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Undecided by a Landslide 

The play-by-play on an all-nighter of indecision

At press time, there is no eleventh hour victory to announce. It looks more likely that a 36th hour decision is about as close as we'll get on this one, but 11 hours of watching and listening as the major broadcast media wrestled down the results of the 2000 presidential campaign was too good to bury as a footnote on the historic evening. The big one is still in limbo, but even if the only news was electing a sitting First Lady to the Senate and voting in the dead guy in Missouri, it was a night to remember. Watching the pundits befuddle themselves was as rivetingly suspenseful and hilariously entertaining as television has a right to be.

In the first hour of returns watching, Dan Rather roped his audience in with the promise that if key states like Tennessee and Arkansas fell to Bush, it would be "whoopee time" in Austin. By the time he described the Virginia Senate race as "ugly enough, nasty enough to gag a buzzard," I was hooked. I spent the night listening to NPR and flipping channels between ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, NBC, and the Comedy Channel, but if Dan Rather was spinning downhome witticisms, I wanted to hear them.

Thanks to KRCC, I didn't have to spend election night in the company of strangers. I could hear my regular newscasters from NPR reporting and analyzing the returns until about 9 p.m., when KRCC finally turned off the NPR feed.

Rather has always been a live wire, at least since his "What's the frequency, Kenneth" days. I've seen him imitate train whistles and sing old songs his granny taught him when visiting David Letterman, and on election night, he was determined to let it all hang out. It's hard to believe he didn't have a catalogue of metaphors and similes lined up to recite as he cracked his cohorts up with at least one gem every five minutes he was on the air. As the eastern states closed their polls, Rather let loose with a string of his A material:

On the southern returns: "George Bush is moving through the South like a tornado in a trailer park."

On a misquoted result: "These returns are running like a squirrel in a cage now and one can get a little confused."

On the Clinton/Lazio race: "It was about as hot as a New York elevator in August."

And an update on the southern states: "George Bush has run through Dixie like a big wheel through a cotton field."

While everyone waited for 8 p.m. EST, the initial exit poll data was inclusive, keeping all prognosticators from being able to offer quick projections. In what was meant to be a joke, Daniel Schorr's first comment on NPR's analysis was that it was "undecided in a landslide." He got a lot of laughs, but his take on the early outlook was dead on.

Once Florida came in for Gore, the electoral college vote tallies came fast and furious on the way to 270: Gore at 182 over Bush at 160. Bush at 185 over Gore at 182. Gore at 193 over Bush at 185.

"It's cardiac arrest time in this presidential election," Rather told his audience, and in one of his dozens of verbal inversions, told them to "Stay where it is" for continued coverage.

The numbers crept up, the lead changing with each report. Gore at 198 over Bush at 185. And then there was the oddity. Suddenly CBS had Bush at 197 over Gore, who had slipped back to 167. Florida had been taken out of the Gore column so quickly the analysts didn't know what to make of it.

"That will have the Bush people in Austin jumping out of their seats like they were stabbed with hat pins" observed Rather.

In fact, the Bush party had jumped out of their seats at dinner as if just such a pin had pricked them upon hearing that Florida had gone Gore. Dubya, Laura, Jeb and George and Barbara Bush abruptly left their dinner table and huddled in the hotel room before calling the networks to complain about Florida going against the Bush campaigns' irrefutable projections.

"We're not conceding anything in Pennsylvania or in Florida," the candidate told a hastily gathered news corps in his hotel suite, making his point before the polls closed out west. "The networks called this thing awfully early, but the people counting the votes have a different perspective," said Bush.

There was the scent of scandal all over the Florida brew-ha-ha. There had already been a complaint about ballots misleading voters to cast a vote for Buchanan when they meant to chose Gore, and word had filtered in that state troopers were stopping motorists on their way to vote near Tallahassee, raising the specter of racial profiling.

But the Bush clan seemed to feel they knew something, and you got the feeling it was something they had no business knowing. Florida had been promised by brother Jeb, and the feeling within the dynasty was that one way or another, the state was arranged as a foolproof win for Bush. End of story. When a reporter asked why they'd left dinner so suddenly, father and son stammered in harmony before pointing the finger at Barbara Bush, whose body language said "Sure, whatever. It was my idea to bolt out of the restaurant."

"Are you trying to make something...?" Bush began to ask a reporter, before wisely dropping the subject with a laugh. "We were pleased to carry Tennessee," he said, quickly changing the subject. "I think that was an interesting development."

