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Revisiting Election 2000: Who Should Have Won?

Aired May 28, 2001 - 19:30   ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Pregnant chads. All those lawyers. Katherine Harris.

Tonight: we revisit the long recount with the authors of two top books on Election 2000.

ANNOUNCER: From Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the CROSSFIRE: Jake Tapper, author of "Down & Dirty: The Plot to Steal the Presidency," and Bill Sammon, author of "At Any Cost: How Al Gore Tried to Steal the Election."

PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Pregnant chads. Dimpled chads. Dangling chads. You thought you'd never have to hear about them again. Wrong. Yes, George Bush is in the White House. Al Gore's -- somewhere else. But, in many ways, memories of the long Florida recount still linger on.

Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, accuses Bush of stealing the election. Congress is debating national election reforms. Florida has already adopted its own reforms. And Katherine Harris may try to parlay the fame she won during the recount into a seat in Congress.

On top of all that, there's a whole shelf-full of new books on the 2000 election, each of them trying to get to the bottom of what really went wrong in Florida and why. Tonight, authors of two of those books step into the CROSSFIRE to explain and defend their contrary conclusions -- Bob Novak.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Jake Tapper, welcome. You're plot, which -- your subtitle, which got me very excited: "The Plot to Steal the Presidency." But as I read the book, you thought they were both trying to steal the presidency. And you put both Bush and Gore on an equal footing, as if they were even, when in fact, Bush was declared the winner and Gore was challenging him.

JAKE TAPPER, AUTHOR, "DOWN & DIRTY": Well, Bush was declared the winner after it was all over.

NOVAK: Before.

TAPPER: Before -- you mean election night?

NOVAK: He was always ahead on election night in Florida. He was never behind in Florida, so who is stealing who?

TAPPER: But there was a state-mandated recount, right? There was a state-mandated...

NOVAK: Which he won.

TAPPER: Which he won. But then, according to Florida law, Al Gore was allowed to contest some of the counties if he wanted to, and look at the ballots there. There were 175,000 undervotes and overvotes throughout the state. My problem with Gore is, that he only tried to cherry pick a few Democratic counties, and look at undervotes and overvotes there, and not the whole state.

My problem with Bush is, he pretended that these 175,000 undervotes and overvotes weren't significant -- were not votes. So, if you are trying to get to the bottom of who won Florida, neither gentleman proved themself up to the task of actually getting to the bottom of that. And acting in a way I would hope a president would act.

NOVAK: The problem when you try to put these two people on an equal level is that you have to do contortions. Now, the greatest asset for George W. Bush, was when they tried to rub out the military vote. That was a political -- public relations disaster.

Let me read from "Down & Dirty," your book Jake, as to what you say about it.

"According to a knowledgeable Republican operative, in the course of that conversation they discussed having political operatives abroad and near military bases encourage certain soldiers who had registered to vote -- but hadn't yet done so -- to fill in their ballots and send them in. If this idea was carried out, then the Bush political operatives involved were committing a serious crime."

You completely lost me there. How in the world they were committing a serious crime in trying to get our servicemen to vote?

TAPPER: This was after the election on November 11, and the servicemen, as I pointed out in my book, and Bill points out in his, had every right to have cast their absentee ballots, as long as they did so by November 7, Election Day. And they have had to be mailed by November 7, Election Day.

Now, they had until November 17 to get there. The question is, did Bush political operatives have people vote after November 7, and send them in? I don't have evidence they did. I know they talked about it, because the Republican political operative...

NOVAK: But you have no evidence.

TAPPER: That it was carried out? No. I don't have any evidence it was carried out, but there was a lot of circumstantial evidence that showed thousands -- 3,700 ballots -- 3,300 ballots showing up -- after that conference call. PRESS: Bill Sammon, welcome to CROSSFIRE. I just want you to relax, because no one will accuse you of being balanced in your book or of treating both sides the same.

