None of this ever happened. But if George W. Bush had lost the election, it could have.
I. A New Day in Washington
It is hard to reconstruct, nine years later, just how inspiring Al Gore seemed when he first addressed the country after being declared the winner of the 2000 election. It was a moment that nobody in Washington ever anticipated--at least not until Justice Anthony Kennedy at the last minute flipped his vote in chambers on Bush v. Gore, thereby permitting the Florida recount to proceed. (And even then, Gore was able to eke out a razor-thin 107-vote victory only when the Florida Supreme Court ordered that all disputed ballots be tallied.)
But as Republicans cried foul, Gore, on Christmas Eve, rose to the occasion. "What remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside," he declared in a nationwide television address in which he vowed to do "everything possible" to bring Americans together, including naming Republicans to his cabinet. Gore fulfilled his pledge two days later by picking John McCain as his defense secretary. Soon enough, the pundits were predicting that Gore had the potential to usher in a new "post-partisan" era in American politics that would make the country forget the nasty divisiveness of the Clinton years. Little could they imagine that, within a few short years, Gore would have embroiled the country in two unpopular wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or that, blamed for failing to stop the deadliest attack ever on American soil, he would confront a harrowing impeachment trial in the Senate that would make Clinton's Lewinsky troubles seem like a frolic.
II. The Troubles Begin
Gore's political woes began within minutes after he took office on Jan. 20, 2001. No sooner had he finished his inaugural address than a firestorm erupted over Bill Clinton's last-minute pardon of fugitive financier named Marc Rich. Although Gore had known nothing about Rich or the pardon, his White House was immediately under siege. Jack Quinn, a longtime adviser who was Gore's first vice presidential chief of staff, had later become Rich's chief lawyer. Sources inside the Justice Department leaked word that Quinn had gotten a crucial assist when Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, Gore's nominee to be A.G., told the White House he was "[neutral, leaning toward favorable" on a Rich pardon.
Career prosecutors at Justice were outraged. Inside the White House, tempers flared. "I can't believe the goddamn Clintons did this to us again!" First Lady Tipper Gore was reported to have screamed to her husband one night over dinner.
When NEWSWEEK reported on Feb. 10 that federal prosecutors in New York were considering a criminal investigation into the pardon, Republicans saw their opening. "How could the Gore Justice Department possibly investigate itself?" thundered Rep. Dan Burton, who, as chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, had already announced hearings. Even The New York Times editorial page agreed. Before the week was through, Holder's nomination was withdrawn. ("I'm done. Public life is over for me," he told The Washington Post.) As the price for getting the president's new nominee (Jamie Gorelick) confirmed, the administration had no choice but to capitulate to GOP demands for an independent investigation. Gore's term had barely begun and already he was saddled with that hallmark of the Clinton era--a special prosecutor.
III. A Gathering Storm
Yet there were even graver threats looming beneath the surface in those early days. On Jan. 25, 2001, CIA Director George Tenet (whom Gore had decided to retain) told the new president in a briefing that the "preliminary judgment" of the U.S. intelligence community was that Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda was responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole, which had killed 17 U.S. sailors off the coast of Yemen the previous October. That very same day, Richard Clarke, the White House counterterrorism adviser and another Clinton holdover, wrote Gore a fateful memo urging him to retaliate for the Cole bombing. "We have got to destroy these guys, Mr. President. If we don't, there will be more attacks," Clarke would later testify he told Gore that day in a private conversation outside the Situation Room. As Clarke recounted the exchange in his testimony at the House impeachment hearings (and in a bestselling book that somehow managed to come out the same day), Gore brushed him off: "Enough already, Dick. I know all about Al Qaeda. We'll get them. But now is not the time."
Gore would hear much the same thing from Tenet four months later when the CIA director presented a National Security Council (NSC) briefing about the alarming uptick in threat warnings about Al Qaeda. "The system is blinking red," an exasperated Tenet told Gore on June 30. Gore was troubled and told the CIA director to "stay on top of this one." But Gore once again insisted that there was nothing he could do about Al Qaeda right away. He had too much on his plate--like winning congressional passage of his new climate-change tax-credit proposals. Besides, the public had forgotten all about the Cole bombing. The U.S. military also had given him no good targets for hitting bin Laden. "What's the point of pounding sand?" asked McCain, echoing the views of the Joint Chiefs, at the NSC meeting that day.
Frustrated at the administration's lack of attention, intelligence-agency officials made another attempt to drive home their concerns about Al Qaeda. On Aug. 6, while Gore was on vacation at the family farm outside Carthage, Tenn., the CIA presented a President's Daily Brief (PDB) with the eye-grabbing title: "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S." Gore poured over the PDB and repeatedly underlined key portions. "Damnit, I want the FBI all over this right away," he told Gorelick in a phone call later that morning. But still, the brief was sketchy, offering no specifics or any proposed course of action. Certainly, there was nothing that dissuaded Gore later that day from directing White House lawyers to finish up work on a document intended to fulfill one of his campaign promises--an executive order banning religious, ethnic, or racial profiling by federal law-enforcement officials.
