It was like a scene from "ER," with our favorite doctors pounding on the open, blood-spattered chest of yet another patient. The high-pitched shriek of the monitor signals an unbeating heart. The paddles come out, they're rubbed together as if for luck, and set on the patient's torso. "Clear!" the lovely doctor shouts, the chest jumps and everyone stays still for a second to wait to see whether the magic green dot on the screen takes that life-affirming jump.
And wait. And wait. Even if it's just for a second, it's agony.
At Vice President Al Gore's headquarters on Tuesday night, it was endless hours of that agonizing second. Day blurred into night and then back into day, just the way Gore did in the final 48 hours of the race, stretching himself to his physical limits. On Election Night, you had to believe that he was stretched to his mental limits, but no one could see it. Unlike Gov. George W. Bush, who had photographers beaming his image across television early in the day, Gore disappeared into the recesses of the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza Hotel.
At least he was consistent, unlike the television networks. In the beginning, it looked like it was all about Al, as the vice president seemed poised to pull out a miracle. Even to pull it out running away. The surprisingly quick declarations of victory in Michigan, Illinois and Florida made the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza Hotel a happy place to be. When Ohio slipped into the Bush column, the Gore forces greeted it with a great big shrug.
But that changed when Florida was taken away from Gore. Then other states with hard-fought victories, like Minnesota, didn't seem so dear. Every state had to be watched, and watching each one was a separate agony. Arkansas and Tennessee lingered on the too-close-to-call list, only to be plucked away and given to Bush at last.
Ralph Nader's image on the television screens, next to single-digit figures in Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington and even Florida, taunted Gore's supporters. What seemed like an invigorating exercise in democracy turned into the ultimate nightmare for Democrats. In a supreme irony, the Green Party candidate apparently did not reach the all-important goal of 5 percent of the popular vote, the level required for matching federal funds. He just garnered enough to be a spoiler.
Around the time that the Florida vote was first taken away from Gore, media types started to notice that none of his staff was in the lobby. Reporters looked around for members of the inner circle in vain. And they stayed gone until the final moments.
It should have been a signal to everyone when the Rev. Jesse Jackson arrived grim-faced in the lobby. The party wouldn't be coming out to the War Memorial Plaza in Nashville anytime soon, and a nasty cold rain had cut down the crowd. And now a key political ally was coming to the cocoon instead of waiting to pour the champagne at the plaza. Bad omen.
Meanwhile, the television told the story that Gore was running out of miracles, but that didn't end the tease. Arizona slipped out of reach. Misery. Iowa finally fell to Gore. Hope. Wisconsin and Oregon hovered between the candidates.
In the end, it came down to Florida, and the barest of margins separated the two candidates, but this time, that margin favored Bush. The television networks, not wanting to make the same mistake twice in one night, waited and waited until little more than 5 percent was left outstanding. Then, a bit after 2:20 a.m. Eastern time, Gore's decades-long political career was called dead. Eyes went raw, heads were bowed. Mourning began.
And then, new life on a dark screen: Beep.
The Florida secretary of state says hold the phone, hold the count, hold the presidency.