Seriously, I have read -- I'm a junky about political campaigns. I've read most books about political campaigns starting with Teddy White, "Making of the President 1960." I've never read one that is so blatantly one-sided as your book. I have to ask you: did the Republican National Committee ask you to write this book?

BILL SAMMON, AUTHOR, "AT ANY COST": No, I did focus on Al Gore -- not as an ideological judgment -- but because he was more interesting character in this drama. He was the antagonist here. He was the guy that was always behind, he was the guy always trying to upset the status quo. And Bush was really reduced to playing defense.

I say some things in the book that are not too favorable to Republicans. I talked about how their tactics were delay, delay, delay. And I'm very critical of Gore and the press. But the focus of the book, as the title suggests, is about Gore.

PRESS: Right. I want to pick up a couple of lines here from Jake Tapper's book, toward the end, where he says, about the Democrats:

"The Democrats were just as disingenuous, just as power -thirsty, just as hypocritical as the Republicans. They too cajoled, misrepresented, misled and lied."

I want to ask you, if you would say and write the Republicans were just as disingenuous, just as power-thirsty, just as hypocritical, they too cajoled, misrepresented, and misled and lied.

SAMMON: Well, while I'm critical of both sides, I think it's a little too convenient to simply equate both of them and put them on an equal footing. For one thing, Bush didn't try to disenfranchise military voters. He didn't mount a smear and destroy campaign against the top elections official in the state. And he didn't employ an expert on the electoral college to advise him on the possibility on flipping faithless electors.

PRESS: But they did delay, delay, delay, they ran out the clock. They interrupted every recount. And they left, as Jake points out, thousands and thousands of ballots on the table uncounted. And you say that's fair?

SAMMON: I didn't say that was fair. I'm saying there are degrees of egregious violations of ethics, and I think when you take -- you want to be commander in chief, and to get there, you are willing to throw out the votes of -- there's a guy I talk about in my book who was actually off the coast of Yemen saving the USS Cole, and they back in Jacksonville throwing out his vote. And Gore lawyers were high-fiving each other.

PRESS: And the state law says there has to be a postmark, a military ballot. NOVAK: Oh, come on, Bill.

PRESS: The state law says that!

SAMMON: Let me answer that.

PRESS: Right?

SAMMON: Right. The logic...

PRESS: It's law.

SAMMON: It didn't have a postmark. The reason that's a law is because they figure, they don't want people voting after the, as Jake points out, after the election. But in this guy's case, the ballot had been received the day before the election, and was time stamped by the Juvenile County Board of Elections, as having been received November 6. And they knew that, and they still threw it out.

NOVAK: You will have to admit and concede to -- something Bill's never conceded to in all this time -- there was a conscious attempt to throw out the servicemen's vote. There's no question about that.

TAPPER: Yes. There was a conscious attempt to use, by the Gore people, to use election law in Florida to disenfranchise any vote that did not meet the very rigid standards that were set up.

But at the same time, by the same token, the Republicans were doing that for nonmilitary ballots. And Republicans were doing that for absentee ballots that were not military ballots. People forget there were all these Americans in Israel who are voting, and there were certainly Republican lawyers who were trying to disenfranchise those overseas ballots as long as they were not from the military.

NOVAK: I want to see if you can agree with this line from Bill's book, which I thought was very telling. Early on, after the mechanical recount, after the butterfly ballot flap, when they decided they really had to make an all-out legal effort, which the Gore people said first they weren't going to do, this is what Bill Sammon wrote:

"Gore has stepped to the brink of the abyss and peered inside. He recoiled at the fate that awaited him if he quit now. He might as well go for broke. National turmoil be damned. Something much more important was on the line -- his political career."

Do you agree with that?

TAPPER: I think that Al Gore did not act in a way that you would want a president to act, absolutely. But I also think that George W. Bush did that. The fact is there are -- these are not just ballots, Robert, you will agree with this. 175, 000 Floridians, people, Americans with the right to vote, and neither Gore nor Bush did anything to count all of theirs ballots.

