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TV Drama Both Exhilarating and Humiliating

November 08, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG

As theater, the most exciting night of the election was the last. Arguably the most exciting night of any contemporary election, and one of the most embarrassing for the TV networks reporting it.

At least one viewer (blush) was biting his nails, then his knuckles, then his remote control, as first George W. Bush, then Al Gore, then the networks--making projections based on exit polls, sample precincts and absentee ballots--appeared to be biting the dust.

Talk about having orange all over your face.

If the tedium of the campaign became a royal pain in the last few weeks, Tuesday night's televised drumroll to 270 electoral votes--the most suspenseful presidential election at least since 1976--made it all worthwhile.

The Indiana and Kentucky polls closed at 3 p.m. PST, giving Bush 20 electoral votes heading into the 4 p.m. closings of six more states, including potentially pivotal Florida, where Bush's brother, Jeb, is governor.

Waiting for polls to close in Florida was like being inside a horror movie--hearing scary footsteps outside and wondering who would come through the door. Which boogeyman would it be, Bush or Gore?

Suddenly it was 4 p.m., and no one was coming through the door. "Too close to call," everyone on TV said. In fact, tossups were already all over the map. "Riveting," said CNN's Judy Woodruff.

At 4:28, a woman in her 20s revealed on KCAL to Jerry Springer and a cheering studio audience that her husband had just told her he was sleeping with a man. Could anyone possibly be watching this? And if so, shouldn't their citizenship be revoked?

At 4:33, Ohio, North Carolina and West Virginia were too close to call. A minute later, CNN projected Bush the winner in Georgia.

"The next hour is going to be possibly--possibly--an hour of decision," said Dan Rather on CBS at 4:45. "And an hour of prayer for the candidates."

Later in the evening, the networks would do the praying.


Electoral vote count: Bush 54, Gore 3.

At 4:50, Gore came through the door. CNN projects him the winner in Florida. Other networks followed later.

"Those other battleground states--Pennsylvania, Missouri, Ohio--they become so much more important now," said CNN's Candy Crowley. CNN count: Bush 54, Gore 28.

Bush "can still get there, but this is going to make it very tough," Bob Dole told CNN's Larry King.

Countdown to the next poll closings: Two minutes, 23 seconds.

5 p.m., 16 more poll closings. "The stunner at this hour is that we can call Al Gore the winner in the Wolverine State" of Michigan, announced Woodruff. "And the map of George Bush gets tougher and tougher," said Jeff Greenfield.

NBC's count: Gore 119, Bush 116.

Jeb Bush is in deep doo-doo with mom and pop, Morton Kondracke said on the Fox News Channel about former President Bush and his wife, Barbara.

A few minutes later, the first words of caution. "There are half a million absentee ballots out there," Republican Mary Matalin protested on CNN about the Florida projection for Gore. "At this point in the evening, one of the networks predicted Richard Nixon would be the winner," historian Michael Beschloss noted on ABC about the 1960 election.

NBC had Bush leading Gore, 130 to 119, just 29 seconds away from the next poll closings at 5 p.m. "If it's a tie, I'll be happy to serve," the network-hopping Dole told NBC's Tim Russert.

Soon, CNN had Gore leading, 145-130. It was 5:49. "George Bush now has to run the table," said Greenfield.

At 6 p.m., CBS and CNN had put Pennsylvania in Gore's win column when CNN projected Hillary Rodham Clinton winning her Senate battle in New York with Rick Lazio. "The polls are now closed in 40 states," Rather said.

At 6:38, CNN had Ohio and Gore's home state of Tennessee for Bush and Minnesota for Gore. Count: Bush 185, Gore 182.

Seven minutes later, NBC had Gore ahead, 198-185.

At 6:56, Kablooie! A monumental goof. CNN moved Florida back to "too close to call" status. "We don't entirely trust the information we have," Woodruff said.

The other networks backed off too. "It turns out some of our data was suspect," said Rather on CBS, which at 7:06 projected Bush winning New Hampshire and Missouri.

Ten minutes later, NBC had Bush now leading, 213-198, with seven states still "too close to call."

At 8 p.m., Gore gets California--or "the big burrito," as Rather called it--and Hawaii. Fifteen minutes later, Gore was leading, 231-229.

"You see how much the universe has shrunk," said Russert, doing his figuring with a red grease pen on a white board.

"The needle hasn't moved," said Rather at 8:45. But when the needle moved again it had Bush ahead, 246 to 242. And then it was Gore 249 to 246 over Bush, until Florida--the state that had earlier been proclaimed for Gore--became the kingmaker.

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