An alternate oral history of the last decade.
January 20, 2001: After an election too close to call, with a bitter battle over votes in Florida, a fractiously split Supreme Court stops the recount and declares Al Gore the 43rd president of the United States. Writing for the minority, Justice Antonin Scalia is uncharacteristically vituperative, ending with the statement: "The counting of votes of questionable legality has done irreparable harm not just to petitioner Bush but to the country as a whole. Indeed, how far has this august body fallen that we might contemplate as reasonable the perversion of an election and the awarding of the highest office in the land to a man—never has the term been more laughably conferred—who could not even carry his home state. We have abrogated reason and truth in favor of a consoling liberal fiction, a farce of wish-fulfillment identity politics and anthropomorphized, liquid-eyed woodland creatures whose habitats have been deemed more important than the will of the voting public." Scalia is officially censured for his "uncalled for ad hominem statements"—border[ing] on vendetta—"the expression of personal speech inimical to the role and spirit of the judiciary." His opinion is withdrawn from the official court record. Justice Clarence Thomas provides the alternate dissenting opinion.
Nina Totenberg, journalist, National Public Radio: "I don't think the court really ever recovered until 2006, or so. I really thought it would be Scalia who left, either from a heart attack or sheer disgust. When Sandra Day O'Connor resigned in October of 2005, he wouldn't even attend the formal ceremony for her departure. He still held her responsible for the deciding vote that made Gore president."
Jacob Weisberg, Slate magazine: "Gore had to reknit the republic. He needed to deliver an absolute stemwinder and bring people together after Florida and the Scalia thing. It was a very, very tall order. Did he do it? I truly don't remember. Ask anyone what they remember from that day--they all say the same thing: the Hug."
Don Hewitt, producer, 60 Minutes: "I was too cold to go down to the Mall, and everything seemed kind of sour, frankly. So, I'm watching the feeds and in comes Scalia with his wife, and that's when we see Joe Lieberman throw his arms around him, and Hadassah leans in and kisses Maureen. Suddenly I'm screaming, 'Cut to Gore, cut to Gore!' I don't think the president saw it at the time. He definitely saw it afterward. I do know that Tipper never spoke to Hadassah again, never even looked at her again. This was on the first day!"
"Big day in Washington today. Al Gore became the 43rd president. Very exciting. He has now become the leader of the free world. But it's nothing like the transformation of Joe Lieberman, who changed not just his job but his species and his sex. Didn't you hear? He's the vice president, sure, but he's also Antonin Scalia's bitch."
—Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, Jan. 20, 2001.
Josh Marshall, Talking Points Memo: "The Hug was just icing on the cake for those of us who had been watching Lieberman for years before. Joe's the one who was so outraged by the whole Lewinsky affair, you'll remember. He made Dick Cheney look funny and likable! I shudder to think of Cheney in any kind of proximity to the Oval Office. But there he is at the debates, being witty, while Lieberman's intoning, measured delivery is meant to make him seem like a man of God or something. But he just sounds slow."
In a show of bipartisan good will, aided by the cushion of a $237 billion budget surplus, the president is able to ratify an ambitious and comprehensive energy bill, with funding to explore alternate biofuels, wind power, and renewable energy. In March 2001, the United States becomes party to the Kyoto Protocol. At the signing ceremony, the president announces the breaking of ground for a high-speed passenger rail system along the Eastern Seaboard. The disused, old railroad cars are submerged to create artificial reefs. The Eastern Seaboard Maglev System, completed in September 2009, offers high-speed service from Portland, Maine, to Jacksonville, Fla.
An August 2001 Daily Intelligence Briefing warns, "Bin Ladin [sic] Determined to Strike in the U.S.," which prompts the president to authorize the strategic bombing of targets in the Khost province of Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border.
Frank Wall, White House counterterrorism adviser: "We had it on better-than-reasonable authority that Osama bin Laden, or at least his top guys, were hiding out under the protection of the Taliban who, if you remember, had just blown up the Bamiyan Buddhas that April, which was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nasty guys. It didn't go over well. We were not greeted as liberators there, and here at home, the general consensus was that the president was trying to look manly. I still maintain it was the right thing to do. American interests haven't been attacked by Al Qaeda since the USS Cole in Yemen, but who can really judge if an endeavor is successful by something not happening?"
Still gravely concerned by what he claims are terrorist threats, both abroad and at home, the president signs the U.S. Patriot Act, which is almost immediately repealed by the Supreme Court as an unconstitutional abridgment of guaranteed rights.
