"If it's going to be a close race, it might as well be a historic one," Vice President Al Gore said to me in Charleston, W.Va., almost two weeks ago. And that it is.
"Let me make sure I understand," Gov. George W. Bush said to Gore Wednesday at around 2:30 a.m. CST, according to numerous press sources. "You're calling me back to retract your concession?"
"Well, Mr. Vice President, you do what you have to do," Bush said, clearly not exactly delighted with Gore's call.
"You don't have to get snippy," Gore responded.
Bush's snippiness was perhaps understandable. As was the reasoning behind Gore's instantly legendary concession retraction. Odd events bring out disparate reactions, and Tuesday night might have been the weirdest night ever in American presidential politics.
Almost immediately after Gore conceded the race to Bush after it was declared on network TV, at about 1:15 a.m. CST, questions were again raised about Florida. By 2:15 a.m., Gore campaign manager William Daley called his counterpart in Bush's camp, Don Evans, to tell him about their concerns. About 20 minutes later, Gore phoned Bush back and rescinded his congratulatory call of an hour before.
Within the hour, Daley and Evans made their announcements. Daley said that the Gore campaign would continue. Evans said that they were all still confident of victory. It was raining.
Bush went to bed at around 3:30 a.m. He slept about three and a half hours.
His morning routine stayed the same -- feed the cats and the dog, make a pot of coffee. He drank the coffee with his parents before they left for Houston. He e-mailed, made a few calls, talked to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.
The sky was the color of a dirty rag. The air had a stinging chill.
Bush knew he needed to say something to the press. With his running mate, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, by his side, Bush strode to the governor's mansion patio. Not far from a pond and a small fountain sat a lectern, which he approached. Bush seemed tired but confident; some reporters noted a new aura of dignity about him. He read from a prepared statement.
"This morning brings news from Florida that the final vote count there shows that Secretary Cheney and I have carried the state of Florida," Bush said. "And if that result is confirmed in an automatic recount, as we expect it will be, then we have won the election." Bush said that the final recount would probably be completed by 5 p.m. Thursday.
His campaign was sending his dad's former secretary of state, James Baker III, to represent them in Florida, he said. Though Baker has played no role in Bush's campaign -- many in the family hold him responsible for then-President George H.W. Bush's loss to Bill Clinton in 1992, since he was brought in as campaign manager -- Bush the younger was full of praise for him.
"He's a man of impeccable credentials and integrity and someone the American people can trust to make sure the outcome is finalized as quickly as possible and in a calm and thoughtful manner," Bush said.
Bush began to reach out to Gore's voters -- who, it should be noted, exceeded Bush's by almost 200,000, an outcome few had predicted.
"I want to thank all the supporters who worked hard on our behalf," Bush said somberly. "I also want to thank the vice president's supporters for their hard work and their belief in their cause. I want to assure them that should the election go the way that we think it will that I will work hard to earn their confidence."
"America has a long tradition of uniting once elections are over," Bush affirmed. "Secretary Cheney and I will do everything in our power to unite the nation, to call upon the best, to bring people together after one of the most exciting elections in our nation's history. "
Cheney said that he looked "forward to getting this matter resolved as quickly as possible, so we can get on with the important business of transition." He and Bush "are optimistic that once this process is complete ... there will be a clear and decisive result, once the final count is completed in Florida tomorrow."
Bush took one question, and then he and Cheney walked off, ignoring others as reporters shouted them out. He and Cheney made a beeline for the mansion, stopping briefly to pose for photographers; Cheney waved, Bush gave a thumbs up.
Bush's communications director, Karen Hughes, and chief strategist, Karl Rove, took a few questions. Hughes demurred on questions about how Bush could consider himself to have a mandate when more Americans voted for Gore. Rove confirmed that "members of the campaign staff did contact the networks" to complain that they were wrong after calling Florida for Gore.
"What was ironic was the networks refused to call states that in the end gave Bush rather respectable margins, like West Virginia and Ohio, but were eager to award a state that was a lot closer, even in their own exit polls," Rove said, betraying an Alanis Morissette-like ignorance of the meaning of the word "ironic."
"Americans have a tradition of uniting behind their ... new leaders after an election," Rove said, repeating the campaign's new talking points.
Another photo op was arranged in the dining room. With place settings, grilled cheese sandwiches, fruit and cold squash soup before them, Bush sat at the end of the table, Laura to his left, Lynne Cheney to his right, Dick Cheney across the table.
"I'm upbeat," Bush said when asked how he felt.
"You're going to do a seven-minute mile today, Governor?" joked Fox News Channel's Carl Cameron.
"No, Carl, I'm not," Bush said. "I'm going to rest, do a little business. I've been working all morning."
"How does it feel?" a reporter asked.
"How does it feel not to be on an airplane headed somewhere?" Bush asked.
"No, not knowing what your title will be in a couple days," the reporter corrected.
"Well, we feel very good about what our title's going to be," Bush said. "And it's, the results are out there, they're now being certified, and we're pleased with the support we've received."
"Do you feel like a president-elect this morning, Governor?"
"I feel like a man who worked my heart out and put out a positive message and a person who is looking forward to a quick resolution of the ballots in the state of Florida." He said that his younger brother, Jeb, the governor of Florida, had the more emotional night. "I was confident that when it was all said and done, that Florida would be taken off the declared, you know, state roll and that cooler heads would prevail and the count would actually matter. That's what's happened.
"I'm looking forward to this being speedily resolved and that the vote that we believe we've got in Florida is confirmed," Bush said. "And when that happens, I'll be the president-elect and my friend will be the vice president-elect and we'll begin the transition."
"My soup is getting cold," Bush said, immediately acknowledging that the soup was cold to begin with. "Everybody go back and get some rest. We will try not to make too much news for you between now and supper."
But as Bush and Cheney turned to their cold squash soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, hoping it would be one of the last meals with the election results still up in the air, a Democratic adviser close to Gore was talking about the results not coming until past the time of another meal.
"We're looking at a situation," the Gore adviser said, "where it could be Thanksgiving and we may not know who the president will be."
Anthony York and the Associated Press contributed to this report.