The recent two-plus hour debates among GOP and Democratic presidential hopefuls can feel like a slog, but nothing compares to the monthlong national spectacle that followed the 2000 election.
Nov. 7 marks the 15-year anniversary of the race that saw Al Gore concede (and then un-concede) to George W. Bush — and the start of the fog of uncertainty that didn’t clear until a Florida recount made Bush president No. 43. Given the milestone, and the current heat (and ratings potential) around all things election, CNN revisits the recount during Monday’s Bush v. Gore: The Endless Election.
CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger, who made the doc, interviewed Jim Baker, Joe Lieberman and Bill Daley among others. She also spoke with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of its premiere and explained that time has made people on both sides of the political spectrum much more open about one of the most contentious moments in contemporary political history.
Why do you think this is particularly relevant this year?
This is the 15th anniversary of the 36 days of hell, as people describe it — on both sides, by the way, winning and losing. It was Jeff’s [Zucker] idea, and he thought it would be a really good story to tell one year from what could be a very close election. Is the country still divided? Yes. But we were in a different era back then. The lack of communication then, compared to now, is striking. We live in this world where we’re in instant contact with everyone on Twitter, social media, etc. We begin the doc with a story that is almost hard to believe. The folks in Al Gore’s own boiler room see Gore’s motorcade leaving the hotel in Nashville for the War Memorial [for a concession speech], and they couldn’t reach anyone in the motorcade — their pagers were off because they were so depressed — so they had to go through the White House switchboard. And when they finally got through to [Gore], they asked “What are you conceding? We haven’t lost.” This is 15 years ago, but it’s light years ago.
And the news wasn’t as immediate.
It was sort of the dawn of the 24/7 cable era — and also an era where if the network anchors said anything, it had to be true. All of the networks had declared that Bush had won Florida. They believed the networks. For an audience like my kids, who don’t remember, it’s a moment I think they would enjoy looking at — because it’s not an era in which they grew up. Even the people I interviewed find it hard to imagine this happening today in this way. We’re never in the dark anymore.
What’s new to the story this many years later?
Everybody is so candid in their recollection about what happened and the mistakes they made, particularly on the Democratic side. [Former White House Chief of Staff] Bill Daley admits he made a mistake in having Gore concede. And for the Republicans, [former Secretary of State] Jim Baker is very forthright about the strategy to maintain that they won and they would not contest an election. The Democrats were there to contest and the Republicans were there to preserve a win.
Did you get any pushback?
When you tell people you want to go back 15 years ago, you can hear the audible moan. But once people warmed to the idea, they were willing to participate. In politics, you’re surrounded by spin every day. And to take yourself out of the daily story and put yourself back to the closest election in modern political history, sitting down with the people who lived it, it gives you better perspective of what’s going on now. It’s also a lot of fun.
Were there any interviews you wish you’d gotten?
Well, yeah, Gore and Bush. [Laughs.] Those are really the two. They’re both very polite through their people, and Gore has clearly moved on and done quite well for himself. Even talking to people about him, he doesn’t talk about it very much. And, clearly, W. has no interest in talking about it. But they understand it’s the anniversary, and they did not stop anybody on their teams from talking. Jim Baker and Bill Daley, who were the chief campaign strategists, were very forthright about what occurred and tell the story well.
Did you learn anything that surprised you?
There’s a lot of new anecdotal stuff. Baker admits that he had a grudge against Gore, that he didn’t mind doing the recount, and Daley admits he made a mistake in having Gore concede to Bush. There’s also a lot about the disagreements among Democrats about how hard to fight. Nick Baldick, one of their strategists, says, “We brought a knife to a gunfight.” There have been a lot of academic studies about recount, and everybody kind of comes out in roughly the same place — which is that more people probably went to the polls intending to vote for Al Gore, but of the votes that were counted, more people voted for Bush. And you can’t count intention.
What do you want people to take away from this?
That their vote matters.