IV. The White House Under Siege
Gore signed the executive order at a White House ceremony on Sept 10. The next day, he flew off to Detroit for an education event at an inner-city school. He was reading a book to second graders about the effect of global warming on polar bears, Where Did All the Little Bears Go?, when his new chief of staff, Ron Klain, whispered in his ear that two airplanes had slammed into the World Trade Towers and that "America is under attack."
Gore flew back to Washington that afternoon and rallied the country. "This will not stand," Gore proclaimed. "We will not shrink from doing whatever it takes to prevail against the terrorists who did this to us." At a Camp David meeting later that month, Gore assembled his war council and gave the approval for an immediate invasion of Afghanistan.
As Bob Woodward later reported in his book Gore at War, some on the president's team--notably Vice President Joe Lieberman and McCain--wanted even bolder moves. "What about Iraq?" Lieberman asked. "Shouldn't we be going after Saddam as well?" Gore, according to Woodward's explosive account, thought Lieberman was "out of his mind." At Camp David, he curtly cut his vice president off. "Joe, this has nothing to do with Saddam," Gore said, ending the discussion. "Let's stay focused here."
Once the initial shock of 9/11 wore off and the Taliban fled Kabul, Republicans in Congress started demanding a full-scale investigation of how the country had found itself defenseless against a tiny band of terrorists. "We need to know who knew what and when about bin Laden," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said in early November. The same day, Sen. Arlen Specter introduced a resolution (cosponsored by every Republican in the Senate) creating a special Senate panel to probe the 9/11 attacks. Others in the GOP (and on the right-wing talk-radio shows) blamed nine years of "spineless" Democratic national security decisions that began when Bill Clinton pulled U.S. troops out of Somalia in 1993 and continued right up to Gore's failure to retaliate for the Cole bombing. Democrats were aghast at the GOP hypocrisy: Wasn't it Specter who, just three years earlier, had suggested that Clinton's decision to retaliate for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa was a "diversionary" move to distract attention from the Lewinsky scandal? And Lott who had said much the same thing when Clinton bombed Iraq?
But by now, the administration was reeling. In April 2002, The Washington Post obtained leaked FAA documents and e-mails showing that nine of the 9/11 hijackers--including all five on American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon--had been flagged for secondary screening the morning of the attacks by an agency computer system known as CAPPs, set up to identify potentially dangerous passengers. (The flagged hijackers had purchased one-way tickets and paid for them with cash.) But the airlines were barred from using the CAPPs warning as a basis to question the passengers themselves. Why? A commission on aviation security headed by Gore in 1997 had recommended against any extra questioning and frisking of passengers on the grounds that it might cause undue "inconvenience" or "embarrassment" for some religious or ethnic groups. "Does anyone here have any doubt we could have saved thousands of lives had it not been for those ridiculous [Gore] commission rules?" one internal FAA official had written in one of the most damning of the leaked e-mails.
Three weeks later The New York Times--quoting unnamed "U.S. intelligence officials"--reported the title of the bombshell Aug. 6, 2001, PDB about bin Laden's plans to attack. The first resolution of impeachment was introduced in the House the same afternoon. "Gore Knew" screamed the headline in the New York Post the next day.
V. Impeachment and Trial in the Senate
The summer of 2002 was agony for the White House. Each day, as the House Judiciary Committee pursued its impeachment inquiry, there were new leaks about government screw-ups in the run-up to 9/11. Despite Gore's orders to Tenet and Gorelick, his directives had never made their way to the field. The CIA didn't tell the FBI about two of the hijackers who had entered the country. The FBI had failed to follow up on warnings about Arabs attending U.S. flight schools. These and more foul-ups had taken place, the Republicans charged, because the Gore White House had been "asleep at the switch." "They were more interested in promoting their extremist climate-change agenda than in protecting the country," declared Dick Cheney, the losing 2000 GOP vice-presidential candidate in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute (where he served on the board). When Republicans scored an overwhelming victory in the 2002 congressional elections, locking up commanding majorities in both chambers, Gore's presidency seemed in peril.