With Bush surging to 212 over Gore's 167 on CBS, Rather speculated that it "could be that the lights are going out for Al Gore. Could be that Gore hears the axe falling." Hawaii (4 electoral votes), Arkansas (6), Iowa (7), Nebraska (4), Washington (11), Oregon (7), Arizona (8), California (54), Florida (25), Colorado (8), and Wisconsin (11) were still unreported, but in his eagerness to lead the pack with a projection, Rather became fatalistic. "You can just about say 'Adios. Been good to see you. Not going to happen,'" he said of Gore's chances.

NPR's Scott Simon was not so trigger happy. In an offhand half-joking comment after Florida was put back in play, he observed that "we may have to wait until the votes are actually counted this time before we announce a winner." Score another one for NPR's unwitting prophecism.

Meanwhile, Rather kept going with his forecasts of doom. "The advantage at this hour is clearly Bush. Unless there's a dramatic change, that's the way it goes." He had moments when he became philosophical: "It doesn't get much more important than this. The presidency is hanging in the balance." He had moments where he got spiritual: "Good book says the race isn't always to the swift nor to the strong, but as the reporters say, that's the way to get it." And when California fell, putting Gore ahead with 231 over Bush's 217, Rather became speculative about all the "if" possibilities that lay ahead, noting that "if a crawdad had sidepockets it could carry a handgun."

Bush closed the gap to six electoral votes at 231-225, and Rather noted that "the race is as tight as a too-tight bathing suit on a long car ride back from the beach." As midnight approached, he began calling California "the big burrito."

Although Florida had been put back in play, the analysts were slow to accept the possibility that it could actually turn to Bush. Chris Matthews on MSNBC was still accepting it as an inevitable Gore state when he noticed his stations' own numbers showing Bush winning 51% of the state with 74% of the returns in. NPR put Bush over Gore with a 233-230 count, while CBS had it even tighter in Gore's favor at 231-229. With 79 electoral college votes still to be determined, I found myself praying for rain.

Rather began stepping back from his apocalyptic predictions, calming down enough to say "Let's pause and take a deep breath. Appreciate it for what it is. This is the dance of democracy."

As Midwestern and western returns started filling out, key states like Wisconsin were evened up with only thousands of votes separating the candidates. "This shows you how tight it is," said Rather. "It's spandex tight." The nationwide popular vote was 49% to 48% in favor of Bush, and CNN's Jeff Greenfield's novel about a tied presidential election got plenty of subliminable plugs from his broadcast team.

When Arizona fell, Bush went ahead 237-231. "The fat lady isn't singing yet," Rather told his audience with new assurance, "but backstage one can hear her humming." Arkansas and Nevada fell, stretching Bush's lead to 246-231 with only five states left in play.

Washington went to Gore and it was 246-242 according to CNN. But MSNBC, slow on the uptake all night long, kept it tied at 242 a piece, leaving Nevada in doubt. It's hard to tell whether they were really that far behind on adding Nevada, but they had a grand old time milking the fact that at 12:12 a.m. EST the race was a total draw, completely unpredictable.

Meanwhile, Bush's lead in Florida had shrunk from 4 percentage points to 2 with 86% of the precincts reporting. The difference in votes was 103,332 shortly after midnight, and Rather's fat lady was buttoning bustier. It was down to 75,511 when 90% were in, and it was last call for arithmetic as Chris Matthews desperately attempted what he called "math under duress" looking for ways that Gore could win without Florida. The election was hinging on notoriously fuzzy math. "It's kind of waiting for three lemons to line up in Las Vegas," said Rather.

Bush was still ahead by 3/4 of a million votes nationwide, but there were a handful of states where Bush's lead was smaller than Ralph Nader's turn out. When a reporter covering the Gore camp was asked how Gore was responding to Nader's effect on the election, the reporter answered that "the words you get back are not words we would repeat on television."

"You'd have to say this thing is as tight as the rusted lug nuts on a '55 Ford," Rather said as 2 a.m. EST approached. The national picture was down to three: Oregon, Wisconsin, and Florida, which had narrowed to fewer than 30,000 votes. Missouri's Senate race was still up for grabs, and Rather characterized the status of the contest between the incumbent Ashton and the deceased governor Carnahan as "dead even."

Between 1:30 a.m. and 2:00 a.m. EST, Florida went to a 20,670 margin at 94% reporting and 38,031 at 95%. "We hope there won't be any killings over these," Rather said of the results, referring to the hotly contested election between Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr which led to a deadly duel between the latter two. On NBC Tom Brokaw was doing his imitation of Douglas Brinkley calling the 1960 returns between Kennedy and Nixon.

