Five weeks after Election Day, George W. Bush at last laid claim to the presidency Wednesday night with a pledge to "seize this moment" and deliver reconciliation and unity to a nation divided. Al Gore exited the tortuously close race, exhorting the nation to put aside partisan rancor and support its new chief executive.
"I was not elected to serve one party, but to serve one nation," the nation's soon-to-be 43rd president told Americans in remarks prepared for a nationally televised address from the chambers of the Texas House of Representatives. The Texas governor chose that setting, he said, because he had been able to work there with Democrats and Republicans alike.
"Our nation must rise above a house divided," he said hopefully, echoing a reference from Scripture spoken by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.
Gore went first, delivering his call for national unity in a televised concession.
"May God bless his stewardship of this country," the vice president said. Gore, who called Bush to concede shortly before his speech, joked that he had promised not to "call him back this time," a reference to the concession he phoned to Bush on Election Night and later withdrew.
Bush said it had been a "gracious call" from Gore, adding, "I understand how difficult this moment must be" for him.
The two made plans to meet in Washington on Tuesday.
Victorious Republicans, in conciliatory and sympathetic tones, prepared to claim control of both the White House and Congress for the first time in more than 45 years, while Democrats talked ominously of deep partisan schisms to condemn the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that pushed Gore from the race.
"This might be the end of a campaign, but it's just the beginning of a much longer, difficult process," Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said.
In a televised address that lasted less than 10 minutes, Gore mixed words of unity with the unmistakable message that he felt wronged by the Supreme Court ruling that stopped the Florida recount and prompted his concession.
"While I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it," he said. "I accept the finality of this outcome."
He allowed there would be time for disagreements down the road, but said "now is the time to recognize that that which unites us is greater than that which divides us."
Leaving the White House office that he soon will vacate, Gore was greeted outside by cheering supporters who chanted "Gore in Four," a hopeful wish for his political revival in 2004.
Bush moved quickly into the breach, scheduling a 10 p.m. EST address at the Texas state Capitol and tapping the state's Democratic House speaker to introduce him. He told campaign chairman Don Evans to reach out to Gore chairman William Daley, a move that led to the scheduling of the two rivals' meeting next week. And he dusted off transition plans laid dormant by the legal wrangling, as aides reminded reporters that a Democrat or two were certain to join the Bush administration.
In his first act as president-elect, Bush will attend a "prayer and hope" church service Thursday in Austin, spokeswoman Karen Hughes said. "He wants to start this on a message of prayer and healing," she said.
Each move was calculated to heal divisions caused by the brutal, five-week election postscript. His mandate in doubt, Bush already is being urged to curb his legislative agenda, particularly the $1.3 trillion program of tax cuts over 10 years.
Reacting to Democratic criticism, Justice Clarence Thomas told high school students that the court is not influenced by the politics of the presidency or Congress.
"We happen to be in the same city but we might as well be on entirely different planets," said Thomas, nominated to the bench by Bush's father. "We have no axes to grind."
A few miles away, the doors to a government-run transition office were still closed to Bush, though the General Services Administration said a concession speech from Gore would change that. Florida's GOP-led Legislature also awaited word from Gore, deferring plans to appoint a backup slate of state electors loyal to Bush.
Gore topped his GOP rival by more than 300,000 votes out of 103 million ballots cast nationwide. But Florida's 25 electoral votes, to be cast Dec. 18 and counted Jan. 6, would give Bush a total of 271, one more than the 270 required to win the presidency, and four more than Gore.
And thus closed an election for the history books, the closest in 124 years. On Inauguration Day Jan. 20, the Texas governor will become:
Andrew Card, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and GOP running mate Dick Cheney held top positions in the first Bush presidency and are slated for senior roles in the second.
Cheney visited conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill, telling reporters afterward, "We're moving forward on the transition."
Bush may soon join Cheney in the nation's capital; aides said that a trip to Washington next week was being planned, including a courtesy call on President Clinton, congressional Democrats and hopefully a meeting with Gore.
Bush has said he hopes to "seize the moment" if the courts ruled in his favor. "Part of seizing the moment is reaching out to the other party, to show his bipartisanship," said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Advisers said Democrats are under consideration for Cabinet posts, including Sen. John Breaux, D-La. Also mentioned in GOP circles: Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, former Sens. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., and Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and former Dallas Democratic Party chairman Sandy Kress.
Bush's schedule is in flux, but aides said a presidential-style news conference was likely this week. They debated whether to roll out White House staff and Cabinet appointments or delay the activity while Bush builds an image as a uniter.
With the Senate evenly split, the House nearly so and Florida falling to Bush by a near-invisible 537 votes, it was fitting that the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 against recounts in the state, a decision they nine justices knew was tantamount to awarding Bush the White House.
Democrats laid down their political markers for 2002, when Congress will be up for grabs, suggesting that wounds inflicted in the recount war will still be grist for the next campaign.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the "majority has dealt the court a serious blow by taking actions many Americans will consider to be political rather than judicial."
The party's core constituencies, particularly minorities, seemed the most stung by Gore's defeat. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., called the high court "a willing tool of the Bush campaign" that orchestrated "a velvet legal coup."
Rep. Charles Rangel, a senior black lawmaker, said, "I am shocked by the partisanship that has bubbled up to the lofty halls of the Supreme Court."
A number of other Democrats urged Gore to bow out graciously. "His statement should be clear and unequivocal that, according to the highest court in the land, George W. Bush is going to be the next president," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said.
After eight years of Democratic control in the White House, Republicans promised compromise and consensus. "The long trail that has kept the nation in suspense since November 7th is now over," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert. "Now, as a nation, we must come together."
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