In an ironic final chapter to the most disputed presidential election in modern history, Vice President Al Gore presided over his own defeat Saturday, as a joint session of Congress formally declared George W. Bush the next president of the United States.
“May God bless our new president and new vice president, and may God bless the United States of America,” Gore said at the end of a two-hour proceeding at the Capitol that was held to certify the state-by-state votes of the electoral college.
Compared to the agonizing 36 days of doubt and confusion that followed the Nov. 7 election, Saturday’s proceeding was almost anticlimactic, its final outcome never in doubt.
More than a dozen Democratic lawmakers, most of them members of the Congressional Black Caucus, formally objected to the certification of Florida’s electoral votes and walked out on the proceedings because of what Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) described as “the millions of Americans who have been disenfranchised by Florida’s inaccurate vote count.”
But because the objectors failed to recruit a single senator to join their cause, under congressional rules they were unable to open debate on the Florida controversy.
So it was left to Gore, who presided over the event in his duties as president of the Senate, to overrule their objections one by one, ensuring that Florida’s 25 electoral votes would be certified for Bush.
“Is the point of order signed by a senator?” Gore asked each of the Democrats in succession as they brought their objections.
“I don’t care that it is not signed by a senator,” answered Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who was among those who walked out.
Gore quickly overruled her. “You will be advised that the rules do care,” he said.
A few minutes later, an exasperated Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) told Gore, “It’s a sad day in America when we can’t find a senator to sign these objections.”
Gore said he was powerless under parliamentary rules to do anything about it.
“The chair thanks the gentleman from Illinois, but hey . . . .” He paused and shrugged his shoulders, drawing laughter from members of Congress and listeners in a chamber that appeared only half-filled.
Indeed, amid all the parliamentary procedure, Gore managed to mix in a good bit of self-effacing humor and emotion.
When one vote counter had difficulty reading a tally for a state that the vice president had won, a smiling Gore volunteered: “I’ll tell you what it says.”
And he pumped his fist in the air when California’s 54 votes were awarded to him and his running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.).
Gore’s face was emotionless, however, as he called for the votes from his home state of Tennessee, which could have put him over the top. Its 11 votes went to Bush.
After the tallies for all 50 states and the District of Columbia were unsealed from two ornately carved lockboxes and read aloud, Gore announced the final results.
“George W. Bush of the state of Texas has received for the president of the United States 271 votes. Al Gore of the state of Tennessee has received 268 votes,” Gore said. A total of 270 electoral votes was needed to win.
In an election filled with historical oddities, this too was an unusual spectacle.
No vice president defeated for the White House has presided over his opponent’s certification since Richard Nixon did so in 1961 after losing to John F. Kennedy. In 1969, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey had the chance to certify Nixon’s victory, but he declined.
If the event signaled Bush’s formal coronation, it also marked a graceful and conciliatory exit from the national stage for Gore, at least for now.
Republicans and Democrats alike applauded him roundly at the beginning and end of the event. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), whose planned fund-raiser at the Playboy Mansion last summer caused a flap before the Democratic National Convention, approached him midway through the vote count to give him a kiss. Members of Congress introduced their children to Gore after the proceedings, congressional pages and staffers lined up for autographs, and the parliamentarian got him to sign the gavel that he used to convene the meeting.
And through it all, Gore kept smiling.
“We did all we could!” Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.), one of the lawmakers who lodged objections over Florida’s tally, called out to Gore during the proceedings.
“The chair thanks the gentleman from Florida,” Gore answered with a smile.