At 2 a.m., with 96% of Florida in, the margin was back to a 29,387 and the air was crackling with anticipation of a projected winner. At 2:04 a.m. Iowa went to Gore, putting him back in the lead at 249-246. "You talk about a ding-dong, knock-down," sputtered Rather. "I've never seen anything like it, nobody has. This has been a strange, unusual, even goofy night for Florida."

At about 2:12 a.m., the next return came in. Florida was still at 96%, but the margin was widening in favor of Bush, holding a 48,331 vote lead among the nearly 6 million ballots cast in Florida.

"When it comes to reporting a race like this," Rather said, "I'm a long distance runner and an all night hunter."

With numbers seeming to move in Bush's direction, it was time for the race to be the first to call it. I happened to see each of five major newsstations make their call by practicing some expert channel changing. NBC was first, with Brokaw announcing Bush the winner at 2:15 a.m. Rather followed seconds later, with CNN registering in at 2:16 a.m. and ABC suffering through an interminably meandering interview before Peter Jennings interrupted to declare the election for Bush at 2:18 a.m. The tally was 271 electoral votes for Bush and 249 for Gore.

"What you have to do in Washington is win, baby" said Rather, noting that second place would mean a quick disappearing act for Gore. "Everybody tips their Stetson to George Bush, as well they should."

In the aftermath, the pundits were quick to line up the reasons for Gore's failure. His reluctance to engage Clinton on his behalf. His too early abandoning of Ohio. And the Nader factor. One reporter informed the public that earlier in the final push of the campaign Nader had told him--off the record--that "I'll get more than 5% and Al Gore will get elected." Nader was standing at 2% and Gore was declared the loser, in a 48% to 48% national draw of the popular vote.

As a half hour stretched out, during which Gore called Bush to concede the election at 2:30 a.m. and preparations were made for each candidate to make their speeches, the vote in Florida had grown to a 55,536 lead for Bush, pacifying the prognosticators.

"We ain't seen nothing like it," said CNN's Greenfield of the unprecedented closeness of the race. And it was only getting closer. Suddenly the national lead had been cut in half, down to 386,364 votes. Suddenly Florida was reporting an 11,000 margin of victory for Bush.

It had been over half an hour since Gore conceded the election to Bush. He was in his limo two blocks from the War Memorial in Nashville to make his concession speech. The Secret Service was in place on the stage, ready for his entrance. Suddenly, a pager rang for one of his aides in the car. It was Michael Hoole, Gore's field director, with new information.

Speculation was running that there was a problem with Gore's teleprompter and he wanted to get it right before he made his last big speech on the national stage. But time ticked on. And the numbers got closer. It became apparent that Gore would play it safe and wait for the final votes to be counted in Florida.

Shortly after 3 a.m. EST, Tom Brokaw broke the news that the Secretary of State in Florida was reporting that 565 votes were separating the two men in Florida with 99.87% of the precincts in.

"This is what you call a short pencil," Brokaw noted. "Or as they say, this just doesn't pencil at this point."

Rather was still in the dark about the new numbers, and he put himself in the position of a viewer tuning in to the chaotic middle of the night reports. "Hello, what's this, Dan Rather?" he queried of himself, answering that "a) I don't know. b) I don't know anybody who does know."

Moments later he warned his audience to "hold on to the bedstead or something. 629 votes separate these 2 men in Florida." It was 3:18 a.m. EST.

"Well, that's where we stand folks; we don't know where these two men stand," observed Rather. "Neither NASA or the Russian Skaskadome (?) could track them they were wobbling so fast."

"It effectively is going to be a photo finish," said Brokaw. With 93% of the national votes counted, Bush's lead was halved again, hanging on at 186,000 votes. The network press service was still giving Florida to Bush with 6,000 votes, but the margin was decreasing quickly, and the numbers were skewing significantly higher than the Secretary of State's numbers.

"Will somebody find out for me if the Secretary of State is a Democrat or Republican," Brokaw asked. The immediate answer was that "he's a Democrat," but in a matter of moments it was revealed that she was a Republican.

So bizarre had the unraveling of events become that Brokaw found himself telling viewers that "now we're going to take you to the Secretary of State's web site in Florida." With 99.9 percent of the precincts reporting, Brokaw showed the official website measuring the candidates within 500 votes of each other.

"I really do think that something has to be done about the way we count ballots and the way we cast them," Brokaw remarked, marveling at how inexact this archaic ritual remained in the midst of the information age.

