AT THE NEWS from the TV networks that Al Gore had called George W. Bush to concede the presidential election, a throng of people had surged down Congress Avenue in Austin toward a huge stage near the State Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion, braving a fiercely cold wind and a light but stinging rain. Gov. Bush was expected to arrive onstage any minute for his victory speech. After eight years of the soap opera that was the Clinton presidency, an observer could feel the crowd’s palpable desire for somebody good and decent and, well, normal to accept the presidency with words that would restore the dignity of the office.
But as the minutes passed and stretched into half an hour, and nobody arrived onstage, one could sense the crowd grow uncomfortable, and then edgy, and then almost angrily frustrated. Finally, there was a murmur, a stirring, a craning of necks, the glimpse of activity on the other side of the police barricades.
Who was that walking in the direction of the stage? Was it finally Bush? Was the long wait over— the long wait that night, and the long wait through eight years of nasty politics and lies and tawdriness?
THE WEEKEND BEFORE the 2000 election, my then employer, the Mobile Register, sent me to Austin to add some interpretive color to its coverage of the campaign. I got lucky right upon arrival Saturday afternoon: sitting unnoticed and undisturbed in an empty gate at Austin airport, Bush campaign manager Karl Rove and campaign chairman Don Evans seemed to be biding their time with not a care in the world. “It’s coming along exactly as we laid it out,” Rove told me when I approached and bothered them for some insight. He seemed utterly unconcerned by the effect of the new story about the long-ago drunk-driving arrest of his candidate. Indeed, a campaign aide would tell me the next day that the campaign had suspended many of its state-by-state internal “tracking polls” after the Thursday night before the election, figuring any information would (as I summarized it then) “come too late for any poll-driven, last-minute, thrust-and-parry maneuvers.”
Indeed, through the weekend and all the way into Tuesday morning, almost every campaign aide to whom I spoke seemed similarly, almost preternaturally, calm. At lunch that Sunday, Tucker Eskew—in 2008 the top campaign aide for Sarah Palin—explained that the tone had been set by Bush himself, who stayed cool and confident. Unknowingly prophetic, Eskew added, “We know we’ve got very bright people who will be eager to help out if there are any fires to be put out.”
Later that afternoon, a top campaign strategist (on background) walked me through the campaign’s plans and tactics in what they thought would be the most important battleground state, Florida. Internal campaign polls showed a 47–42 Bush lead there. The Texan was doing particularly well in the northern part of the state, including the Panhandle, and the campaign had specially targeted direct mail to senior citizens in the Everglades region.
But the last Bush campaign stop in Florida was that same Sunday, while Gore returned Monday night and Tuesday morning for a spirited last-minute blitz. Meanwhile, the drunk-driving story apparently had a far bigger effect than the Bush team had anticipated: Rove would later say that several mil lion Evangelical would-be voters nationwide, on whose support he was counting, instead stayed home on Election Day.
But that’s getting ahead of the story. The cool confidence of the top campaign staff—including Ed Gillespie, later head of the Republican National Committee and White House communications director, and Ari Fleischer, later Bush’s White House press secretary—continued into Monday, as they walked around looking focused but well in control. When Election Day did come, cold and wet in Austin, that confidence permeated throughout the lower-level campaign staff as well, as they excitedly reported early-day turnout figures that their superiors told them meant good news. As late as 2 p.m., ducking the drizzle under a street awning while calling into headquarters via cell phone, I heard from one part-time campaign helper that all looked good.
But the exit polls later that afternoon obviously showed otherwise. By suppertime, there was radio silence from all my campaign contacts. Radio silence just when early press deadlines start looming is not a good thing for a columnist—and neither was the setup in the media tents. The huge tents—covering long rows of tables with electronic and phone hookups, each with immense TV screens turned up to a volume loud enough to drown out a heavy-metal band— stretched along the middle of Congress Avenue for block after block. The tents remained open at either end, conveniently turning them into icy wind tunnels.
And as the networks began to report early state results, and as most of the other reporters seemed to be enjoying those reports, the whole situation seemed rather miserable for a Bush-favoring columnist. At 7:50 p.m. central time, the networks called Pennsylvania for Al Gore, after already calling both Michigan and Florida for the sitting vice president. Oddly enough, just 15 minutes earlier, a band at the nearby outdoor “Victory Celebration” extravaganza had played Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”—but this campaign obviously was anything but. At least not for the Bush team.
And so the night went, hour after hour: cold wind tunnel, deafening noise, and network reports that seemed to bear news either bad or, in the case of revoking their earlier Florida projections, confusing.
IT WAS WELL after midnight when the networks finally called Florida for Bush instead. And then they reported that Gore had called Bush to concede, and both the working press and a mass of outside humanity rushed down Congress Avenue to see the winner.
That’s when the bizarre, freezing wait began for the speech that never came. And as the mood of the crowd, probably a couple of thousand strong, turned from excitement to confused nervousness to frustration, people began looking for a sign, any sign, of movement from the direction of the Governor’s Mansion toward the stage.
Hence the murmur and craning of necks when some figures emerged from that direction. This was it! This was the moment of victory! This was the climax of the incredibly long, tense night!
This was…unfortunately, nothing of the kind. It wasn’t Bush. It wasn’t Rove. It wasn’t Evans. It wasn’t Condoleezza Rice. The “dignitaries” on the other side of the barricades, moving in the direction of the stage, were…Wayne Newton and Bo Derek. Bo looked shapeless, bundled up against the cold. Through the sea of humanity, you could barely see her lovely face. And it wasn’t her face you wanted to see anyway—and surely not singer Wayne Newton’s visage—when what you wanted was the new president-elect who would end the Age of Clinton.
On a bizarre night, all the crowd got was this anti-climactic appearance of—no offense—two B-list stars. Hell, not only did Bush never emerge all night, but nobody else, not even Derek or Newton, actually took the stage. Somewhere along the line, even the two celebrities just faded into the night. The networks had finally reported that Gore had called Bush to retract his concession—and it would take another 35 days to sort out the mess.
What I wrote that terribly anti-climactic night at 9:30 p.m. central time, as the election was so breathtakingly up in the air, might be worth remembering this month as we absorb the results from this year’s numbingly endless presidential campaign: “Washington, D.C.’s permanent campaign will continue, and somehow laws will still be written. And every apparent political victory will hold the potential seeds of disaster, and every apparent loss could portend a greater triumph.”
Quin Hillyer is an associate editor of the Washington Examiner and a senior editor of The American Spectator.