Finally, two foes can talk

By Raja Mishra, Globe Staff, 12/14/2000

''Just moments ago, I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43d president of the United States,'' said Al Gore, opening his concession speech last night.

He then turned to humor: ''And I promised him that I wouldn't call him back this time.''

It was a reference to his early morning phone call to Bush on Nov. 8, when Gore retracted his concession and began the fierce battle over Florida's votes. But the larger reference was clear: The rancor of the last 36 days is over.

In many ways, yesterday's speeches were as much a conversation between two battle-weary foes as they were addresses to the nation. After all, only Gore and Bush had an understanding of what it was like to be at the center of one of the most tumultuous presidential elections in history.

Early on in their speeches they acknowledged this shared ordeal, with Bush explaining that he and Gore had ''put our hearts and hopes into our campaigns'' and Gore remarking that neither he nor Bush ''anticipated this long and difficult road. Certainly neither of us wanted it to happen.''

While Gore was clear about his feelings about Tuesday's US Supreme Court decision, he was equally clear about the importance in leaving the rancor of the last 36 days behind. ''Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it,'' Gore said.

''As for the battle that ends tonight, I do believe as my father once said, that no matter how hard the loss, defeat might serve as well as victory to shape the soul and let the glory out,'' he said.

It was evident that Gore wanted to leave no doubt that his challenge to the election in Florida was at a definitive end. The vice president twice referred to Bush as ''president-elect,'' offering his concession ''for the sake of our unity of the people and the strength of our democracy.''

Both men thanked the women behind them during the campaign and the 36-day Florida dispute.

''So for me this campaign ends as it began, with the love of Tipper,'' said Gore, with his wife, his children, and his running mate, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, standing off camera as he spoke from the Eisenhower Executive Office building in Washington, where he has worked for eight years as vice president.

Bush said of his spouse, ''Laura's active involvement as first lady has made Texas a better place, and she will be a wonderful first lady of America.''

In attempting to restore calm to the political system, Gore asked those who had voted for him and fought for him in Florida to give their respect to Bush. And Bush reached out to this group as well, pledging to do his best to serve their interests and earn their respect, ''whether you voted for me or not.''

It was apparent that Bush viewed the speech as his debut as president. He spoke before the Texas Legislature, much as a president would address Congress during a State of the Union speech. And he returned, after weeks of chads and election law and Supreme Court arguments, to the policy issues that likely will be the centerpieces of his presidency.

''Together we will save Social Security and renew its promise of a secure retirement for generations to come. Together we will strengthen Medicare and offer prescription drug coverage to all of our seniors. Together we will give Americans the broad, fair and fiscally responsible tax relief they deserve,'' Bush declared.

Gore, meanwhile, addressed his own future.

''As for what I'll do next, I don't know the answer to that one yet,'' he said. ''Like many of you, I'm looking forward to spending the holidays with family and old friends.

''I know I'll spend time in Tennessee,'' Gore added, ''and mend some fences, literally and figuratively.''