Chronicle Election Coverage
Fear and Loathing in Austin
It was about 1:45 in the morning, and Mark McKinnon was soaring high above the rain-sodden crowd of journalists and George W. Bush supporters gathered at 10th and Congress to hear the election results tallied. About 30 minutes earlier, CNN had declared Bush the winner of Florida. That declaration gave Bush 271 electoral votes and, it appeared, the White House. As he walked down the slick stairs of the eight-level camera platform used by the TV stations, McKinnon, the still-recovering Democrat, was elated.
"I feel like I've just had a bunch of psychotropic drugs," the Bush media adviser told the Chronicle -- "the good kind." By 2:43am, it began to feel like McKinnon had shared his stash with a whole bunch of people.
Indeed, the phantasmagoric quality of Tuesday evening would likely have tested the sobriety of Hunter S. Thompson himself. Where else could a political junkie have been treated to an appearance by Wayne Newton followed shortly by a series of songs from the tie-dye-clad members of the South Austin Gospel Choir? Yet that's exactly what happened. Mr. Las Vegas himself -- all teeth, dyed hair, and diamond pinky rings -- treated (or abused, depending on your taste) the crowd with a rendition of "Danke Schoen." He and Bo Derek -- yep, Bo Derek -- also reminded the crowd that there's "nothin' quite like prayer," shortly before they led the crowd in 10 seconds of silent supplication for W. Then came a Wayne's World rendition of "America the Beautiful" with the bodacious Bo singing backup.
But all the songs, including another round of "America the Beautiful," prayers, intermittent downpours (Newton thanked God for the rain, much to the confusion of a soaked crowd), and the crush of people had no effect on the vote numbers appearing on the looming Jumbotron. And nearly an hour and a half after CNN declared Bush the winner, the mood of the dwindling crowd of die-hards waiting for the governor turned dark. Al Gore was back on the phone with Bush. A few minutes earlier, he had congratulated Bush on his victory. Now he was calling to say he was not yet ready to concede the election. It was too close to call, Gore told Bush. The vote tally in Florida -- which earlier in the evening had mistakenly been awarded to Gore by TV prognosticators -- was in doubt. "I don't think I have the vocabulary to describe what we've experienced tonight," a dismayed Judy Woodruff said on CNN.
There are few adjectives in the thesaurus that describe the closeness of the contest. By 10am Wednesday morning, with 99% of the vote counted, Gore was leading Bush in the popular vote by 273,613 votes, out of more than 97 million cast. He also held a lead in electoral votes, by a margin of 260 to 246. But the next resident of the White House will be decided by Florida's 25 electoral votes, and it's not yet known when that state's ballots will be counted. By midday Wednesday, Bush was clinging to a razor-thin margin in the state -- just 1,793 votes, out of nearly six million cast.
That handful of votes, combined with a few thousand absentee votes that hadn't been counted, would determine the election. And it might be 10 days or more before all of the absentee ballots are counted. Adding uncertainty is the Gore camp's claim that some voters in the Palm Beach area mistakenly voted for Patrick Buchanan rather than Gore due to a poorly designed ballot.
In fact, that's just one of a raft of apparent irregularities in the Florida voting. Still, as the Chronicle goes to press, most observers are predicting that Bush's tenuous lead in Florida will stand, and that the still-uncounted absentee votes -- many of which come from overseas military personnel -- will likely favor Bush.
Amidst all the yammering about the closeness of the election, a few clear points can be discerned: Bush will likely be the victor because he ran a better campaign, he's smarter than people give him credit for, he effectively branded Gore as a liar, and finally, Gore likely cost himself the election.
Bush simply ran a better campaign. Sure, he spent a ton of money. Analyst Paul Begala told MSNBC that the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee together spent nearly $750 million. And yes, they were at times arrogant beyond all reasonable measure. Remember Bush strategist Karl Rove's prediction on Monday -- that Bush would win the popular vote by six percentage points and the Electoral College with 350 votes?
Obviously, Rove was wrong, and his months-long effort to give Bush's candidacy an aura of invincibility was a canard. But give Rove credit. He ran a focused, disciplined campaign, whose message rarely wavered. And the "G word" has already been applied to Rove. Around 10:40pm or so, GOP pundit Mary Matalin told CNN's Bernard Shaw that all the doubters can "now consider the genius of Karl Rove." The bespectacled genius, said Matalin, quarterbacked the "most superior ground game ever executed by the Republican Party."