On Jan. 20, 2003, two years to the day after he had been sworn in, Gore was impeached by a lopsided vote of 285-150. To make their case, the House impeachment leaders had crafted an article that charged Gore with the "high crime" of "dereliction of duty." But then, to mollify demands of libertarian conservatives like Grover Norquist (of the anti-tax advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform) and the NRA, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay included an extra article of impeachment that focused on Gore's post 9/11 actions, accusing the president of violating the constitutional rights of Americans by holding some terror suspects as "enemy combatants" and--even worse--issuing an executive order that blocked gun sales to thousands of citizens whose names had been added to the FBI's rapidly expanding terrorist watch list. (NRA "action alerts" trumpeted "horror stories" about innocent Americans being placed on the watch list and then denied their Second Amendment rights--all thanks to the "gun grabbers" at the White House.) The so-called civil liberties article seemed a stroke of political genius: not only had it whipped up enthusiasm for impeachment in rural America, but it had also attracted cautious support even from liberals appalled by the roundups of illegal aliens and other crackdowns of the Gorelick Justice Department.
White House political advisers warned Gore he needed to take bold action to save his presidency--and there was only one obvious option on the table: invade Iraq. Gore had thought the whole idea of an Iraq invasion made no sense and was based on skimpy evidence. But McCain and Lieberman--egged on by influential columnists like Tom Friedman and The Washington Post editorial page--had never given up their campaign for war. They relentlessly pushed Tenet to make his "best case" to Gore. When Tenet told the president in December 2002 that it was a "slam dunk" that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, Gore had seemed annoyed. "This isn't a basketball game, George," Gore had shot back, demanding to know how many sources the agency really had in Baghdad. ("None," Tenet was forced, sheepishly, to admit.)
But by the spring, Gore's resistance to an invasion began to soften, especially after his secretary of state, Richard Holbrooke--who had previously been on the fence--finally sided with the hawks. Holbrooke cited evidence--purportedly gleaned from the interrogation of a Qaeda detainee rendered to Egypt by the CIA--that Iraq had trained Qaeda operatives to use chemical weapons and might even be helping them acquire nuclear weapons. "We can't wait for the smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud, Mr. President," Holbrooke, with his flair for melodrama, said at one cabinet meeting. Under pressure, Gore caved. On March 20, 2003, on the very day his impeachment trial began in the Senate, Gore announced that he had ordered the U.S. military to invade Iraq--not for the purpose of overthrowing Saddam's regime--but to find "every last one of his WMDs."
The limited purpose of the invasion drew howls of derision from conservatives. But as American troops marched into Baghdad and were hailed as heroes (if less by the Iraqis than by American reporters who had been "embedded" with the military), public opinion started to swing back to Gore. To be sure, American soldiers couldn't find any WMDs or Qaeda terrorists either. But Saddam fled his palace and Gore proclaimed the country "liberated." Meanwhile, in his Senate trial, DeLay's maneuver of combining an article impeaching the president for doing too little to protect the country with another one impeaching him for doing too much started to backfire. "This is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink case," proclaimed Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. "And can our Republican friends really sit here with a straight face and tell us that if George W. Bush had been elected president he would have done anything different about Al Qaeda than President Gore."
Still, the vote was nerve-bitingly close and very much in doubt until GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham--heavily lobbied by his friend McCain--gave a dramatic floor speech announcing he would vote to acquit. "I care about this country too much to vote to impeach two presidents in a row," said Graham, who had been one of the House floor managers for Clinton's impeachment four years earlier. Much as Justice Kennedy's last-minute switch had made Gore president, Graham's unexpected about-face in the Senate saved him--by one vote.
VI. The Final Days
The rest, as they say, is history. Gore narrowly won reelection in 2004--but only because Cheney, his GOP opponent, had terrified the country by declaring he wanted to invade Iran and, "if they don't shape up," Syria, North Korea, and Venezuela as well. Within months into his second term, Gore found he was saddled with two wars--neither of which was going well. To invade Iraq, Gore had been forced to pull troops and logistical support out of Afghanistan, resulting in a resurgence of the Taliban (and the escape of bin Laden and Al Qaeda through the mountains of Tora Bora. In Iraq, a Sunni insurgency was spreading rapidly, throwing the country into chaos and resulting in the deaths of 3,000 Americans by the end of 2006. Gore--who had never wanted to invade Iraq in the first place--was heartsick over the slaughter. He began looking for an exit strategy. In December 2006, he rejected calls for a "surge" of new troops to Iraq and adopted the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, chaired by former secretary of state Jim Baker and former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton, calling for a phased withdrawal. McCain resigned. Sources close to Lieberman put out word he was considering abandoning the Democrats. By Gore's last year, his approval ratings were at historic lows in the mid-30s.
Small wonder then that, in 2008, Americans elected GOP candidate and former Florida governor Jeb Bush--who pledged to clean up the mess in Washington and restore America's honor and prestige around the world. He trounced Gore's handpicked successor, John Kerry. The Gore years were over. A new era, the Age of Bush, was about to begin.
Isikoff, an investigative correspondent for NEWSWEEK, writes for the Declassified blog.