"His eyes were glittering," recalls George Reedy, a Lyndon Johnson aide attending the 1956 Democratic convention that nominated Adlai Stevenson for president. "[Sen. Albert Gore, Sr.] was mumbling something that sounded like, 'Where is Lyndon. Where is Lyndon? Adlai's thrown it open and I think I've got a chance for it if I can only get Texas . . .'" Reed, as quoted in Bill Turque's biography, Inventing Al Gore, continues: "I have never seen before or since such a complete, total example of a man so completely and absolutely wild with ambition. It had literally changed his features."
Al Gore, Jr.'s face may not be contorting any more than usual in his increasing public appearances, but like his dad, he's consumed by ambition and needs just one state to achieve it. And with his lawyers now back before the Florida Supremes, asking for yet another count of yet another pile of ballots from which he feels he can literally scratch out a victory, it's clear there's no larger principle driving Junior's mania than gaining the Oval Office by any means necessary.
In Al's world—the one in which he invented the Internet, inspired novels, grew up working on a Tennessee farm and not lounging in a D.C. hotel—he won the election. "More than 100 million Americans voted on Tuesday and more voted for Al Gore than Gov. Bush," said Gore campaign chair William Daley in a press conference two days after the election. "Here in Florida, it also seems very likely that more voters went to the polls believing they were voting for Al Gore than George Bush. If the will of the people is to prevail, Al Gore should be awarded a victory in Florida and be our next president."
The next day, Daley, without retracting his earlier statement, asked Americans to be patient. "Suggesting that the outcome of a vote is known before all the ballots are properly counted is inappropriate," said Daley. That didn't stop Gore from partially parroting the standard line in a November 21 statement, albeit putting it in the passive voice. Said Gore, "Some of my own supporters have emphasized the fact that we won the national popular vote, but our Constitution requires a victory in the Electoral College." (His supporters rarely fail to point out that he's also ahead in the electoral vote, at least for the time being.)
Yet his belief in cosmic victory—there's not evidence of it on the ground—is the only thing that has been consistent in Gore's special world. Recall how we waded into this swamp a few long, long weeks ago: It wasn't the networks' two miscalls on Election Night. It was a statistical regression equation by a couple of Democratic academics that showed more Palm Beach County residents than expected picked up a pitchfork for Pat Buchanan. That led to the discovery of the now infamous "Butterfly Ballot," and charges that it was illegal.
"The ballot was confusing and illegal," asserted Warren Christopher in his stock-market-tanking press conference two days after the election. "The ballot was completely illegal," chimed in another Gore attorney. Daley again made the point the following day, claiming, "The ballot in Palm Beach was unlawful."
Yet for all their certainty, when it came time to take the ballot to court, Gore passed, instead allowing private citizens to make the point. A trial court rejected their case—I guess the ballot wasn't clearly illegal after all. The Florida Democratic Supreme Court is expected to rule on an appeal shortly.
But that doesn't really matter. The ballot fracas served its purpose—it bought Gore time to get in court on other matters, to deny certification in order to force a hold-each-ballot-up-to-the-light recount. When that failed to get him enough votes to win, and Bush was certified the winner at the hour appointed by the Florida Supreme Court, Gore's folks kicked his delusion up a level, claiming that there are thousands of ballots that haven't ever been counted.
This is simply false. As the Bush campaign points out, every ballot has been counted at least twice. Nor is the number of rejected ballots in Florida wildly out of synch with bum ballots in other states. Well over 2 million ballots—roughly 1.8 percent of the votes cast–were thrown out nationwide, according to Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. (This is more than six times Al Gore's margin of victory in the national popular vote.) In Florida, counting machines rejected fewer than 3 percent of ballots cast. Miami-Dade County's 9,000 undervoted ballots, those with no presidential candidate selected, are in line with figures in other states as well. These ballots account for 1.6 percent of ballots cast in Miami-Dade. Statewide in Florida, 2.9 percent of ballots cast didn't have a presidential candidate selected. This figure was 5 percent in Idaho, 3.9 percent in Illinois, and 3.6 percent in Wyoming.
Hand counts aren't necessarily more accurate than machine counts, as anyone who watched the counters over the Thanksgiving weekend surely knows. They just happen to be one of the two only obvious remaining routes for Gore to win the White House. The other is a court-ordered rejection of thousands of Republican absentee ballots in Seminole County.
Still, Gore's hired hands continue with their mantras. "Vice President Gore has won the popular vote nationally, no matter what happens," said Gore super-lawyer David Boies last Sunday. "Vice President Gore has won the Electoral College, outside of Florida," he added, before once again saying he believes Gore "won the vote here in Florida."
Mathematicians point out that we will really never know in some ultimate sense who "won" Florida, since the number of votes separating the two candidates under any scenario is well inside the margin of error of the state's electoral system. "The vote in Florida is essentially a tie," writes Temple University mathematics professor John Allen Paulos in the New York Times. Paulos later adds, "Measuring the relatively tiny gap in votes between the two candidates is a bit like measuring the lengths of two bacteria with a yardstick."
It's basically a coin toss. Nevertheless, it's one that Gore keeps losing and one that he should admit he's lost. "Well, we've had three separate results now, every one of which has said George Bush has won more votes in Florida than Al Gore has won," said a reluctant David Broder of the Washington Post on Sunday's Meet the Press. "At some point, it seems to me you have to say: If that's the result, that's the result."
Gore may take solace, or be driven mad in his political retirement, by pondering something else he has in common with his old man. It was Al Gore Sr.'s home state of Tennessee that pushed him into early political retirement in 1970, when voters rejected him in his bid for a fourth term in the U.S. Senate. In a similar way, Junior's likely retirement is not really a game of chance. Regardless of how the coin landed in Florida on election night—and all subsequent tosses there—if the citizens of the Volunteer State hadn't rejected him in 2000, he'd have at least four more years before he needed to look into the specifics of his taxpayer-financed pension.