Sure, it's fashionable to hammer Bush by suggesting he's an idiot. But if he's so dumb, how could he have gotten so many smart people -- including many of his father's advisors -- to believe in him and back him? Republican media consultant Stuart Stevens said Bush won because of two things: "He's wicked smart," said Stevens, "and he has an ability to connect with people, and that's a rare combination."
Bush's smarts showed in the debates, events which his advisors, including Stevens and McKinnon, believe won the election for him. Bush was able to find a consistent tone for the debates. He was relaxed and informed, but didn't sound wonkish. Gore may have had a better grip on policy minutiae, but, as Stevens pointed out, he couldn't settle down. He was either too hostile, too passive, or too tentative.
Branding Gore as a liar worked and likely won the election for Bush. Clearly, Gore was hurt by his association with Bill Clinton. But Bush made honesty the subtext of his entire campaign. The mendacity platform was unveiled in March, when Rove launched the jihad with a line that has since been repeated hundreds of times by members of Bush's camp: "Al Gore is willing to say anything to get elected," said Rove. Thereafter, the media seized on every misstatement Gore made, while largely ignoring Bush's whoppers.
And there were plenty of those. Bush, for example, lied to Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News in 1998 about whether he'd been arrested since 1968. In 1996, he and his then-general counsel, Al Gonzales (whom Bush later appointed to a vacant seat on the Texas Supreme Court, and who won election to it Tuesday night) devised an elaborate plan to allow Bush to avoid jury duty and thereby avoid any questions about his 1976 drunken driving arrest and guilty plea in Maine. While he didn't lie about his past directly, Bush didn't answer his juror's questionnaire, which included questions about his criminal record. And although that's not a lie, Bush told the media at the time that he was "just an average guy showing up for jury duty."
Bush also lied about his service in the Texas National Guard. He wrote in his autobiography that he served his stint honorably. But his service records show that he didn't bother to show up for a full year of his hitch. Never mind that Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, campaigned on increasing the readiness of the American military, which increasingly relies on reserve units like the National Guard to maintain readiness.
And questions remain about Bush's truthfulness with regard to Funeralgate, the influence-buying scandal involving Service Corporation International. Last year, Bush issued a sworn affidavit in the matter. Since then, his statement has been contradicted five times -- twice by Bush himself, and three times by Bush supporters who have no reason to attack his credibility. While the affidavit helped him avoid being put under oath in a still-pending whistleblower lawsuit, it may come back to haunt Bush, who will likely be required to testify under oath on the matter after the election.
The Bush campaign's strong showing offers a stark contrast to the often-disorganized campaign run by Gore. Unlike Bush, who was able to rely on a core of loyal lieutenants, Gore's staff was continually changing. He never developed a solid strategy, nor a solid message. Perhaps the most painful criticism of Gore's campaign was made early Wednesday morning by David Corn, a political writer for The Nation. Corn, who was clearly rooting against Bush, pointed out that Gore didn't win his home state of Tennessee. Given that, said Corn, "Gore doesn't deserve to be president."
Indeed, Gore's lack of a home base and his ever-changing campaign staff hurt him. And unless something weird happens during the recount in Florida, Gore's lackluster campaign could hurt the Democratic Party for many years to come.
In the meantime, get ready for a rock & roll presidency. If you thought Bill Clinton was a Baby Boomer President with an attitude, get ready for George W. It has already been decided that Jimmie Vaughan will be playing the Inaugural Ball. And a sure sign of more rock & roll to come appeared on the Jumbotron within a few minutes of CNN's premature declaration of Bush's victory at 1:17am Wednesday, in the form of a clever music video starring -- who else? -- George W. The video includes dozens of shots of Bush on the campaign trail: Bush on a boat, Bush running, Bush with Jay Leno, Bush with his wife Laura, Bush with Alex Trebek, Bush with his dad, his mom, again with Laura, and numerous outtakes of Bush looking goofy. It was put together by McKinnon and set to Stevie Wonder's 1970 hit, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours."
Like it or not, it appears that George W. is ours for at least the next four years. At the end of that time, we may be singing another Stevie Wonder tune from that same 1970 hit album. It's the track that follows "Signed Sealed Delivered." It's called "Heaven Help Us All."