Gore tried to pick off the Democratic ones, and Bush -- Dick Cheney himself called them no-votes. I don't think there is anybody in this room that would say that all the 175,000 ballots, there was not one discernible vote in them. But Dick Cheney...

NOVAK: How do you know there was one discernible vote? You don't know.

TAPPER: Because there were recounts that went on, first by canvassing boards, then by the media, including conservative media organizations, like Larry Klayman's Judicial Watch that found votes.

SAMMON: There were actually cases that i found where Bush lawyers and Gore lawyers went head-to-head, talking about whether to count military ballots. And Bush lawyers, in some counties, they mark D or R on the outside of the envelope, and you can actually tell if it's going to be a Gore vote or a Bush vote.

Bush lawyers actually argued against the Gore lawyers to get Democratic ballots counted, and actually prevailed. That's how different it was.

PRESS: All right, I want to pick up on Al Gore's behavior. Whatever you think of him as a candidate, and whenever you thought about him during the recount, I thought there was one moment when he certainly rose to the occasion, and it was after the Supreme Court decision, and some of his top people around him were saying, oh no, take it to the Congress, take it all the way.

Gore went down to the vice president's office and stood up in front of national television and he conceded, finally, the election. Here is a clip of what he said that night.


AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome.


PRESS: Now, I thought everybody recognized that was A wonderful moment, except you. I read your book, here what's you said about that moment: "The man who had stubbornly denied the finality of the election for 36 days, pressing the fight for weeks after it became obvious he could not possibly win, was now patting himself on the back for accepting finality." You won't even give him that moment! After the election is decided!

SAMMON: I will give him the moment, but I won't -- what my complaint was, the press gushed over that speech, and because there was seven minutes of magnanimity, they were willing to forgive him for 36 days of political selfishness. And I believe that there came a point when he knew he couldn't win, and he fought on.

December 4, he got a crushing repudiation by Judge Sanders Sauls and by the U.S. Supreme Court. All his paths were blocked. You had the Florida legislature, you had Katherine Harris, you had the U.S. Congress, and you had the U.S. Supreme Court. Wherever he turned, he wasn't going to win, and he kept fighting. And then he pats himself on the back for accepting finality? Finality came a long time ago.

PRESS: But you know this was not decisive until the Supreme Court ruled -- unfairly, I might add -- but until the Supreme Court ruled. How can you say that was nothing but political selfishness? The man was a legitimate candidate for president. He had a legitimate chance of winning, the same as George Bush did. Both of them had to get in there and fight for what they believed in. And you say it was political selfishness?


PRESS: Come on!

SAMMON: Well, I think, to a certain extent, he was entitled to a fight. The automatic recount, nothing you can do about that. That lasted 72 hours. And it was even legal to request selected hand recounts, although they were later ruled unconstitutional by seven justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, but at the time they were legal, so I give him that.

But once he started throwing out military ballots, once he started smearing Katherine Harris, I thought that was too far.

NOVAK: We have to take a break, but I have to correct you on one thing, Bill, you said nobody thought that that was a crummy performance except Bill Sammon...

PRESS: The two of you.

NOVAK: I did. I wrote a column...

PRESS: I'm not...

NOVAK: I wrote a column...

PRESS: I'm...

NOVAK: And of course, if you've ever read...

PRESS: I am...

NOVAK: Can I...

PRESS: Yes, you may.

NOVAK: Do you mind if I talked without being interrupted?

PRESS: And praise your column.

NOVAK: No, as I said, if you've ever read anything besides your left-wing journals, you'd know that a lot of people thought that way, and somebody else -- you know who somebody else -- felt that was just a very routine concession that got a bunch of praise and concessions -- but you know who else felt that way?

PRESS: Who? NOVAK: Jake Tapper.


TAPPER: Damned for being intellectual honest.

PRESS: Pile all three of you!

NOVAK: We are going to have say good-bye. When come back, we will talk about the role of the media, including CNN, in this big mess.


NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. The great American presidential recount of 2000 really began when the talking heads of this and other television networks had trouble, right out in public, reporting who we elected president. If the TV networks had not stumbled and fumbled so badly, could the identity of the next president have been determined more quickly and cleanly?

We're asking two reporters who covered the election and its aftermath, and now have written books about it. Jake Tapper of CNN's "TAKE 5," "Salon's" Washington correspondent, author of "Down & Dirty: The Plot to Steal the Presidency," and Bill Sammon, the White House correspondent of "The Washington Times," author of "At Any Cost: How Al Gore Tried to Steal the Election" -- Bill Press.

PRESS: Somebody stole it. Bill Sammon, in addition, there is a second theme of your book -- in addition to the first theme that all Democrats are evil and Al Gore is a crook -- the second theme is that all the networks are biased, except of course, Fox, where we often see Bill Sammon. And yet, you point out in the book that John Ellis, George Bush's cousin, is head of the decision desk at Fox.

He talks to George Bush several times on election day. He calls George Bush before he makes a decision whether or not to call the election the first time around for Bush, which of course, Fox also got wrong, and then Bush calls him when Gore unconcedes. I mean, are you so blind you cannot see the bias in Fox's eyes?

SAMMON: Well, I'm pointing that out in my book.

PRESS: But you are not critical about it at all! You just point out as just kind of good thing that he is there!

SAMMON: I beg to differ with you. I think there are some very critical things of all the networks there. And the reason that it's -- you always, you always complain about the fact that Fox called the election for Bush at 2:16 a.m., when all the polls were closed and it couldn't influence voter turnout and they were right.

But at 7:49 p.m. Eastern time, when the networks called it for Gore and they were wrong, many people, tens of millions of people in this country, still had time to vote, and it actually impacted voter turnout. For example, let's take state of Florida, just for starters. They called this -- this network and others, including Fox, called the state of Florida before the polls closed in the western panhandle.

PRESS: We all know that was wrong.

SAMMON: Three different surveys, including one by Democratic strategist Bob Beckel, showed that it cost Bush a net loss of 10,000 votes. This election came down to a few hundred votes, and that's the reason that Gore hung in there for so long. If he had been faced with 10,000 vote deficit, I don't think he would have stayed in for 36 days.

PRESS: It was wrong to call before the polls closed. I dispute the 10,000 figure. Jake, you wanted to add something.

TAPPER: I just want to say, when he said Fox got it right at the 2:16 call. It's not right, because it was too close to call. Florida was too close to call, and that's what the call should have been for the state of Florida. So Fox, unless they were predicting 37 days henceforth, they were not right to call.

SAMMON: What I'm saying is that the numbers showed Bush ahead. It may have been too close to call, but the numbers showed Bush ahead. The numbers never showed Gore ahead. Only the exit polls did, and those were totally bogus.

PRESS: Here's what I don't understand, and I'll talk about our network, CNN, which everybody says is biased. If this is so biased, why the next day did everybody on this network ask over and over, why doesn't Gore concede? Not one person asked why shouldn't Bush concede.

SAMMON: But you know what they did say?

PRESS: Bush was ahead by just about that much.

SAMMON: But you know what they did say in those first days?

PRESS: Never asked.

SAMMON: They kept saying, for the good of the country, one of these guys is going to have to step down, as if there was an equal onus on these two guys to step down. Bush was ahead! He wasn't about to step down when he was ahead in the vote count.

PRESS: Gore shouldn't have either.

NOVAK: Jake Tapper -- Jake Tapper, Bill, in his book spent a lot of time on what happened at the networks and this building on that night. For example, there was such a slow count on declaring states for Bush, states that he won comfortably, and they -- and then the double deal was when they wouldn't declare them as won by Bush, they'd say he must be having a lot of trouble because he hasn't won Virginia and Georgia yet. He hadn't won it because they hadn't declared them. And they had a very quick draw on declaring states for Gore, which had an effect on voters in the Western part of the country.

