friend liberal media bias. Oh, goodness: Don’t get me started. When I joined the campaign, I was a firm believer in media bias, and all its terrible effects. Halfway through, I concluded I’d been a little naïve–it’s worse than even I had thought.
In the office, we Bushies were surrounded by television sets, going day and night. Sometimes I listened to music through earphones, so as not to hear what our friends were saying. I played a little game: When Katie Couric was interviewing someone, I could tell–I swear–whether she was interviewing a Republican or a Democrat by the look on her face. Amazing.
Conservatives, I find, usually make too much or too little of media bias. The more common error, I now believe, is to make too little of it. As Kate O’Beirne says, it’s astonishing that a Republican ever wins.
One of the worst things, of course, about a rough Election Night is having to hear the television people report it. They can’t help looking pleased as punch. For instance, I thought some of the newscasters would wet themselves when announcing that Hillary Clinton had won in New York.
I was reminded of a story about Reagan (as we junkies so often are): It’s November ‘82, and he’s watching the midterm results, in the White House residence. The Republicans have had a lousy day; a lady correspondent is saying so. Reagan says–to himself, under his breath–”Wipe the glee off your face, sister.”
I’ve always loved that: “Wipe the glee off your face, sister.” Exactly.
At the Stephen F. Austin, it was hard to follow the results. As you were milling about–getting a drink, chatting idly–what you relied on was crowd reaction: There’d be a cheer. Then you’d rush to a TV to see what the fuss was about.
Bush carries Ohio! Yes, but that had been expected. Nothing to go nuts over. Bush carries Tennessee! That’s satisfying–for obvious reasons–but, again, expected. Bush carries Arkansas! Ditto. (Speaking of which, Rush had vowed to turn out every one of his listeners. Had they showed? And don’t they constitute something like half the country? If only.)
At some point in the night, there was a roar that shook the rafters. It was a deafening, sustained, almost animalistic roar: The networks had reversed themselves and given Florida to Bush! After sprinting and stumbling to the TVs, we thrust our three-fingered “W” signs at the glowing “electoral maps,” in quasi-Nuremberg style (which embarrassed me, slightly, at the time).
Hang on: It proved not to be so good as all that. The networks had merely taken Florida out of the Gore column and placed it back among the undetermineds. But still, it was a reprieve–a new lease on life. (The cliches came thick and fast that night.)
In the Electoral College, the vote was eerily close. The popular vote? Even more so. Ever since I was a child, in Ann Arbor, I had measured people, crowds, by the Michigan football stadium–which seats about 100,000. And in this great big continental nation–stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, encompassing 270 million people–it was coming down to a couple of Michigan football stadiums. In some states–Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon, Florida–it was coming down to a couple of rows. Unreal.
The hours wore on. State after state we were hoping to win . . . fell. The room got somewhat woozy. People were a little unsteady, a little strange–confused. Me, not least. It appeared we wouldn’t know the final results until dawn. I didn’t want to turn away, go to bed. We had come this far, and this, after all, was history. Couldn’t one sleep later?
But at one o’clock, I gave way. It was my feet, frankly. I had been standing since about 6:30, and couldn’t bear it any longer. So I said my goodbyes–made my apologies–and headed back to the office, to pick up my briefcase. Then I’d go home.
As I trudged down Congress Avenue–the hotel is at Congress and Seventh; the office is at Congress and Third; the capitol is at about Congress and Eleventh–I placed one last call to Rich Lowry. He was in a cab, returning from a TV studio to National Review’s offices in New York. As we talked, he had another call. Would I hold?
In a flash, he was back: A friend of his had relayed big news: Bush had won! We had won! They had given us Florida.
With a lighter step, I ducked into the office, to fetch that briefcase. About twenty other staffers were there–hugging, high-fiving, and basically acting like something wonderful and necessary had happened, which it had.
We piled out of the office, to join the throng at the capitol–to hear and hail our Chief. It was a thrilling, probably unforgettable walk, those eight blocks up the street. Jubilation filled the air, as people cheered and wept and shouted and honked their horns. I called my wife back in New York, and held my cell phone aloft, so she could take in the sounds and the atmosphere.
Once at the capitol, we went through the metal detectors–can’t be too cautious for the President-elect!–and huddled in front of the stage. It was cold, windy, and raining hard. But, in our orange “W. 2000″ hats, we waved our little American flags and waited happily for Gore to concede, and our man to come on.
On either side of the stage were large TV screens, so we could follow everything on the networks. It was getting colder, windier, rainier. My feet were screaming. Where was Gore?
In due course, his motorcade pulled up to the site in Nashville where he was to bow out. That was good. But he wasn’t appearing . . . and wasn’t appearing. We kept staring at those large screens: What gives?
Eventually, we learned that something unusual was taking place in Florida. Gore had placed a second call to the Governor to retract his concession. It seemed there would be a recount.
Uh-oh. A super-close race. Ample room for Democratic mischief.
Thoughts of 1960.
And then, who should appear, on those giant screens, but “Billy” Daley, the mayor’s son. Great. He was vowing that the “campaign” would continue. It always does, doesn’t it? The Clinton-Gore folks gave us the “permanent campaign.” It continues in victory; it continues in defeat; it just goes on and on, without end.
