After 36 days of waiting, Texas Gov. George W. Bush laid claim to the White House Wednesday night with a promise to reach beyond the rancor of the postelection battle and build a government of reconciliation and bipartisanship.
Invoking Abraham Lincoln’s famous words, Bush said, “Our nation must rise above a house divided.”
“I was not elected to serve one party, but to serve one nation,” the soon-to-be 43rd president told an audience of 400 supporters and other invited guests seated inside the chamber of the Texas House of Representatives. Bush said he chose the solemn setting because he was able to work there with Democrats and Republicans alike.
“We had spirited disagreements and, in the end, we found constructive consensus,” Bush said in a nationally televised address. “It is an experience I will always carry with me and an example I will always follow.”
In one of several grace notes in a 10-minute speech filled with references to healing and unity, Bush reached out to his vanquished rival and expressed empathy for Vice President Al Gore and his family at their time of deepest disappointment. “He has a distinguished record of service to our country as a congressman, a senator and as vice president,” Bush said.
Gore preceded Bush’s speech with a conciliatory address of his own.
“While there will be time enough to debate our continuing differences, now is the time to recognize that that which unites us is greater than that which divides us,” Gore said in a nationally televised speech from his office in Washington.
Just before, he telephoned Bush to congratulate him. In his speech, Gore joked he would not retract this concession, the way he did after telephoning Bush in the frazzled early morning hours following the Nov. 7 election.
Acknowledging his disappointment, Gore nevertheless urged his supporters to “unite behind our new president.”
He made plain his disappointment with Tuesday night’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that effectively sealed Bush’s election. But, Gore went on, “I accept it. . . . And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.”
He quoted Stephen A. Douglas’ remarks when he lost the presidency to Lincoln nearly 150 years ago: “Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I’m with you, Mr. President, and God bless you.”
“Well, in that same spirit,” Gore went on, “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.”
In their brief phone conversation, Bush and Gore made plans to meet in Washington on Tuesday, the first time the two will be together since Oct. 17, when they shared a stage at the final presidential debate in St. Louis.
The improbable events that followed were something neither candidate anticipated, as they acknowledged in their back-to-back speeches.
Seizing on the circumstances, Bush said he hoped “the long wait of the last five weeks will heighten a desire to move beyond the bitterness and partisanship of the recent past.”
“I am optimistic that we can change the tone of Washington, D.C.,” Bush said at another point. ". . . Americans share hopes and goals and values far more important than any political disagreements. Republicans want the best for our nation. So do Democrats. Our votes may differ, but not our hopes.”
In winning the White House, Bush becomes the first presidential candidate since Benjamin Harrison in 1888 to lose the national popular vote but win the presidency, thanks to his 271 votes in the electoral college. Gore finished with 267 electoral votes, three shy of the number needed to win.
Bush also becomes the first son to follow his father into the White House since John Quincy Adams was elected in 1825.
In his address, Bush did not discuss in any detail the issues on which he campaigned, though he did summon his trademark slogan and reprised much of his standard stump speech.
“Together, we will address some of society’s deepest problems, one person at a time, by encouraging and empowering the good hearts and good works of the American people,” Bush said. “This is the essence of compassionate conservatism, and it will be a foundation of my administration.”
But advancing his agenda will not be easy. Given the realities of a divided nation and the political climate on Capitol Hill, analysts and even many Republican allies have said that Bush will probably have to trim his across-the-board tax cut and perhaps shelve his plan to partly privatize Social Security.
But they said that prospects are brighter for reducing the “marriage penalty” and estate taxes, and perhaps enacting prescription drug coverage for seniors, although significant differences remain between Bush’s approach and that advocated by most Democrats.
Bush has indicated that, as president, his priority would be education reform, continuing the work he did as governor.
In his first act as president-elect, Bush will attend a “prayer and hope” church service this morning in Austin. “He wants to start this on a message of prayer and healing,” spokeswoman Karen Hughes said.
With Gore’s exit, Bush plans to escalate his transition activities. Bush could announce several White House job appointments within days, aides said.
Bush’s urgency is understandable. The five-week election stalemate has consumed half the time between election day and the inauguration.
When he was first elected Texas governor in 1994, Bush had only “a little more than two months” before taking office, as he later lamented. “The 70-day transition was a blur of decisions.”
When Bush takes office Jan. 20, Republicans will assume control of the federal government for the first time in more than four decades, albeit by the slimmest of margins.
Republicans will have just a five-seat edge in the House and will control the Senate, split 50-50, by dint of Vice President-elect Dick Cheney’s role as the chamber’s president.
Hours before Bush spoke, Cheney was on Capitol Hill meeting with congressional Republicans, including committee and party leaders as well as with moderate and conservative factions of the party. But Cheney tried to keep a low profile, offering only the most perfunctory public statements. “We’re moving forward on the transition,” he said. “Things are going well.”
Today, the General Services Administration is set to turn over the keys to the taxpayer-financed transition headquarters that sat empty pending resolution of the Florida impasse.
Republican leaders urged members of both parties to close ranks behind Bush as the president-elect and return to the business of preparing for the policy debates of the new year. “The wounds that have come from the passions of partisanship must begin to heal for the good of the country,” said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
But Democrats were not so quick to move on. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) was among many who decried the Supreme Court’s decision to stop the hand count of disputed Florida ballots, sealing Bush’s election.
