As president of the Senate, Vice President Al Gore had the unenviable task of hammering the final nail in his own coffin on Saturday, as he traveled to Capitol Hill to count the nation's electoral votes for President-elect George W. Bush. It was the perfect combination of the new and old Gore, officiating with the same emotional distance that betrayed him during the campaign, and the wry sense of humor that has lifted his stature in defeat.
But if the vice president wanted the minimum of drama for this chore, not everyone felt the same. There were a dozen Democrats.com-ers shivering several yards in front of the Capitol, chanting "Jail to the thief!" for the new president. A stone's throw away, an equal number of die-hard Clinton bashers from the Free Republic Web community waved their suddenly antique "Sore Loserman" signs.
The real rumble, however, was inside the House of Representatives, where members of the Congressional Black Caucus followed through on their threat not to let Bush win without a fight. The gathering of senators, representatives and, perhaps most importantly, television cameras proved more than adequate as an audience for their political theater.
After the electoral choices of the states, Alabama to Delaware, were read into the record -- uneventfully, save Gore's raised fist when California's 54 votes had been awarded to him -- the moment of truth came with Florida's announcement.
Once Florida Democratic Rep. Peter Deutch piped up with the first objection to his state's electoral votes, several black Democrats lined up, one after another, attempting to put up last-minute roadblocks. Without the affirmation of a single senator, however, each objection went nowhere.
That didn't stop the scene. Floridians Alcee Hastings, Corrine Brown and Carrie Meek were up to bat first, each objecting to the irregularities of their state's balloting, each getting silenced in moments by hissing Republicans and the persistent gavel of Gore himself. CBC chief Eddie Bernice Johnson claimed to have "hundreds of thousands of telegrams and e-mails" to support her objection, but without a senator, no dice.
Then came Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Shelia Jackson-Lee of Texas, followed by California fire-starter Maxine Waters, who slammed the "fraudulent 25 Florida votes." Gore's query about whether she had a senator's signature was met with Waters' defiance.
"I don't care that it is not signed by a senator," she persisted.
"The chair would advise that the rules do care," Gore shot back, earning the applause of impatient Republicans.
Still to come were Barbara Lee of California, Cynthia McKinney of Georgia and North Carolina's Eva Clayton. Each was dispatched with a reminder about the rules and the rap of the gavel from Gore, and the vocal grumbling of the GOP. When Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois strode up to the podium with his objection, Gore responded with gratitude and weariness. "The chair thanks the gentleman from Illinois, but ... hey," Gore said with a grin.
At the end, Hastings was reduced to asking the vice president to consider overruling himself and allowing the objections to be debated. When Gore gave him a final refusal, the slightest smile settled on Hastings' face. "We did all we could," he said quietly.
"The chair thanks the gentleman," Gore replied.
As the proceeding moved on to Georgia, the Black Caucus members lined up, their backs turned to Gore, and marched out with hardly a backward glance. A few other Democratic representatives followed, while their party members applauded their persistent resistance.
The tedious roll call continued for more than another hour, but the House never got completely settled after the CBC drama. For one, the half empty chamber seemed to invite restlessness. Representatives wandered over to their colleagues for a quick chat, passed each other newspapers and magazines, and one woman pulled out a file and set to working on her nails. Dozens of teenage congressional pages, clad in navy blazers and ties, moved into the empty seats.
When Wyoming's three electoral votes were awarded, the vice president announced that Bush had won 271 ballots. The vice president then commented that 266 votes went to Al Gore of Tennessee, as if he were speaking of a stranger. Finally naming Bush the winner, Gore barely hesitated to gavel the matter to a close. "May God bless our new president and vice president, and may God bless the United States of America," he said. And it was over.