We were somewhat frozen, bewildered. This was, we kept saying, “surreal.” Now, I’ve never been sure of the precise meaning of “surreal.” I suspect that it is as misused as “ironic,” which people say whenever they mean interesting, or odd, or coincidental, or remarkable. I should, once and for all, get a handle on “surreal.” But not now: “Surreal” must stand.
So there, surreally, was Daley. He acted like a man who knew something–something we didn’t know. How could he be so confident? They had lost the election, and this was merely a pro forma recount. What were they going to do–cheat?
Bush, like Gore, wasn’t going to come out. Instead we heard from our own campaign chairman, Don Evans, who said, essentially . . . thanks, and stay tuned.
By now, it was 4 a.m. Having tried to leave three hours before, I now walked back to my room. The wind whipped like something out of the Apocalypse. My umbrella turned inside out, practically shredding–had to throw it away. You might think of Lear on the heath, if you were the dramatic type.
At 5, I went to bed, full of fear.
The next day, Wednesday, we were supposed to enjoy a program of festivities–a lunch, a party. But those were cancelled–or “postponed,” we were all saying.
So I had plenty of time–way too much time–for my special brand of foreboding. I thought of a hundred things, none of them comforting, which included: Back in Cold War days, we used to hear criticism–particularly from liberals–that the Soviets weren’t “ten feet tall.” As in, “Oh, come on: The Soviets aren’t ten feet tall!” This comment would usually be directed at a conservative who feared that the American team was going to get its clock cleaned by Moscow.
Well, I confess to fearing that, when it comes to politics–the lowdown kind–the Democrats are ten feet tall. They’re simply better at politics than we are. They are certainly better at fraud. For them, politics is war (or, at a minimum, a “blood sport”). On Election Night, Donna Brazile “messaged” to Gore: “Don’t surrender!”
That’s war language. It is not election–certainly post-election–language.
Okay, more thoughts: You can’t cheat Reagan out of a 49-state victory over Mondale. But with the vote this close? Piece o’ cake.
I thought of what Clinton said to Dick Morris on the night the Lewinsky scandal broke. Morris had done a quickie poll for the president, reporting that the public wouldn’t forgive a tryst with an intern if accompanied by perjury. “Well,” said Clinton, “we’ll just have to win.”
I could hear the Gore camp: “Well, we’ll just have to win.”
I thought of the Bork battle, one of our worst failures. The Democrats pummeled him and pummeled him. Ted Kennedy, the ACLU, Norman Lear, Gregory Peck–all of them: They called him a Nazi (in a word). And we, the good guys, stood by, not wanting to “politicize” the matter, staying above the fray, appearing statesmanlike, being true to the process, trusting in the right.
And we got screwed–”Borked,” we would later call it.
By midday Wednesday, we were approaching urban-myth time. Someone said that ballot boxes had materialized–just like that–in a couple of black churches. You’re kidding? Voting in church? Where was the wall-of-separation crowd now?
Then I thought of the players: Jeb was governor, yeah. But he would recuse himself and be sweet. Meantime, the attorney general was a Democrat-Gore’s state chairman. And that reminds me: What about the federal attorney general? The snatcher of Elian? What can she do, with her unlovely Justice Department? And what can Clinton do? He’s not just going to sit around, revering the Constitution, is he?
All of a sudden, Jesse Jackson’s down there, yelling, shaking his fist. The scene has turned racial. But then, it always does in America–the Democrats see to it that it does.
I felt myself pulled down into the fever swamps. We had always maintained they’d “say or do anything” for power. Well, would they? The mind spun with awful scenarios–scenarios of Democratic swindle. A half-delirium crept in–but a half-delirium based on reason and experience. Probably the worst kind.
I was to depart Austin on Thursday–an awkward juncture, I know, but New York, and this magazine, awaited me. On Wednesday night, I went to Earl Campbell’s barbecue place, on Sixth Street, for a final, enormous bowl of chili. As a special treat, Earl himself was there–for the first time of my month-and-a-half stay. The former NFL (and University of Texas) great looked like he could still run through a brick wall, smiling that gentle smile of his.
Into the small hours, I talked, and worried, with another campaignsman. As we were wrapping up, his cell phone rang. He blanched, slightly. Hanging up, he remarked, “Some ugliness in Florida.”
The next morning, I packed, and took a long, solemn listen to the Beethoven C-sharp-minor quartet. Then–with the most disquieting feeling of incompletion–I boarded a plane.
When I got home, I could barely stand to hear the television. My wife wanted to listen to the news; I retreated to the other room. I did catch a glimpse of (Gore campaign spokesman) Chris Lehane, in dark glasses, overseeing the nonsense in Palm Beach. Somehow he no longer seemed twerpy or dorky. Instead he was . . . menacing, as though out of a nightmare–as though engaged in a colossal theft.
My father-in-law called. And he put in a single sentence everything I was thinking, fearing: “The only way for this to end is for Gore to win.” Yes: They’ll press and press, and bully and bully, and maneuver and maneuver until they get the numbers they desire. Then they’ll say, “Game over.” And the Republicans will withdraw graciously–as we always do–muttering about the good of the country.
Right this moment, it is Monday, November 13. Our magazine has to go to press. We don’t yet know who will take the oath on January 20. And–to borrow a recent phrase from Governor Bush: a splendid man who would make a superb U.S. president–here we sit.