At 3:45 a.m., Wisconsin showed Gore ahead by a couple thousand votes in the state, still too close to call. Florida was reporting a 1,210 vote margin for Bush, approximately 1/30 of one percent. Anytime the vote differential is less than 1/2 of one percent, Florida law calls for a mandatory recount. Gore called Bush to take back his concession. One of Gore's aides later reported that part of the conversation he overheard featured Gore telling Bush "you don't have to get snippy about it."

"We are now looking at the single most bizarre election night," Greenfield marveled.

Brokaw once again led the pack with his 3:58 a.m. announcement that "We're officially saying that Florida is being called too close to call." Gore went back to his hotel, the tally back in his favor at 249-246. An NBC field reporter in Austin told Brokaw that "Governor Jeb Bush is now on-line contacting the Secretary of State's office in Florida."

At 4:10 am the national polls reported 46,696,389 votes for Bush and 46,683,628 for Gore with 94% of the results in. Bush's lead was down to 12,761 votes. Gore's campaign manager Richard Daley came out to speak to the bewildered supporters waiting in Nashville, telling them that "until the results of Florida become official, our campaign continues."

"We don't know whether to wind a watch or bark at the moon," reported Rather as everyone pulled Florida back for the second time that night. By 4:15, Gore had pulled ahead in the national popular vote.

Clay Roberts, head of elections in the Secretary of State's office in Florida reported that they were still waiting for absentee ballots from Brower County and that there probably more than 2300 (the 1996 total) of overseas ballots involved in the mix.

Don Evans came out to speak to Bush's bewildered supporters in Austin. "We hope and believe we have elected the next president of the United States," he told the crowd. "The latest vote shows Governor Bush winning by more than 1200 votes," he claimed, as if "more than 1200 votes" was some kind of watershed figure.

"I'm not suggesting that anybody's gonna call him Blow-Out Bush," chimed in Rather, alluding to Senator Lyndon Johnson's nickname of Landslide Lyndon, "but you can only joke so much. It's the future of the country, the leader of the free world."

On NBC, Jonathon Alter began addressing what he foresaw as an extensive, complicated, litigious battle over the recount. "A recount is an art as much as a science," he explained. "They're always disputed."

"At this point in time we don't know if Al Gore or George Bush is winning in Florida," said Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, "but in either case there will be a recount.

With 100% of the vote in, the election service results--not the lower Secretary of State results--had Bush with 2,902,733 and Gore with 2,902,509. At 4:37 a.m., the difference was 224 votes. Gore was ahead by 60,000 nationwide and the prospect of a split between the popular vote and the electoral college had never been more real.

"Politics is just as exciting as war and quite as dangerous," said NBC's Tim Russert, quoting Winston Churchill. "In war you can only die once; in politics you can die many times."

Brokaw looked like a man who had endured many deaths on behalf of his erroneous network, having mistakenly called Florida twice that night, along with every other major news broadcast. "We don't just have egg on our face," he admitted, "we have omelet all over our suits."

"The situation in Florida has wobbled into Wierdville," Rather told his audience at 4:47 a.m., noting that there was company in unusual results elsewhere in the nation. "Among other things, the people of Missouri have elected a dead man to be their senator."

Doris Kearns Goodwin remained jubilant and enthralled by the historic all-nighter, and began trying to put the inevitably split status of the country's voters into perspective. "When Lincoln won," she told Brokaw, "he put his three chief rivals into the cabinet."

By 4:54 a.m., Gore had opened up a 1% point lead nationwide, and by the time NBC signed off, he had a 250,000 vote lead with 96% of the vote in.

By 5:02 a.m., ABC had the electoral college at 260 to 246 in Gore's favor. "I hate to tell you," said Peter Jennings calmly, "but we're also on fire at the moment." A speaker monitor had caught fire after 12 hours next to the hot studio lights, which had never been turned off during the epic all-night coverage. Twenty minutes later ABC signed off, leaving only Dan Rather and the relentless CNN and MSNBC to continue by the dawn's early light.

At 5:30 a.m., Rather was still spinning his folkisms, wishing he'd been "a mosquito in the limo" when Gore made the decision to rescind his concession and imagining the moment when Bush heard Gore's decision, musing that "Governor Bush's eyes probably got as cold as your average pawn brokers when he heard that."

The night gave way to morning shows and shock jocks, with the strategy for a full day or more of recounting summed up by radio broadcaster Don Imus as follows: "Go down to South Beach, score an 8-ball, and get back there to work."

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