As the Clinton era drew to a close, America prepared to elect its first new president in eight years. In November of 2000, citizens would decide who would become the 43rd president in U.S. history, and in January of 2001, the winner would take office as the leader of the free world.
No one foresaw how complicated and controversial the path to that moment would prove to be. The contest between incumbent Vice President Al Gore and Republican challenger George W. Bush would go down as one of the closest, bitterest, and most baffling elections in the nations history. Told here for the first time in the words of those directly involved, this is the oral history of the 2000 U.S. presidential election.
Chapter 1: The Campaign
Dan Rather (anchor, CBS): Al Gore had memorized the White Houses address, he was in all the papers, he was handsomer than a horse, and on top of all that, he was the vice president. Early on, Gore was the clear favorite.
Joe Lieberman (Democratic vice presidential nominee): When the Clinton scandal had broken, whod taken the fall for kissing Monica Lewinsky? Al had. Whod spent a night in jail in President Clintons place? Al Gore. He was loyal. He had Dems respect.
Al Gore (Democratic presidential nominee): We had momentum behind us. Everywhere I went they chanted, Four more Gore! Four more Gore! I was the happiest man on the face of our fragile planet.
Donna Brazile (campaign manager, Gore campaign): On the Republican side, the first major contender was John McCain, a straight shooter who ended all of his speeches by saying that he was full of saliva and needed to go to the hospital, which was a message that resonated deeply with every demographic.
John McCain (Republican presidential candidate): Everyone loved the fact that I had flown into the sky and slept in a foreign town and performed a war about flags. But what they loved most was how after mentioning these things I would say, Thats how it was, but now Im back. And Im standing here filled to the brim with saliva, and I need to go to the hospital.
Dick Cheney (Republican vice presidential nominee): Then you had this guy called George W. Bush, the silent curator of Dallas George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.
Jeb Bush (brother of George W. Bush): Every day at sunrise, George would open the museums only exhibit, which was a row of wax sculptures of all the U.S. presidents, each one wearing Lincolns trademark stovepipe hat and sitting in Roosevelts trademark wheelchair and signing his name on George Washingtons trademark Declaration of Independence. The museum was extremely popular and so was George, my brother.
Laura Bush (Republican first lady nominee): George hardly ever smiled, and of course he never spoke, but he had a charm about him. Hed sit at the museum entrance shaking visitors hands and directing them to the sculptures. As they left, hed rise from his wheelchair, shake hands again, and tip his stovepipe hat as he waved goodbye.
Dick Cheney: One morning, a new sculpture appeared. It was a waxen model of George, the wordless curator himself. I was at the museum that day, and I asked George if the sculpture meant he was running for president, and Ill always remember his wide, silent smile as he slowly nodded yes. Then I asked if I could be his vice president, and George didnt stop nodding.
George W. Bush (Republican presidential nominee): Tomorrow I will run for president and I dont know what will happen, and there is no way to predict the outcome when I run for president tomorrow.
Laura Bush: July 4, 2015 was the first time anyone heard George W. Bush speak. Since then, he hasnt gone to sleep, and he keeps talking about how the election is tomorrow. Its very different now, but back in 2000, the only sound he made was his breathing.
George W. Bush: Still I cant and wont understand my mind about the election which is one day from now, and no I havent known what will or wont come to pass in the Millennium Choice, or whether there is a memory now, and its impossible to tell. Here is a guess: 15 years ago I will be a candidate, then perhaps there will come an impossible labyrinth and I will solve it with my smile and at last 14 years years ago I will hope to be a president, which might happen, and I dont know.
Karl Rove (chief strategist, Bush campaign): I was a practical man, and I knew what I wasnt. Theyd never call my face the Presidential Face, which was okay because I had other ideas. Put it this way: In Spanish theres a word, presidente, that roughly translates to very tall controller or tall controller deluxe. Thats what I aspired to.
