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 nation’s 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.
Dan Rather (anchor, CBS): Al Gore had memorized the White House’s 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, who’d taken the fall for kissing Monica Lewinsky? Al had. Who’d spent a night in jail in President Clinton’s 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, “That’s how it was, but now I’m back. And I’m 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 museum’s only exhibit, which was a row of wax sculptures of all the U.S. presidents, each one wearing Lincoln’s trademark stovepipe hat and sitting in Roosevelt’s trademark wheelchair and signing his name on George Washington’s 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. He’d sit at the museum entrance shaking visitors’ hands and directing them to the sculptures. As they left, he’d 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 I’ll always remember his wide, silent smile as he slowly nodded yes. Then I asked if I could be his vice president, and George didn’t stop nodding.
George W. Bush (Republican presidential nominee): Tomorrow I will run for president and I don’t 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 hasn’t gone to sleep, and he keeps talking about how the election is tomorrow. It’s very different now, but back in 2000, the only sound he made was his breathing.
George W. Bush: Still I can’t and won’t understand my mind about the election which is one day from now, and no I haven’t known what will or won’t come to pass in the Millennium Choice, or whether there is a memory now, and it’s 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 don’t know.
Karl Rove (chief strategist, Bush campaign): I was a practical man, and I knew what I wasn’t. They’d never call my face the Presidential Face, which was okay because I had other ideas. Put it this way: In Spanish there’s a word, presidente, that roughly translates to “very tall controller” or “tall controller deluxe.” That’s what I aspired to.
Jim Lehrer (anchor, PBS): George W. Bush didn’t talk at any of the presidential debates. I’d ask him a question, like “What’s your plan for the economy?” and he’d 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. It’s getting worse. We have to stop it.
Jim Lehrer: I was embarrassed to be talking to either of these people.
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: It’s cliché 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 it’s 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 everyone’s lips were: “Which champion has solved the Floridian riddle? Was it you?”
George W. Bush: I can’t wait to expect a success in Florida. Tomorrow I will wonder who’s going to get Florida, and I will wonder who’s 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 Brokaw’s 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 I’m 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, he’d hurriedly announce that Al Gore or George Bush had won Florida, and then he’d go, “Okay, and good evening! It’s the Haunted Hullaballoo, and we’re all going wild for Sir Winston Churchill!” After that, he’d 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 it—things like “Crush me” and “Computer, put me as a cube.”
Al Gore: Donna told me it wasn’t 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? It’s been a terrible year and you’re a good man and I’m 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: There’s no English word that captures the mix of fury and panic that darkened George’s face in that moment, but in Spanish there’s one that does so perfectly: caramba. I looked into George W. Bush’s 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 won’t 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 morning—the one that speaks a lie or also the one that speaks a yes—the one with a voice like night’s 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.”
On the morning after the election, Bush led Gore in Florida by just 1,784 votes, a margin so narrow that state law triggered an automatic recount of all ballots cast in the state. As all eyes in the nation turned to Florida, the Gore campaign tried to call attention to a series of concerns with the voting process.
Joe Lieberman: Voting in Florida was a mess. No two counties worked the same. Most barely worked at all.
Al Gore: Miami-Dade County had voters check one box for the candidate they wanted to win and a separate box for the candidate they thought was going to win, but neither of these was your vote. You had to whisper your vote into a human ear that had been Scotch-taped to the side of the voting booth. It could have been clearer.
Bernard Shaw: Palm Beach County officials had installed toilets in the voting booths, but they were poorly designed, with one button for “liquid waste and Bush/Cheney” and a smaller inset button for “solid waste and Gore/Lieberman.”
Donna Brazile: In Broward County, the voting machines were cars that you crashed into walls with pictures of the candidates on them. Your vote didn’t count unless you totaled the car, so they wound up with a bunch of voters leaving the polling place thinking they’d voted for Gore when officially they’d voted for no one.
Dan Rather: A second problem in Broward was that someone had erroneously replaced [Reform Party candidate] Pat Buchanan’s photo with a picture of a video game character, a cartoon penguin called King Dedede, that some elderly voters claimed they mistook for Gore.
Ruth McAuliffe (voter, Broward County): I voted Buchanan due to the obese penguin. I wanted it to be Gore, but I was a sap in the round bird’s scheme.
Ralph Nader (Green Party presidential nominee): It was very close, so of course people accused me of losing Gore the election. I don’t buy it. There were plenty of alternative candidates, many of whom probably cost Gore more votes than I did.
Richard Algore (Democracy Party presidential nominee): I’m racked by guilt every day. I lost Al Gore the presidency.
Als “Premium” Gore (Gore Party presidential nominee): I’m Als Gore, and if that means what you know it does, then for you it will have to be my very own “Premium” Gore. That’s me, and when I have your vote, then it’s time to say, “Here’s Something Premium.” Happy holidays, and from all of us here at Als, thanks for voting me as the nation’s “Premium” Gore since 1992. Als “Premium” Gore: So now you have to try it.
Donna Brazile: The recount was even more chaotic than the voting itself. Half the people who were supposed to be doing it didn’t even show up, and the other half I’d find slack-jawed in the polling place break rooms watching Brokaw interview Churchill on TV.
Dick Cheney: Cliché as it sounds, we faced a logical Chess’ Stalemate. On the one hand, you had Gore, and on the other, you had us: not Gore. There was no room for compromise.
Katherine Harris (Secretary of State, Florida): As the deadline for the recount approached, I saw what had to be done. Early on a December morning, I dialed 911. I asked for the Supreme Court.
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 country’s 43rd president effectively fell to the Court’s 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 O’Connor (justice, Supreme Court): The birthday coincidence seems unlikely, but there’s a mathematical proof that once you have nine or more people in a room, most of the time they all share the same birthday. That’s 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 he’d received for lifting a motorcycle into the Lincoln Memorial’s lap. They took forever.
David Boies (lawyer for Al Gore): Finally, they called our case’s number and warned us to make it quick, so I stood up and said, “Vote Gore. It’s the law,” and then I sat down.
Theodore Olson (lawyer for George W. Bush): I stood up and said, “It’s 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 don’t 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 it’s 15 years ago and I hope it will be tomorrow. We just don’t 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 children’s 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 can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you what occurred to me: In Spanish, there’s a word, Jorge, and it’s a very common word, but it’s also a very famous word, and that’s because it has no meaning. Jorge is the most famous word in Spanish because it has no meaning at all.