At the bell, Gore decided fight wasn’t over

By DAVID VON DREHLE

The Washington Post

There was no script. Things kept happening that had never happened before.

So it was simply the crowning weirdness on a wild and whiplashed night Tuesday, one among many bizarre things, when Vice President Al Gore phoned the Texas Governor’s Mansion to take back what he’d said about conceding the election to George W. Bush.

“You couldn’t write a script like this,” marveled film director Rob Reiner around 5 a.m. EST as he headed to find Gore and see if he was awake and wanted company.

Voter News Service calculated that Gore could not close the gap with the remaining precincts and, at 2:16 a.m. EST, Fox News Channel was first to call the state of Florida – and the presidency – for Bush. Caution had been unlearned in the wee hours, and the others followed quickly.

It’s time to concede, Gore said calmly from a Nashville hotel across from Vanderbilt University, where he was huddled with family and advisers. Gore’s children began weeping. Wife Tipper was dry-eyed.

Gore campaign chairman William Daley placed a call to his counterpart, Bush chairman Don Evans, to alert him that the concession call was coming. Gore honored that custom, then – as Eskew put it – the comrades “all piled into a mournful motorcade” to the Nashville’s War Memorial Plaza, where Gore would publicly concede the race to Bush.

Gore’s black Cadillac hissed over the rain-slicked streets. Ahead were the motorcycles with their flashing lights, behind, car after car filled with courtiers and attendants and loyalists. A couple of cars back, the pager began vibrating on Michael Feldman’s belt: “Call switchboard. Call holding with Mike Whouley. ASAP.”

Hunkered down at headquarters, in a command central dubbed The Boiler Room, field commander Whouley was watching the Florida election commission Web site. Gore’s 50,000-vote deficit in the decisive state had suddenly narrowed to 900 votes, then 500.

Feldman was several vans behind Gore’s limousine in the “mournful motorcade” to the vice president’s concession speech. On his cell phone, Feldman patched Whouley through to Daley in yet another van.

For a seemingly interminable space of minutes, the VIP entourage huddled beneath the Memorial’s towering stone pillars while Daley conferred with Gore in a small office.

“We had no TVs. Everyone was on their cell phones,” recalled policy adviser Greg Simon. “People were calling us from everywhere, telling us, ‘Don’t concede.’ “

Some two dozen people in the room fell completely silent as Gore dialed Bush back.

“Circumstances have changed dramatically since I first called you,” Gore told Bush, according to aides to both men who heard each side of the conversation. News from Florida – very late news – indicated the gap had closed once more in the decisive state and there would be an automatic recount.

“The state of Florida is too close to call,” Gore said.

“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” Bush asked brusquely, disbelievingly. “Let me make sure that I understand. You’re calling back to retract that concession?”

“Don’t get snippy about it!” Gore spat back.

“Let me explain,” he continued. If Bush prevailed in the final count, Gore would immediately offer the Texas governor his “full support. … But I don’t think we should be going out making statements with the state of Florida still in the balance.”

Bush was incredulous. For an hour, since the networks gave him the victory and Gore called to surrender, Bush had been basking in a combination of relief and excitement. Now the roller coaster car was plunging again.

Didn’t Gore realize that Bush’s brother, Jeb, was standing nearby – Jeb, the governor of Florida, who had been on the phone to Tallahassee and pecking at a computer for hours, monitoring vote patterns that he understood as well as anybody? Jeb’s research showed a Bush victory, as George W. now reported to Gore.

“I don’t think this is something your brother can take care of,” the vice president answered coolly. (Another aide remembers it this way: “With all due respect to your brother, he is not the final arbiter of who wins Florida.” Still another aide recalls that Gore specifically noted that Jeb is the younger brother.)

“Do what you have to do,” Bush said frostily.

Gore put down the phone.

Outside, thousands of rain-logged supporters awaited the vice president. The concession speech was already loaded in the TelePrompTer. Now it was scrapped. Instead, a Gore adviser dashed off remarks for Daley, who slogged up the wet carpet to the stage to promise a recount.

While Daley announced, “Our campaign continues,” the vice president marched unseen from the Memorial through a side exit. Stranding dozens of friends, family and VIPs in the drizzle, he ordered his motorcade back to the hotel suite where no more than 60 minutes earlier he had telephoned his congratulations to Bush.

“He’s fine,” said Gore’s brother-in-law, Frank Hunger, on the sidewalk and looking for a ride.

President Clinton called Gore to second his decision, praise him for a good night and note consolingly that Gore had won the nation’s popular vote.

Gore and most of his family stayed in bed well past noon.

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