Jim Lehrer (anchor, PBS): George W. Bush didnt talk at any of the presidential debates. Id ask him a question, like Whats your plan for the economy? and hed just stand there until his time expired. Bush was godawful, but he still won every debate because Al Gore spent the entire time talking about how thick his neck was, just really stressing out on stage about whether his neck was too thick.
Al Gore: The issue certainly bore mentioning. My meat neck was thick to my hands, and in the mirror it was thick to my eyes. To this day, I stand by my concerns about my meat neck. Its getting worse. We have to stop it.
Jim Lehrer: I was embarrassed to be talking to either of these people.
Chapter 2: Election Day
With polls showing Bush and Gore running neck and neck, the campaigns geared up for a fight to the finish. The tension was palpable on the morning of Election Day as millions of Americans headed to the ballot boxes.
Donna Brazile: Election Day that November fell on Friday the 13th, which was also the first time in 600 years that Halloween and the first night of Hanukkah had coincided. The resulting low turnout cost us, but by late evening it was clear we had a fighting chance. It all hinged on Florida.
Dick Cheney: Its clich to say that Florida is the dual action problem peninsula where throbbing neon beach berserkers live mere miles from decrepit suntan cousins twice removed, but its true, and it was key to the election.
Bernard Shaw (anchor, CNN): Some counties skewed heavily for Gore, others heavily for Bush. As the race swung wildly back and forth through the night, the words on everyones lips were: Which champion has solved the Floridian riddle? Was it you?
George W. Bush: I cant wait to expect a success in Florida. Tomorrow I will wonder whos going to get Florida, and I will wonder whos Gore, and I will wonder out loud if my brother lives in Florida. I will wonder out loud and I suppose yes I hope so.
Tom Brokaw (anchor, NBC): We did our best to report the election with limited information, but our resources were stretched thin.
Katie Couric (political correspondent, NBC): At 7 p.m., Tom Brokaw pulled everyone aside and said that instead of focusing on the election, he needed us to help him with the premiere of a program called Tom Brokaws Haunted Hullaballoo, which he said would air directly after the election in order to get a ratings bump.
Tom Brokaw: I told Katie it was time for the Brokaw bonanza at last, the popular all-night hour where I talk to dead celebrities of the past and they try to guess how many trophies Im going to give them. Even then, I knew this was the future of late night.
Katie Couric: Tom seemed anxious to get to his talk show as soon as possible. Every time he went live, hed hurriedly announce that Al Gore or George Bush had won Florida, and then hed go, Okay, and good evening! Its the Haunted Hullaballoo, and were all going wild for Sir Winston Churchill! After that, hed make a big gesture to a gold doorframe with a blue sequined curtain, but no one ever walked through the door.
Al Gore: Around 2:17 a.m., Tom Brokaw made it very clear that Bush had won, we had lost, and it was time to give a warm welcome to Winston Churchill. I turned off the TV in disgust, thanked my staff for their work, and left the campaign office.
George Bush: Tomorrow I know and hope the television will utter my name. The loud crowd of family will hit my shoulder and yes I will breathe, Haah, as loud as I can breathe, Haah, haah, among the celebration din.
Donna Brazile: When we got wind of problems with the votes, Al was already in the motorcade on the way to the junkyard to commit suicide. By the time I found him, he was standing inside a car compactor desperately shouting voice commands at itthings like Crush me and Computer, put me as a cube.
Al Gore: Donna told me it wasnt over, so we went back and I called George W. Bush on two phones.
Donna Brazile: The campaign office had two landlines with rotary phones. Al took one in each hand and dialed the Bush campaign office on both phones at once with his feet. Bush was the one who picked up.
Al Gore: Through the receivers I could hear Bush breathing. Into one phone I said, George? Its been a terrible year and youre a good man and Im conceding the race. But then I changed my voice to a low rasp and said into the other phone, Oh, and George? I cancel that. I cancel it. I retract my concession.