Joel Hoogenboom, national-security adviser: "The [Patriot Act] was a disaster. The president came away looking like a wimp who got slapped down by the Supreme Court, and he looked like a despot trying to overstep the powers of the executive branch. It was the perfect illustration of the administration's identity crisis. He overcompensates to try to seem macho and it backfires."
In his January 2002 State of the Union address, the president singles out Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, saying "their objectives vis à vis the United States are not dissimilar in malign intent to the Axis powers."
June 2002: The president signs a bill giving tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, worth $1.35 trillion over 10 years. There are cries of foul from both left and right.
"Gore the Candidate was a tremulous, poll-driven soufflé of a man, but Gore the Man was also once reassuringly pedantic and versed on the issues; a man with respect for facts, if not principle. It is this Gore who must be losing sleep over this craven, immoral wealth transfer, unprecedented in the history of pluralist democracies."
—Paul Krugman, The New York Times, June 18, 2002.
"Even conservatives, wealthy and otherwise, who will doubtless greet the tax cuts with a frabjous huzzah, will have to marvel at the sheer spinelessness of its signing. What a bitter draught of gall it must be for the left to have to finally chide themselves for having rallied behind this most pallid of oxymorons: bloodless Gore."
—Andrew Sullivan, AndrewSullivan.com, June 18, 2002.
October 2002: First Lady Tipper Gore launches R.A.M.R.O.D. ("Rap Against Misogyny, Racism, and Disrespect") with the enthusiastic cooperation of the hip-hop community.
Rachel Dratch, former cast member, Saturday Night Live: "Tipper and I, gyrating on the hood of an Escalade, with Snoop Dogg playing our Ph.D. adviser, might be the high-point of my career."
May 2003: In excess of 670 miles of wetland are restored along the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf Coast. To announce the successful completion of the initiative, the president holds a ceremony on the deck of a solar-powered casino boat in the Biloxi harbor, standing before a banner that reads "Mission Accomplished." It is roundly ridiculed.
"He plants some grass in the mud and prances around in front of a banner? Gimme a break. This isn't leadership it's toilet training."
—Bill O'Reilly, The O'Reilly Factor, May 27, 2003.
"Dear Mr. President, we elected a nerd. Please stop being a dork."
—MoveOn.Org billboard, San Francisco.
June 2003: The new White House pet becomes a front-page story. The naming of the chocolate Labrador puppy is left up to the president's 4-year-old grandson, Wyatt Schiff, who dubs the animal Brownie. The photographs make the covers of both Time and NEWSWEEK but have no lasting effect on the president's approval rating, which hovers at a dismal 42 percent. With the election fast approaching, the president embarks on a countrywide series of town-hall meetings, dubbed The Best Intentions Listening Tour.
"Tired, huddled, feeling lost?
Yearn to breathe, or tempest tost?
Jobless, or just got malaise?
Well, here comes Gore, O happy days!
Festoon the hallways, light the votives For POTUS and his noble motives!
This might sound picky, Mr. Gore,
We think you owe us slightly more.
Regardless how your thoughts are driven,
Your good intent is seen as given.
Was 'Best Intentions' as a motto
Cooked up while your team was blotto?
It's weak, it abdicates all onus,
Forgive us, but it lacks cojones."
—Calvin Trillin, The Nation, Feb. 13, 2003.
Despite a general disaffection with the administration (and calls among some of his closest advisers to replace Lieberman on the ticket), the robust economy and no major foreign or domestic conflicts are enough to secure a second term for Gore-Lieberman in November 2004, beating out the McCain-Kemp ticket by 51 percent to 48 percent. It was the narrowest margin of victory for a reelected president since 1828.
Cokie Roberts, National Public Radio: "There were essentially three campaigns going on. Gore, Lieberman, and McCain-Kemp. The president and vice president were together at the convention and the second inauguration, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a picture of them from anywhere else, or hear them even mention each other on the campaign trail. At that point, they were like married European royals."
March 3, 2005: At a Rose Garden ceremony, the president announces his health-care-reform package that includes a public option offering coverage to compete with private insurance. Polls indicate the American public is overwhelmingly in favor of such a program.
Ten minutes in, the vice president surprises all assembled by stepping up to the lectern to announce that, pursuant to the Twelfth Amendment, if called upon to break a tie vote in the Senate, he would vote against the bill. "Furthermore," he continues, "if the Republicans filibuster, I must in good conscience join them against this Washington-based entitlement program."
