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How Does Election 2000 Compare to Other Unorthodox Presidential Races of Past?

Aired December 14, 2000 - 4:04 p.m. ET


JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: The long hard tussle for Florida's 25 electoral votes and now joining others in the history of unorthodox presidential races. Presidential historian and author Rick Shenkman joins us from Washington now to offer some perspective.

Rick, I don't want to spend too much time dwelling on the past, I guess neither of the candidates probably do either, but we do want to do a little quick Thursday afternoon quarterbacking, I guess would be what you would call it.

Want to hear what Al Gore had to say about what might have been and then get your thoughts on it. Let's roll that tape, Scotty.


AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Some have asked whether I have any regrets, and I do have one regret, that I didn't get the chance to stay and fight for the American people over the next four years, especially for those who need burdens lifted and barriers removed, especially for those who feel their voices have not been heard -- I heard you and I will not forget.


CHEN: All right, Rick, listening to that, particularly that line "I heard you and I will not forget," this is not just a statement about the past, it could also be a hint about the future?

RICHARD SHENKMAN, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: It sure sounded that way, didn't it? Sounded like he was saying, guess what, Al Gore's going to be around and you better prepare for that, and maybe in 2004 it will be Gore, as the slogan is going this week, so who knows.

CHEN: Talk a little bit about his speech in connection with his place in history. Others who have lost particularly contentious and difficult races, unorthodox races, at the end -- how does he fit in?

SHENKMAN: Well, I thought he gave a pretty good speech, he did what he had to do, which was he had to be exceptionally gracious, he had to be dignified, and he had to make it very clear that he accepted the result of this election, so that nobody would think he was being a sore loser. But at the same time, I have to tell you I watched it and it left me a little bit emotionally flat. There weren't any rhetorical flourishes there.

I was hoping for some kind of a line that would resonate through American history, you know, some -- "ask not what your country can do for you" line. And I was reminded of what happened in 1877 when Rutherford B. Hayes took office just two days after his election, and of course this was another disputed election, and in his inaugural, he made a wonderful statement, he said this, he said that "he who serves his party best, serves the country best" -- serves the country best will serve the party." And the point was it was a line -- I've just mangled it a little bit -- and it resonated with the public, and that was lacking last night and I was sorry about that.

CHEN: Well, the dramatic flourishes, I guess, probably would have come a little bit late for Al Gore anyway.

There is another race that you have mentioned, that would be one involving Andrew Jackson and how he took his loss and what he did with it.

SHENKMAN: Well, I've got -- I've been doing some extra research on this. I worked on the Jackson papers 25 years ago and I had to refresh my memory, so I went over to the Library of Congress the other day in preparation for this. Listen to this, this is Bob Remeny's (ph) line on Andrew Jackson after the election was over and he lost to John Quincy Adams: "The hero left Washington angry and bitter, but he masked his true feelings and acted out the role of defeated candidate with dignity and grace." And then within a couple of weeks here is what he was saying, "the decent interval of bipartisanship passed." And listen to this -- "Indeed my old friend," he wrote a friend of his, "there was cheating and corruption and bribery, too, in Washington, D.C., and that's why I lost this election."

I think from Al Gore you're going to have this decent interval and then ultimately in a couple of months after everything is kind settled down a little bit and we're back into the normal political sphere, he will come roaring out and he will be a partisan, because that's what the essence of American politics is and we wouldn't expect him really to be anything other than that.

CHEN: So gone, but don't forget here.

All right, let's talk a little bit about George Bush's speech last night and what he did with it. First, let's hear from him on seizing the moment.


GEORGE W. BUSH (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our nation must rise above a house divided. Americans share hopes and goals and values far more important than any political disagreements. Republicans want the best for our nation, and so do Democrats. Our votes may differ, but not our hopes. I know America wants reconciliation and unity. I know Americans want progress, and we must seize this moment and deliver.

(END VIDEO CLIP) CHEN: Was he talking about a legislative agenda or what?

SHENKMAN: Who knows what he's talking about. There were a lot of platitudes in that speech. Americans often like speeches with platitudes, I think it probably went over OK, he didn't seem harsh, he seemed welcoming, he, again, seemed gracious like Gore. The same kind of test is being applied to Gore as to Bush, even though one was the victor and one was the loser, and that is the test of statesmanship. You know, we never like our presidents to be political, and last night in particular we wanted them to act like statesmen, we want them all to be like George Washington. And last night, he tried to be like George Washington -- that will work for a little while.

CHEN: Well, let's talk about what will work for the country in the future, particularly now that we've learned so much about how our voting system works, or on the other hand, does not, the Electoral College and everything else.

We've actually had a pretty good lesson in civics over the past month and a half, but what does it give us for the future?

SHENKMAN: Well, here's what's interesting. Bush seemed to be saying last night that he is not going to be taking up the mantle of reform. That's going to leave a vacuum at the core of our national administration. Somebody has got to pick up that -- that mantle. And my guess is it's going to be somebody like Al Gore, maybe. It's going to be somebody who is out of power, who's going to say hey, a lot of Americans, maybe half the country is upset about what's just happened. Somebody's going to have to get in there and make an issue out of it, and make an agenda out of it. And it's a wonderful agenda. Who can argue with ballot reform? Who can argue with let's spend a couple of billion dollars and get one nice, good machine system in place throughout the country so we don't have this kind of a mess again?

If you want to be a little bit more controversial, it might include the proposal to abolish the Electoral College. I'm sure that's going to be one of the items that's on the national agenda, and you might even go so far as to hear some people saying that we ought to take away from the Supreme Court the power to decide presidential elections in the future. Congress has that power. They could do it. Who knows? Maybe somebody will suggest it.

CHEN: All right, Rick, we're going to ask you to stand by and give our viewers the opportunity to join us in grilling you on the issues. Rick Shenkman will be back in the next half-hour of this program he'll take your calls and your questions. You can pick up the phone now and dial in with your comments and questions about election 2000. The number to call -- it's not that telephone, it's another one -- the number here 404-221-1855.



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