Karl Rove: Theres no English word that captures the mix of fury and panic that darkened Georges face in that moment, but in Spanish theres one that does so perfectly: caramba. I looked into George W. Bushs eyes, and they said to me, Oh, caramba.
George W. Bush: In the nighttime, still the two Gores will ring me up and I will hear the phone and even today I wonder, what can be his words, the words I wont know, looking back after all these years, what will he say and how, still I wonder because I know soon from the phones there will be two Gores in the morningthe one that speaks a lie or also the one that speaks a yesthe one with a voice like nights villain singing We Are Not Done and now again the one with the voice of a morning saint that murmurs sweet deliverance, victor, victor, I surrender, everything can be over now, and he will speak it dark and low as I shudder to agree, for each word the second Gore will speak to me is president.
Chapter 3: The Recount
On December 11, 2000, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments from lawyers representing Bush and Gore on the question of whether Florida had violated constitutional law with the recount. The responsibility of selecting the countrys 43rd president effectively fell to the Courts nine justices.
George W. Bush: Tomorrow I will ask for it at Rule Squad. Still I wonder what will be the choice 15 years ago at Rule Squad and still I hope I will look forward to it.
Dan Rather: All nine Supreme Court justices had their birthday on the date they heard Bush v. Gore.
Sandra Day OConnor (justice, Supreme Court): The birthday coincidence seems unlikely, but theres a mathematical proof that once you have nine or more people in a room, most of the time they all share the same birthday. Thats how it was with us.
Clarence Thomas (justice, Supreme Court): It was my birthday, which was how I knew it was the others birthdays as well. We were all turning 40 years old, and we wanted the day to end so we could go celebrate.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (justice, Supreme Court): We heard two cases that day before Bush v. Gore. The first was President Clinton divorcing the Resolute Desk, and the second was President Clinton disputing a parking ticket hed received for lifting a motorcycle into the Lincoln Memorials lap. They took forever.
David Boies (lawyer for Al Gore): Finally, they called our cases number and warned us to make it quick, so I stood up and said, Vote Gore. Its the law, and then I sat down.
Theodore Olson (lawyer for George W. Bush): I stood up and said, Its the law, and then I stood up again, and then I sat down twice.
David Souter (justice, Supreme Court): As soon as they finished, Chief Justice [William] Rehnquist looked up and down the bench and said, What do you say, folks? Five to four?
George W. Bush: Still I hope for the Rule Squad triumph and still it will come, and perhaps I will own it, and tomorrow in the celebration din I will hope I dont know why.
Al Gore: In unison, all the justices responded, Five to four, and Rehnquist pointed at Bush and said, Winner, and pulled a rope, and from a compartment in the ceiling came a lot of confetti and balloons with the words Happy Birthday Supreme on them. I was heartbroken.
Joe Lieberman: Al was out the court building door and headed for the junkyard before the balloons even hit the ground. Over the next few days, he nearly lost his voice screaming at that car compactor.
George W. Bush: Soon its 15 years ago and I hope it will be tomorrow. We just dont know. Fifteen years ago, as of now, perhaps tomorrow we will fight with war, but yes and no, we will not attack until we defeat all the blackmail aspects, and we will not ignore the problem, we will embrace a generation of entrepreneurs, and tomorrow that is a good enough reason to be hugged. We will use our most abundant thing source and we will renew our purpose and our children and their childrens children and their demand for gasoline. Yes we will confront the dangers tomorrow we will believe, we will believe in the next 15 years ago, and I hope it, yes, it will be 15 years ago, and tomorrow I will lead a whole country in a single chemical reaction.
Karl Rove: What was going through our heads in the wake of the decision? I cant speak for everyone, but I can tell you what occurred to me: In Spanish, theres a word, Jorge, and its a very common word, but its also a very famous word, and thats because it has no meaning. Jorge is the most famous word in Spanish because it has no meaning at all.