“One thing is clear: We have lost credibility as a nation in setting the standard for fairness in the electoral process,” Rangel said. “I am shocked by the partisanship that has bubbled up to the lofty halls of the Supreme Court.”
“There’s no question that there’s scar tissue,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “There’s going to be a recount, one way or another. . . . It’s going to show that Al Gore did in fact win the state.”
A handful of Democrats urged Gore to continue fighting, though all the obvious avenues seemed foreclosed. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who claims millions of African Americans were disenfranchised in Florida by antiquated voting machinery and other impediments, was among those urging Gore not to concede.
“We want the vote of every American to count. We, indeed, will act. We will not surrender our franchise,” he said in an interview on NBC News, calling for “massive nonviolent demonstrations” nationwide to coincide with Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 15.
But most Democrats who were disappointed by the outcome said they were prepared to make peace with a Bush presidency. “When the next president is sworn into office in January, I pledge to do all that I can to help the country put this extraordinary and unsettling election behind us,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
After five weeks of upheaval, Wednesday was a day for winding down and tying up loose ends.
With the matter now moot, the Florida Senate put off any plans to pass legislation awarding the state’s 25 electoral votes to Bush, a move intended as a backup in case Gore somehow pulled ahead. Senate President John McKay announced from the podium that he was postponing action “out of respect to the vice president.”
McKay had expressed reservations about taking such a blatantly partisan step--even as he cited legal grounds--and seemed relieved it was apparently no longer necessary.
The Republican House, led by the more pugnacious Speaker Tom Feeney, overwhelmingly passed the measure Tuesday, hours before the Supreme Court ruled.
“We can all agree that our measured approach was the right course to take,” McKay said Wednesday. “If it’s necessary, we’ll act. But if it’s not, we won’t.”
The specific measure in question is a concurrent resolution between the House and the Senate. If McKay tables it, the measure won’t go into effect and both chambers of the legislature will adjourn their session. McKay said he would announce his decision today.
Meantime, Democrats abandoned plans to pursue their appeal in two lawsuits accusing Republicans of doctoring absentee ballot applications in two counties.
The Florida Supreme Court rejected the cases Tuesday, refusing to throw out as many as 25,000 absentee ballots in Seminole and Martin counties, conservative areas in central and eastern Florida.
The activists had contemplated appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court because they believe the cases raise a question of federal law: whether the right of the public to vote should outweigh states’ election rules.
“It would be a moot point now,” said John T. Kennedy, an attorney representing the activist who brought the Martin County case. Harry Jacobs, the Orlando-area personal injury lawyer and Democrat who brought the Seminole County case, agreed.
Finally, the justices of the Florida Supreme Court reviewed Tuesday night’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling but issued no response. The high court sent the case back to Tallahassee “for further proceedings not inconsistent with this ruling.”
It was clear no further proceedings in the Florida court could affect the outcome of the presidential election. Still, court spokesman Craig Waters said the justices might issue a clarification of their Dec. 8 ruling, which ordered immediate hand recounts of tens of thousands of disputed ballots.
The U.S. Supreme Court stayed that ruling Saturday, then overturned it Tuesday night, effectively ending Gore’s candidacy and giving Bush a 537-vote Florida win--a margin of .009% out of roughly 6 million votes cast.
Like most Americans, Bush and his wife, Laura, learned of the ruling from television Tuesday night. Home alone, they watched the broadcasts in their living room as reporters struggled to interpret the convoluted decision.
Shortly after that, Bush talked with his chief Florida emissary, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III. Ever cautious, Baker told Bush it was “a complicated ruling,” which lawyers were analyzing.
Then Bush called his campaign headquarters to speak with Hughes and Josh Bolton, his chief domestic policy advisor, among others. By then, the Bush camp was “increasingly confident that the ruling was totally in our favor,” spokesman Dan Bartlett recalled.
Bush was “very steady,” he said. “He was not real emotional one way or another. . . . He urged everybody to go home and sleep on it.” Shortly after that, Bush himself went to bed.
Aside from preparing for his speech, Bush went about business pretty much as usual Wednesday, starting with an early-morning intelligence briefing at the Governor’s Mansion.
There, he also held numerous telephone conversations, including discussions with Baker, Cheney, Hughes and others.
In addition, Bush called his parents, former President George Bush and Barbara Bush--apparently waking them up at their home in Houston. His father is recovering from a hip replacement operation. “Thanks for the wake-up call,” the governor quoted one of his parents as saying. Shortly after 9 a.m. CST, Bush went to his office at the nearby Texas Capitol.
En route, Bush’s motorcade moved silently through a near-deserted downtown after an overnight cold front dumped drizzle and sleet on the capital. Many businesses remained closed Wednesday morning, after shuttering early Tuesday afternoon. It was so cold that most automobiles still had a thin coat of ice on them.
As he arrived at the sunset-pink granite Capitol, a smiling Bush waved to reporters but for the most part ignored their shouted questions. Asked if he was going to clean out his desk, the governor laughed but did not respond.
At midday, as the skies cleared and the temperature began rising, Bush went to the University of Texas for his customary workout before returning to the mansion.
He spent much of the afternoon there working on his address with Hughes and Mike Gerson, his chief speech writer. Aides said Gerson began drafting the speech at the beginning of the week, but Bush did not see a copy until Tuesday--the day the election was effectively settled after 35 cliffhanging days.
Times staff writers Jeffrey Gettleman and Scott Gold in Tallahassee, Fla., and Janet Hook in Washington contributed to this story.