In the many-mansioned house of Alternate History, I occupy a small corner. The trio of what-ifs I chronicled in “Then Everything Changed” all begin with tiny, highly plausible twists of fate that lead to hugely consequential shifts in history. When the book was published, I was asked countless questions about other scenarios, via e-mail and during my talks about the book. There are bookshelves of such works, of course, including several volumes of essays by historians under the what-if heading, and novels by the score. Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America”, recounting the election of Charles Lindbergh as president, is the most literary of such works; Robert Harris’s “Fatherland” and Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” both deal with a Nazi Germany victory in World War II.
The question I was asked most—by far—was “What would have happened if Al Gore had defeated George W. Bush in 2000”? And so, with a small alteration of reality, this work puts Al Gore in the White House in January 2001. And then the law of unintended consequences goes to work.
January 20, 2001, was a miserable day, with temperatures barely above freezing and a steady rain that left the grounds of the Mall that faced the Capitol’s West Front sodden and muddy. Moreover, the chill in the air was matched by the distinct lack of festiveness surrounding the event. For the first time, the Secret Service had designated a presidential inauguration a National Special Security Event. That meant everyone heading to the Mall had to pass through metal detectors; all handbags, backpacks, and shopping bags were subjected to searches, causing hourlong waits and chilled, wet spectators. (“You’d think there was an enemy heading right for the Capitol!” one frustrated spectator groused.) The chill was just as obvious on the inaugural platform, where President Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Clinton exchanged the briefest of greetings with Al and Tipper Gore as they took their places.
The inauguration went off well enough. Gore’s team congratulated itself for avoiding a potential controversy after the Reverend Jesse Jackson began not so subtly lobbying to deliver one of the inaugural prayers. Instead, they chose a far less controversial figure, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, from one of Chicago’s most politically potent African American churches. Reverend Wright brought laughter when he reminded God that “we march to different drummers,” and then—mid-prayer—mimicked the steps of marching bands from white and black colleges.
And the inaugural speech itself, written largely by the president himself, reached for poetry more than prose, as he paid tribute to “the babies, who will someday travel to distant stars, to those who will teach those children in crowded rooms, to those who work the fields and feed our bodies, to those who preach the sacred words that feed our souls … We are in the first moments of a new day, so let the day begin.” With the ceremony ended, the Gores escorted Bill and Hillary Clinton down the steps of the Capitol’s East Front, where the Marine One helicopter waited to take the Clintons to Andrews Air Force Base, in Maryland, for the flight up to their new home in New York.
“The weather seems to be taking a toll on Tipper,” CNN’s Judy Woodruff noted. “She’s clearly feeling the chill.”
After the briefest of embraces, the Clintons climbed into Marine One; as it lifted off, Tipper turned away from the waiting cameras and muttered to her husband, “I feel like a huge shadow has just disappeared.”
As the Gores moved into the Capitol for the traditional lunch with the Congress, the former president and his wife arrived at Andrews, where the 747—no longer Air Force One, since Clinton was no longer president—was waiting. Tradition held that the ex-president and his spouse would depart quietly, without ceremony, leaving the stage to the new leader. But ceremony was exactly what was waiting for Clinton: a band, an honor guard, and a bank of microphones and cameras. By the time the choreographed troop review was done, it was time for the new president to address the congressional luncheon, and Gore’s team had prepared a surprise: an announcement that each month he would go to Capitol Hill to meet with leaders of both parties, as a signal that the chief executive understood the coequal role of the national legislature.
But as Gore rose to speak, former president Clinton was at his microphone, acknowledging the cheers of the boisterous crowd.
“You see that sign there that says, PLEASE DON’T GO? I left the White House, but I’m still here! We’re not going anywhere!” Clinton said, and launched into a lengthy celebration of his tenure: “Twenty-two million new jobs! … More college opportunity than ever in history. … Five trillion dollars in surpluses. …”
The crowd loved it. The TV cameras loved it. The producers in every network control room in America loved it—and stayed with it, splitting the screen to show images of the old and new presidents.
The new White House communications chief, Chis Lehane, did not love it. He was on the hotline phone to ABC’s Roger Goodman, who was directing the pool coverage.
“Roger! The President of the United States is making a major policy announcement! That’s where your coverage should be!”
“Not my call, Chris,” Goodman said. “We just send out the feeds; the networks take what they want. And they want … Bubba.”
“Let it go,” President Gore said later when Lehane slipped into the glass-enclosed reviewing stand during the Inaugural Parade and briefed him on Clinton’s upstaging. “I’m sure it won’t be the last time we’re going to be frustrated.”
This article is adapted from the Byliner Original, “43*: When Gore Beat Bush—A Political Fable” by Jeff Greenfield, on sale Tuesday, Sept. 18, for $1.99 at Amazon, Apple’s iBookstore, BN.com, Kobo and Google Play.