The evening after the longest Election Night in American history, most of Al Gore’s top consultants, bedraggled and functioning on less sleep than surgical interns, entered the freight elevator of the Loew’s Hotel in Nashville, ground zero for the Gore campaign, to descend to their fleet of cars. They would soon be whisked to Senator Lieberman’s plane and then back to Washington, where they could at least worry about the future of the presidency amid the comforts of home. Just then, Bob Shrum, one of Gore’s key strategists, got a call on his cell phone. It was Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal, calling from the White House. Shrum listened for a moment before all the tension he’d held in a lockbox for some 36 hours of CNN and second-guessing finally exploded. “Goddamn it, we do have talking points!” Shrum shrieked, according to a witness. “We’ve put out talking points! You don’t know what you’re talking about, Sidney.”
The message coming from the White House was clear: You guys don’t have your act together.
For a year and a half, Bill Clinton had been throwing tantrums about being left on the sidelines of the campaign. Days after Gore announced his candidacy and appeared on prime time to denounce the president’s behavior in the Lewinsky matter, Clinton called up the New York Times and confided that he thought his vice-president had been trying to do too much in one day. In October, he leaked his annoyance that Gore had included so few Clinton people on his team. Even in the final weeks, Clinton’s allies griped that the president wanted to help his veep but had been rebuffed.
Now, with the election in overtime and the president and vice-president communicating only on a surface level – an Election Night congratulations on a hard-fought race, a brief chat the following Friday – White House aides have been making anguished, overwrought calls to the Gore camp, offering advice. “Typically, Clinton would be calling the world about this,” says one White House adviser. “We really tried to limit that and curtail his natural impulses.”
One of those off the presidential phone list, apparently, is campaign chairman and former commerce secretary William Daley, whom Clinton called regularly during the campaign. Now too much contact could look like he’s taking sides, and he might “need to be saved for some future weigh-in,” says the adviser. Instead, Steve Ricchetti, deputy chief of staff and one of Clinton’s closest White House friends, places the frequent calls to Daley, who was his boss when the two wrangled China’s admission to the World Trade Organization. Perhaps it’s no surprise Clinton went golfing with Ricchetti the weekend after the election – he was the direct link to ground zero in the guise of a duffer.
After eight years of planning, plotting, and ultimately sabotaging his legacy, Clinton has finally won his chance at redemption with a fluke of electoral mayhem. While Gore and Bush – as well as their platoons of legal experts – play a high-stakes game of capture the flag, Clinton has been hanging Veterans Day wreaths and meeting with Arafat and Barak to make his last pitch for peace in the Middle East. Last Tuesday, he set off for an eight-day trip to Asia, with a historic visit to Vietnam. As he rises above partisanship, he looks that much more presidential (especially compared with Dubya, who rearranged his furniture in Texas to mimic the Oval Office; Clinton friend Paul Begala joked that “It looked like the Annandale High School production of The West Wing“).
“Typically, President Clinton would be calling the world about this,” says one White House adviser. “We really tried to limit that and curtail his natural impulses.”
Clinton seemed to have settled into his Zen calm on Election Night after working the phones on his party’s behalf until the polls closed. “He was actually suffused with this glow,” says Harold Evans, who spent part of the wee hours of election morning watching the returns with Clinton and Senator Hillary in a Manhattan hotel suite after the Talk-magazine party. “There was no pale neurotic here saying, ‘Oh, my God, my God, what are we going to do?’ The pale neurotics were all around him. Everybody else was worried like hell. It wasn’t grace under pressure. It was more like engorgement under pressure.” When Bush first earned the presidential graphics at 1:16 a.m. and many of the Democrats there began piling on Gore, Clinton offered nothing but praise.
Democrats have a long memory, and they’re not hard-pressed to recall how some Republicans refused to accept Clinton as president. Some rejected the use of the title along with his name and failed to stand when he entered the room, and Dick Armey habitually referred to him as “your president” when addressing Democrats on the floor, even when the election tallies were clear in ‘92 and ‘96, and even before Monica. The players on both sides of the battle have done hand-to-hand combat before. “Give me a break,” says Begala. “Bush is sitting there with his father’s former secretary of Defense, with a member of his father’s former national-security staff, his father’s former deputy chief of staff. His dog is the son of his father’s bitch … and he’s talking about a fresh start in Washington?”
For a White House that endured eight years of virtually uninterrupted assault and scandal, the circus atmosphere around the election feels like home. Last week, half the White House left for Vietnam, and work on the federal budget overseen by Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert ground to a halt until the mess in Florida gets sorted out. “We have a lame-duck session of Congress, with a lame-duck president and no sense who the new duck is going to be,” says a senior White House official.
Staff members don’t even know which resignation letter to prepare to submit by early December – the one with the language signaling hostile takeover or benign surrender. Most just sit around watching CNN, marveling at the weird atmosphere. “I bet somebody has opened up a constitutional-law book just to see, does the term really expire if there’s not a new president?” says Begala. “Apparently the answer is yes. Then you get President Hastert.”
Just before the election, the White House and the Republican leadership had worked toward a final budget and, in fact, had shaken hands on the deal. But then the Republicans retracted their agreement, hoping that the elections would provide them with better positioning. Now the only agreement is that appropriations need to be pushed to December 5, since the legislators are too distracted by their television sets; they can’t fight without Clinton and his chief of staff, John Podesta, around; and they shouldn’t be asked to “put down their forks,” in the words of the Speaker’s spokesperson, John Feehery, during Thanksgiving weekend. (Ironically, the most bitter partisan feud in the budget debate was over workplace rules to prevent repetitive-stress syndrome – regulations now needed most by the poor ballot counters in Florida.)
The Democrats had planned for this kind of chaos ahead of time. Over a week before the election, the Gore campaign took the unusual step of summoning advisers to Nashville to prepare for the possibility that Gore would win the electoral vote but not the popular vote, or for the event that a state or two would be disputed. Among the issues discussed were what would happen to financial markets and how foreign governments would be kept calm. “There was talk about how you would need to bring in sort of a CEO type of figure like a Warren Christopher or a George Mitchell, who could help to be a public face for it,” says a Gore adviser, “and you’d need a kind of chief operating officer like a Bill Daley – and there were a couple other names – to be the point person in moving this stuff forward. There were legal steps you would have to take immediately.”
No one planned a role for old Bill, but he’s always had a keen survival instinct. The budget negotiations will soon take center stage, and he’s the closest to unbiased of anyone in the drama. His press tour – complete with the cover of Esquire – has rolled along nicely. His staff can’t even scoot out to job interviews until the last court decision comes down in the Gore-Bush crisis (you can’t buy that kind of loyalty). Amid all the chaos, he, Bill Clinton – Bill Clinton?! – appears to be the calm in the eye of the storm. “It gives him more to do than just prepare to run for president of the Senate Spouse’s Club,” observes Begala.