Our story begins with wet towels

In the wee hours of the morning of Nov. 8, after a long rain and a longer election-night vigil, a woman walked onto a stage outside the Texas state Capitol in Austin and began to wipe off the soppy-wet podium.

The TV networks had just called the vote for George W. Bush. The crowd - cold, tired, eager for victory and warmth - roared.

In a moment, Mr. Bush would appear, triumphant. In a moment, the nation would be poised on the edge of a new era of Republican power. In a moment, the party would really get going.

Little did they know that the appearance of towels would mark the emotional high point of their night. They had just reached the top of a roller coaster as tall as Texas. The plummet was about to begin.

Thirty-six days after it began, the longest post-election campaign in US history finally ended late on Dec. 13.

To say it has been a long and strange trip is to understate the matter, like calling the Grand Canyon a ditch, or saying the Pentagon spends a little money.

Looking back, what have we learned? That voting is not as scientific as we thought? That our system of laws is a system of people as well, with all their human imperfections? That, no matter how many times you say it, "dimpled chad" is still really, really funny?

All that, and more. Too much more. And so, in the spirit of legendary newsman Dan Rather of CBS, let us strap on the feedbag and take a walk down memory lane to revisit a time that was hotter than a horned toad eating jalapenos.

Press it in a book, put it in an album, hang it on the wall: At virtually the moment his podium was being buffed on Nov. 8, Bush was talking on the phone to Vice President Al Gore.

"Are you saying what I think you're saying?" said Bush. "Let me make sure I understand. You're calling back to retract that concession?"

In the days following the vote, Bush's lead was 1,784 votes. After a mandatory machine recount, it was 327 votes, with overseas absentee ballots still to come in. On Nov. 10, Democrats formally requested a manual recount in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Volusia counties. The next day Bush sued in federal district court to stop the manual tally.

Already, this seems ancient history. It's like recounting the early days of the Peloponnesian War, only the Spartans have Votamatics instead of pikes.

By Nov. 14, Bush's lead had dropped to 300. As court sparring went on, the tensions surrounding the recount were considerable.

On Nov. 15, the Monitor's Justin Brown was at the Palm Beach County Emergency Operations Center to witness the beginning of Palm Beach's operations. He won a spot as a pool reporter (one of the journalists allowed inside the room to report back to others on the scene). Walking in, he noticed the local bureau chief of the Associated Press arguing with county press officers, fighting to get inside. He went to help her gain entry: Wire service reporters, with their wide audience, are often by reportorial agreement allowed first access in such a pool situation.

He managed to get her in the counting room. Then, suddenly, a group of policemen stormed in and grabbed the AP representative. During the ensuing free-for-all between journalists and cops, the AP chief was stuffed out a side door while being handcuffed. Justin was placed in a hallway with an armed guard.

Eventually cooler heads prevailed, and the reporters went back in. They filed one pool report - and then counting was stopped.

As the days stretched on, a carnival-like atmosphere developed around all the counting venues. They became tourist meccas, like the beach at Key West or Miami's Parrot Jungle.

Professionally printed "Sore/Loserman" posters, playing off the "Gore/Lieberman" campaign design, were everywhere. Often they were accompanied by the waving of "Sore/Loserman" crying towels. The Democratic equivalent were posters denouncing "Banana Republicans."

By Dec. 8, after weeks of legal struggle, Gore was in a situation so dire it was impossible to resist using bad sports metaphors - bottom of the ninth, two out, on his own five-yard line with 10 seconds on the clock.

The reporters gathered in Tallahassee to hear Florida's Supreme Court rule on whether to overturn a halt in manual recounts felt they were about at the end. Then the court's information officer stepped to his podium. In perhaps the most mind-swinging change of momentum in the whole strange saga, he said the court would allow the tally to go on.

The reporters were happy to have the story stretch on, right? Au contraire. "Noooo," cried one. Others moaned. "I gotta call my wife," said a downcast scribe. There was a reason that cheap Christmas trees had sprouted in the media encampment - everyone wanted to go home and get ready for the holidays.

In the end, it was the US Supreme Court that was pivotal. For a few hours the structure of the federal government depended on what went on in a small Washington courtroom.

And on Dec, 11, in a moment that will surely last in history, attorney Joseph Klock (representing Ms. Harris) mystifyingly called Justice Stevens "Justice Brennan," after the late jurist William Brennan, and then confused Justice Souter for Justice Breyer.

Justice Antonin Scalia began a question, paused, and said, "I'm Scalia." The crowd roared.

Hey, it's legal humor. So it's not exactly Lettermanesque.

Staff writers Warren Richey, Abraham McLaughlin, and Justin Brown contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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