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Monday, 13 November, 2000, 16:32 GMT
Eyewitness: Watching America vote
Newspapers declare Bush victory
Newspapers on the way to become collectors' items
By Tom Carver in Austin

In Austin, the rather sleepy small town capital of Texas, the election night began badly for Republican presidential candidate George Bush.

The first results to come in from the liberal east coast states all favoured Al Gore.

George W Bush
`Someone should have told Mr Bush this was the night the Fates would wreak havoc'
I stood with the rest of the press on the bleachers, a vast construction of scaffolding like one side of a stadium erected in Austin's main street, watching for what everyone had said would be the three indicator states: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida.

Anyone going to be president, prophesied the Isaiahs of the TV networks, had to scoop at least one of these.

Around 2000 central time, the networks 'called' all three for Al Gore. The bleachers erupted like some tower of babel, as scores of television reporters, bathed in the eery glow of 100 arc lights, filed live reports for TV markets from Dodge City to Duluth.

Three blocks away, the private dinner party that the Bush family had been enjoying broke up in disarray. A tearful Jeb Bush apologised to his older brother for failing to deliver Florida, of which he was governor.

Angry and disconcerted, George Bush left his aides to watch the results come in and retreated to his Governor's Mansion with his wife and parents.

Credibility broken

Six floors high on position number 84, I was trying to dodge the rain that was now pouring through holes in the canvas roof, when I spotted someone I knew from the Bush camp. I was surprised to see him here, as he must have known he was risking being eaten alive by reporters ravenous for any information.

We had all assumed that the 'result calls' made by the networks were definitive

Ray Sullivan would not come here, I thought, unless he had a message he wanted to get out.

"Hi Ray," I said, shouting to make myself heard above the wind and rain. "You must be a bit sad losing Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida."

"We don't concede Florida," he said.

I looked at him stunned, unsure that I had understood what he meant. At that stage, we all assumed that the 'result calls' made by the networks were definitive. I had not heard of anyone not conceding in a presidential race.

Al Gore leaves cinema with wife Tipper and running mate Joseph Lieberman
Al Gore thought he had won Florida's 25 votes
Suddenly the unofficial results announced by the American networks crumbled.

Like the emperor with no clothes, once the curiousness of the situation was pointed out, there was no going back. Their credibility had been fatally broken and into the breach swarmed chaos.

As the night went on and the rain came down, the huge electronic map of America glowed deeper and deeper red as George Bush scooped up state after state in the large tracts of rural America that the coastal elites call 'fly-over country'.

By the time Mr Bush hit the Rockies there seemed to be no stopping him. He had 246 electoral college votes. Only 24 away from the magic number of 270 needed for victory.

At 0130 the screen lit up: "Bush wins the presidency!" The crowd, jammed into a junction of three streets, seemed to leap into the air. The noise was so deafening that six stories above them I couldn't hear my own voice.

As I write this, the name of the future president is in the post

In the Governor's Mansion 100 yards away, George Bush hugged his parents and his younger brother. All was forgiven. The networks were reporting that Florida had gone Republican after all, pushing Bush over the winning line.

He got out his victory speech. All he was waiting for was a phone call from his opponent conceding defeat. A few minutes later, it came. But someone should have told the Bush family that this was the night that the Fates had decided to wreak havoc on the proud and powerful.

Dramatic call

As we now know, Al Gore was on his way to make his concession speech when an aide's pager went off telling him that the Bush margin of victory was collapsing by the minute in Florida as the final votes came in. Al Gore clung to the wreckage with the ferocity of a Captain Ahab.

He phoned George Bush to say that he was not conceding after all. 'Hang on, I don't think you are the president. In fact, I think I might just be president.'

Al Gore leaves cinema with wife Tipper and running mate Joseph Lieberman
Al Gore thought he had won Florida's 25 votes
One can only imagine the turmoil that must have ensued at the Governor's Mansion. Here sat an elderly former president, with his white-haired wife, who had been waiting eight years to avenge his defeat at the hands of his arch-enemy the Clinton/Gore Democrats.

Having schooled his two sons in the political arts he sent them out to reclaim his name and reputation. Now his eldest was within a breath of victory, only to be denied by a tiny crowd of voters in the state controlled by his younger brother.

As I write this, the name of the future president is in the post, as Florida waits for the absentee ballots to come in.

The lesson from all this may seem obvious now: don't announce a result until every single vote has been counted. But in an age of instant information that might be asking too much of everyone.

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10 Nov 00 | Americas
US papers watch and worry
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