Why did you eliminate that from a very thick book and a very detailed book?

TAPPER: That's -- that's in the book.

NOVAK: Very -- you just gloss ever it.

TAPPER: No, I have -- I have Karl Rove discussing that he thinks it's unfair for the exact reasons that you said: that they were too quick to declare some states -- obviously like Florida -- for Gore and too slow to declare states like Ohio for Bush. Absolutely, that's in there. I even have the 10,000 vote thing that Bill talks about that subsequent poll numbers showed that maybe that would have influenced, calling the state early, it maybe would have influenced whether or not Gore would have one or lost depending on calling the state an hour early.

NOVAK: All right...

SAMMON: But...

NOVAK: Go ahead.

SAMMON: But Bob, raises a good point and I think it's crucial. Not only did they hold off calling states for Bush when he won by landslide margins -- they would wait a half an hour, an hour or two hours. But that's bad enough. But then they would compound the sin by saying, you know, the fact that we haven't been able to call this state for Bush is really sending a troublesome signal out there.

And people were thinking Bush is crashing and burning, Gore is coming on like gangbusters.

NOVAK: All right, let me ask you -- let me ask you this, Jake. There's something else I didn't find in your book, and that was that -- at the very end of Bill's book, he writes: "Something unexpected happened. During Bush's first months in office, most Americans closed ranks behind their new president. The nation seemed relieved they would no longer be subjected to an endless stream of increasingly sordid scandals."

That's the truth, isn't it? I didn't find anything like that in "Down and Dirty."

TAPPER: I didn't write that, no. I think it's too early to tell what the verdict...

NOVAK: In the early months, in the early weeks. It's over. You didn't see -- see any of that?

TAPPER: My -- my book ended on December 13th. You know, there was one scene -- in the postscript there is one inauguration -- there's one inauguration scene, but it's merely just recapping what's happening to these people. It mentioned that Ted Olson might be nominated for solicitor-general, et cetera. But no, I didn't really have that -- I didn't really get too much into the Clinton scandals. I'm trying to look forward, as my president is telling me to do.

NOVAK: For a reporter...

TAPPER: I'm trying to change the tone around here.


NOVAK: Put that behind you?

PRESS: You know...

TAPPER: Can I say one thing about media bias, though?

PRESS: Very quickly.

TAPPER: The one thing I wanted to say is the only real egregious instance I saw was on NBC when Jonathan Alter went bananas on election night, talking about how there is going to be huge outcry for Al Gore because he had won the popular vote. That's the only thing I really saw.

PRESS: All right, gentlemen, that's got to be the last word. Bill Sammon, Jake Tapper, thanks for coming in. Good luck with your books. Sell many copies. Hope we helped tonight.

And when we come back, Bob Novak and I, we'll have closing comments and we'll celebrate the fact that there have been no scandals yet in the Bush presidency.


NOVAK: Bill, you sometimes really astound me. How you could say that George W. Bush was trying to steal this election when it obviously, even Democrats know, that there was this desperate attempt by Al Gore to take it away from him? Bill Sammon's got it right in his book, "At Any Cost."

PRESS: Bill Sammon's got one side of it wrong. I mean, it doesn't talk about the other side. I never said George Bush tried to steal the election. What I'm saying is both of them went in there, both of them knew the thing was still up in the air, and both of them did whatever they had to do to -- to find it out, find out what happened, Bob.

NOVAK: Look me in the eye...

PRESS: Deal with it.

NOVAK: Look me in the eye, my friend.


NOVAK: Are you going to look me in the eye and say that Al Gore didn't -- just a minute, please -- that Al Gore didn't try to steal this election?

PRESS: He did not try to steal this election.

NOVAK: Ohh...

PRESS: Let me tell you, Bob...

NOVAK: ... your nose is growing.

PRESS: ... the way this -- the way this election was won is going to forever taint this presidency and the Supreme Court.


Sound good. From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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