Regaining control of the microphone, a visibly angry Gore jokes, "Funny, Joe, I had no idea that the higher authority you were answering to was Aetna." The two men are never photographed together after this day.
Janeane Garofalo, comedian: "Everyone was so surprised, like this was some crazy aberration. Lieberman was always like that! I have no joke for this."
Aug. 29, 2005: Hurricane Katrina strikes Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama, with winds of up to 140 miles per hour. Although meteorologically one of the most significant storms in decades, the surge of water into New Orleans floods low-lying parts of the city to a depth of just three feet. Within hours, FEMA mobilizes supplies of food and water, and the Army Corps of Engineers shores up the levees and pumps out the flood waters within six days. Total mortality in New Orleans for the hurricane is just 17 people.
James Werthmann, National Weather Service: "Three miles of wetlands shaves about a foot off of any storm surge. Gore took a lot of ribbing for that whole "Mission Accomplished" thing, but I'm convinced Katrina would have been a lot worse without it."
Vincent Cardozo, deputy White House chief of staff, 2002-06: "They called the administration a geekfest, and I suppose it was. Katrina was a triumph of nerd preparedness. I don't see how you manage a job this big without being really geeky, if that means being serious and methodical and evidence-based."
Senate Democrats propose an official proclamation of recognition for the president's long-range vision and planning, and the prompt mobilization response that resulted in so little damage and so few casualties from the worst hurricane in a generation.
Majority leader Bill Frist counters, "The president performed admirably, but it poses an undue distraction from the daily duties of the Senate to have us issuing official writs of approval every time he does what is, ultimately, his job. Does he really need a pat on the head? He's not a dog," prompting the president to joke, referring to his chocolate Labrador: "Well, now that he brings it up, Brownie is doing a heck of a job."
September 2005: Chief Justice William Rehnquist retires. President Gore names Harvard law professor Martha Minow as his successor. Her confirmation proceeds with minimal opposition. Minow is the first female chief justice in history.
October 2005: Justice Sandra Day O'Connor retires. The president's initial appointment of federal judge Jed S. Rakoff is swiftly scuttled, due to his 2002 declaration that the death penalty is unconstitutional. The president then names Illinois junior senator and constitutional law scholar Barack Obama as 110th Supreme Court justice.
January 2006: After it is learned that the National Security Agency has been eavesdropping on private communications among citizens without search warrants, it is discovered that the program has been authorized and overseen by the vice president, with neither congressional oversight nor the knowledge of the president. Despite calls for his resignation, Lieberman is adamant, claiming that such powers fall well within executive privilege.
On Feb. 6, 2006, senators on both sides of the aisle turn their backs when the vice president enters the chamber. In a press conference on the Capitol steps, Lieberman tries to laugh off the gesture, claiming that "the insurgency is in its final throes. This will all be forgotten by tomorrow." By that afternoon, he is summoned to a closed-door meeting in the Oval Office, after which he tenders his resignation. As his replacement, the president appoints the junior senator from the state of New York, Hillary Clinton, to be the new vice president. New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is appointed the new junior senator.
Martha Raddatz, ABC News: "Hillary was the final corrective to any feud that was lingering between Gore and Clinton. You can see it at the swearing-in ceremony. Bill's holding the Bible, everyone is smiling, looking just—relieved. Then Colin Powell stepped down as secretary of state, and Bill was appointed. I guess it all got too cozy by half."
November 2008: The election is nicknamed the Family Feud, with the wife-and-husband Democratic Clinton ticket running against a resurgent George W. Bush (whose fortunes turned around after a tearful 2005 television interview about his alcoholism with Dr. Drew Pinsky) and his vice-presidential running mate, former Florida governor and brother, Jeb. Voters, seemingly unaware of the irony implicit in the GOP's "anti-dynastic" campaign against the Clintons, respond to the brothers, electing them by a narrow margin.
"I haven't much time left (which makes me incredibly sad, except when I think I might not have to witness the return of Shrub), so I'll just call it as I see it. Perhaps even more than Jimmy Carter, Al Gore might well become one of our great former presidents, filled with renewed purpose. But for that to happen, he's going to have to stop being weaker than bus-station chili. It is an inconvenient truth that faces Mr. Gore that he'll have to recover some backbone, along with another part of his anatomy, bifurcated in nature, enjoyed around these parts as the delicacy called calf fries, known elsewhere among our western neighbors as Rocky Mountain oysters. I just hope he remembers where he hid them back in 2000."
—Molly Ivins, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Oct. 31, 2006.
Ivins died three months later, on Jan. 31, 2007.