Vice president said no to another appeal

By Glen Johnson, Globe Staff, 12/14/2000

ASHINGTON - The lawyers scoured the US Supreme Court opinion all Tuesday night and identified one more avenue of appeal, but when Al Gore awoke yesterday, he decided to end his bid for the presidency.

At the end of a brief meeting with his aides, Gore told them to announce his decision to the nation.

''The vice president has directed the recount committee to suspend activities,'' said a statement issued at 10:05 a.m. by campaign chairman William Daley. ''He will address the nation this evening.''

Gore's speech came five weeks after a split decision on election night triggered an automatic recount in Florida and subsequent challenges by the vice president. Gore won the national popular vote, but George W. Bush narrowly claimed Florida and with it, an Electoral College majority.

''Because of what is at stake, this matter must be resolved expeditiously, but deliberately and without any rush to judgment,'' Gore said on Nov. 8 in Nashville, as his running mate, Joseph I. Lieberman, stood by his side.

After 36 days, despite the urging of those aides who wanted him to continue the legal fight, despite political supporters warning him against abandoning those who claimed they were disenfranchised in Florida, the vice president decided there had been enough deliberation. In his judgment, enough time had passed.

That meant abandoning his lifelong dream of being president - at least for now - and yielding to George W. Bush as the nation's 43d chief executive.

Gore was alone with his wife, Tipper, and two of the couple's four children, Kristin, 23, and Albert III, 18, when the television networks announced at 10 p.m. Tuesday that the US Supreme Court had reached a decision on Bush's suit to block the count of Florida's ''undervotes'' sought by the vice president. Those were ballots without a clearly marked presidential preference.

The children, along with their eldest sister, Karenna Gore Schiff, had been at the high court for Monday's oral arguments. Karenna flew home to New York afterwards, but Albert and Kristin stayed by their father's side throughout the 331/2 hours of deliberations.

Unlike most court cases, word of the decision did not reach the campaign's lawyers through the clerk's office, but through the media. That triggered a bizarre scene in Tallahassee, Fla., where Gore's chief legal adviser, Ron Klain, was working late at legal offices borrowed from local attorney W. Dexter Douglass.

''We were just watching the guys reading it on TV,'' said one Gore adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity. ''We finally started to get our copy of the decision at 10:20, and as each page came over the fax, we ran it off on a copier and Ron got the vice president on the phone and read it off to him as it came in.''

Gore was at the vice president's residence on the grounds of the US Naval Observatory. Soon he and Klain were on a conference call with Daley, who was at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee; former secretary of state Warren Christopher, who spearheaded Gore's recount effort; strategist Michael Whouley, still in West Palm Beach; and attorney David Boies, who had just arrived home in Armonk, N.Y., after a train trip from Washington. Joining in was Laurence Tribe, the constitutional scholar at Harvard Law School who had represented Gore before the Supreme Court in another hearing on Dec. 1.

''The mood was analytical and businesslike,'' said an aide who observed the conference call. ''We were looking for a positive decision. What we got was a complex 5-4 decision.''

Amid the review, Gore's youngest daughter, 21-year-old Sarah, rushed home to Washington from Harvard University, where she is a student. Karenna returned yesterday morning.

At some point in the night, the time is unclear because the circle around Gore was so small, the vice president went to bed. In Tallahassee, Klain and other lawyers stayed up, poring over the Supreme Court's 65-page decision.

By daybreak, they had drafted a memorandum focused on a narrow ray of legal sunshine in an otherwise dark opinion. Seven of the court's nine justices had agreed the recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court did not fulfill the constitutional requirement of equal protection under the law, since there was no uniform statewide standard for deciding which ballots should be counted and rejected.

Separately, a spare 5-4 majority ruled that the case should be sent back to the Florida court for development of those standards, although that same group said it would be impossible to implement them in time. They said the Florida court had declared the state legislature wanted its slate of electors guaranteed by Dec. 12. That was by midnight Tuesday, a deadline that expired just two hours after the US Supreme Court issued its opinion.

The Gore team felt stymied because the justices had pointed to a possible solution, yet also said it was impossible to achieve because of time constraints. Gore's attorneys now suggested that the Florida court might agree to extend that deadline if they could reargue the case.

''The opening was in the fact that the majority opinion said that the Florida Supreme Court had deemed Dec. 12th the drop-dead date, and we didn't think they had,'' a Gore aide said. ''The opening was to go back before the'' Florida ''Supreme Court and ask them to clarify that that wasn't the case and to order the recounts under all the criteria laid forth in the US Supreme Court ruling.''

But when the team, in a morning conference call with other legal and political advisers, presented the idea to Gore, he quickly decided against pursuing further litigation.

''Obviously, in weighing it out legally and politically, it was too steep a hill to climb,'' the aide said.

With that, Gore told Daley to put out a statement. It began to whir across fax machines and chime into e-mail accounts just minutes later.

President Clinton, traveling in Northern Ireland, called the vice president at 10:20 a.m., minutes after the news broke. The two political partners, who had grown apart during Gore's campaign, spoke for about five minutes, a White House spokesman said.

The rest of the day had a surreal quality not just for Gore, but his staff.

The vice president committed himself to writing his concession speech, with help from speechwriter Eli Attie and Robert Shrum, the media adviser known in Washington circles as a wordsmith. At the same time, his schedule included a round of Christmas parties at the vice president's mansion. Among the guests was singer Jon Bon Jovi, who had been a loyal campaigner.

The end of the appeals also meant the end of the road for Gore's campaign workers. In Tallahassee, the staff and volunteers closed their local headquarters and removed office equipment from the Governors Inn, the hotel that had become a home away from home for Daley, Christopher, and the senior staff.

''I really believe that I worked for the man that got elected, regardless of that he won't get to serve,'' said one worker, crying as she spoke. ''I think history will prove us to be right.''

Another said sullenly: ''I feel like we fought a good fight for the right principle. Obviously, at this point, it didn't work out.''

Chris Lehane, the vice president's chief spokesman, was still spinning off the one-liners as he prepared to launch a consulting firm with fellow Gore aide Mark Fabiani.

''Obviously, the vicissitudes of life have their ups and downs,'' said Lehane, a Massachusetts native. ''Yesterday the Red Sox got Manny Ramirez. Last night, we got the Supreme Court ruling.''

At 52, Gore is still younger than most people who have become president. While his future is unclear, there is talk he may pursue an academic job as he mulls his political future. Harvard is said to have extended its time frame for seeking a new president so it can consider Gore, an alumnus.

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, a Democrat, and former Massachusetts Governor William F. Weld, a Republican, said Gore's prospects are bright.

Cuomo said that while the future is unpredictable, the vice president remains that presumptive favorite to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004.

''He won Florida in his mind and mine, as a practical matter, although he was denied a victory by the Supreme Court, and therefore he should have been the president,'' said Cuomo.

''If you add that his record as a senator and as a vice president, and his participation in giving us the strongest economy in world history ... I don't see how you deny him the presumptive role now.''

Weld, also a lawyer in New York, said: ''I think if he handles himself well this week and becomes president of a university and then campaigns for the Democrats in 2002 and they do well, he could be fine.''

Weld added: ''I think there's nothing older than an old election. I had two terms. In the first, I won 50-49 and got quite a lot done. In the second, I won 71-29 and got almost nothing done. Margins don't guarantee results. That may speak well for Bush's prospects, as well.''

Outside the vice president's mansion yesterday morning, a lone supporter held a sign that shared the optimistic view.

''Gore 2004,'' it said simply.