Seeking 'common ground'

Bush pledges to serve nation, not party; Gore concedes, asks for unity

By Anne E. Kornblut, Globe Staff, 12/14/2000

USTIN, Texas - Ending an extraordinary battle that left the nation's highest office undecided for weeks, George Walker Bush claimed victory last night in the race to become the 43d president of the United States, solemnly promising to unite the nation just minutes after Vice President Al Gore conceded defeat and urged the nation to rally around his rival.

Addressing the country for the first time as president-elect, Bush pledged to ''find common ground'' with Gore and his supporters despite their long, tough campaign and 36-day post-election struggle for the White House. Sounding chastened by the fight, Bush refrained from reveling in his triumph, instead saying the time had come to ''begin the work of healing our nation.''

''I believe things happen for a reason,'' Bush said. ''And I hope the long wait of the last five weeks will heighten a desire to move beyond the bitterness and partisanship of the recent past.''

The speech, delivered in the chamber of the Democratically-controlled Texas State House, echoed in its forgiving tone the concession speech an hour earlier by Gore, and marked a significant shift away from the bitter dialogue the two men and their allies engaged in during and after the campaign. In a public address delivered promptly at 9 p.m., Gore gave Bush his full support, appealing to his supporters to let their disappointment be ''overcome by our love of country.''

''I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country,'' Gore said. ''Neither he nor I anticipated this long and difficult road. Certainly neither of us wanted it to happen. Yet it came, and now it has ended, resolved, as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy.''

With his election now official, Bush, 54, was poised to assume the presidency just six years after his first election as Texas governor. Aides said they believed the characteristics that in 1998 earned Bush a second term as governor would serve him well and silence his critics' doubts once he is inaugurated Jan. 20.

They pointed to a civil conversation with the vice president last night as evidence of his sincerity. Shortly before his appearance on national television, Gore called Bush to concede, and agreed to meet with Bush when he visits Washington on Tuesday. According to Bush's communications director, Karen Hughes, Bush ended the call by saying, ''I look forward to working with you to heal the nation.''

Gore, 52, had conceded to Bush in a private conversation once before, telephoning him the morning after the election to offer congratulations. But as the vote-count drew closer, Gore called back to withdraw the concession, sparking the fight that continued until last night.

In yesterday's address, Gore, who resorted several times to light, self-deprecatory humor in his remarks, said he promised Bush he wouldn't call him back this time.

The twin speeches, broadcast live around the nation during prime time, brought rapid closure to a post-election drama that had at times threatened to drag on into the New Year. For more than four weeks after election night, the candidates dueled over the rightful claim to Florida's 25 electoral votes, a protracted legal fight that effectively ended with a split US Supreme Court decision late Tuesday night.

In their unprecedented ruling, the high court agreed to reverse an earlier Florida Supreme Court decision ordering a manual ballot recount, dashing Gore's hopes of gaining the votes needed to defeat Bush. The decision stopped a controversy that at times appeared headed toward an historic vote in the US Congress, or, in a worst case scenario, a Constitutional crisis.

Even without the post-election wrangling, the race made history across the board. Ushered into office eight years after his father's loss to President Clinton, Bush will become part of only the second father-son presidential team in history, after John Quincy Adams, who followed in his father's footsteps in 1825.

Bush also becomes the fourth president to win without prevailing in the popular vote. But Gore, who earned some 300,000 more votes nationwide but lost in the electoral college, refrained from mentioning his popularity in his remarks last night, despite bitter sentiments expressed by aides and supporters who felt they rightfully deserved to win.

Gore stopped short of saying he lost the race to Bush, implicitly preserving his historical claim to having won more votes. But in an artful speech that aides said he penned himself, Gore expressed his faith in democracy, saying he understood the time had come to step aside.

''Now the US Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt: While I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome,'' Gore said, as his family and vice presidential running mate Joseph I. Lieberman looked on from the sidelines. ''And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strengh of our democracy, I offer my concession.''

Gore said he was unclear about his future plans, except that he will take some time with family and seek to ''mend fences'' in his home state of Tennessee, which went for Bush. And he concluded with one last poke at himself, echoing his call at the 1992 nominating convention for the GOP to ''go.''

''And now, my friends, in a phrase I once addressed to others, it's time for me to go,'' he said.

The long-awaited conclusion capped a two-year campaign in which both candidates spent more than $100 million; both raised unprecedented sums in a fight that boiled down to a single state: Florida.

The campaigns expected Florida to play a critical role, but neither could have predicted the theatrical battleground it became in the final hours, as tens of thousands of disputed ballots pitched the election into disarray almost immediately after election night. Adding to the drama was Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who once promised to deliver the 25-electoral vote state for his brother but wound up apologizing to his family on November 7, when a picture of the messy vote-counting began to emerge.

Jeb Bush was nowhere near the Texas Capitol last night. And although Bush said he phoned his parents, former president Bush and his wife, Barbara, early yesterday to share his good news, none of the extended Bush clan attended the speech last night.

Instead, in a sober setting that bore no resemblance to the wild party planned outside the Capitol for Nov. 7, Bush stood before nearly 500 colleagues inside the chamber of the Texas House, seeking to convey what he said was the ''spirit of cooperation I have seen in this hall.''

Bush has long prided himself on his ability to be a ''uniter, not a divider,'' using his easy-going manner and sense of humor to bridge the partisan divide in Texas. Last night, he sought to reassure voters of both parties that he would repeat that pattern in the White House.

''Our nation must rise above a house divided,'' Bush said, following an introduction by the Democratic speaker of the Texas House, Pete Laney. ''Whether you voted for me or not, I will do my best to serve your interests, and I will work to earn your respect.''

''I will give it my all,'' he said.

Interrupted by enthusiastic cheers despite signs in the hall urging silence, Bush wore a controlled smile, giving only passing acknowlegement to audience members as he sought to appear presidential before millions of television viewers.

The speeches, coming on the heels of a marathon battle that drew attention from around the world, brought rapid praise from officials nationwide. Republicans took particular pride in Bush's speech, heralding it as the dawn of a new era of bipartisan civility.

''Everyone is relieved that it's over,'' said Massachusetts Governor Paul Cellucci, an ardent supporter who campaigned on behalf of Bush. ''I really do think that, given the closeness of this race, Governor Bush, because of his temperament, will be well-equipped to bring the country together.''

But the outcome brought little comfort for Gore, a career politician who dreamed of becoming president since he was first elected as a US representative from Tennessee. Although he appeared confident during his remarks, Gore aides described the loss as devastating on both a personal and professional level.

And several Democrats, embittered by the legal maneuvers of the Bush team and a Supreme Court decision they believed was partisan, refused to abandon their claim that Gore was the true winner. US Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., an Illinois Democrat, said he disagreed with the court ruling ''with every bone in my body and every ounce of moral strength in my soul.'' He called the outcome a ''velvet legal coup.''

Gore's defeat prompted an especially angry outcry from minorities who felt the voting procedures in certain Florida counties were unfair, or, in some circumstances, illegal. And Democrats across the board expressed outrage that thousands of ballots across the state were never counted, decrying the Bush tactics as an effort to ''steal the election'' at any cost.

Faced with such lingering resentments, Bush is widely expected to scale back his campaign promises, including a $1.3 trillion tax cut and an overhaul of the Social Security system. Although he mentioned specific goals in last night's speech - in particular his pledges to reform public education, Social Security and Medicare and to provide a tax cut - he was careful to cast the programs as part of a vision shared by both Republicans and Democrats.

''We have discussed our differences,'' he said. ''Now it is time to find common ground.''

In the short term, aides said, he plans to embark on a public relations mission to build support. This morning, Bush is expected to attend a prayer service led by a black minister from Dallas to remind supporters that ''the healing continues,'' one aide said.

Bush then hopes to travel to Washington to meet with Gore as well as with President Clinton and leaders on Capitol Hill. He faces a closely divided Congress; with Gore's concession, Lieberman now returns to the US Senate, ensuring a 50-50 split between Republicans and Democrats.

Bush is also due to pay his first visit to the Bush-Cheney transition offices. Following Gore's speech last night, officials from the General Services Administration said they would release the $5.3 million in transition funds set aside for the president-elect.

Bush plans to resign soon as Texas governor, but aides to Texas Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry last night said the Bushes would be invited to remain in the governor's mansion until they leave for Washington.

Gore must vacate his residence to make room for the vice president-elect, Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne. Last night, before his speech, a single supporter stood outside his home, holding a sign that read: ''Gore 2004.''