One last surprise

Lieberman heard from a friend, confidants from CNN. Apparently, only the Gore family knew when the most famous presidential also-ran decided to walk away from politics.

By Jake Tapper
Published December 18, 2002 12:24AM (EST)

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., was relaxing at his Georgetown home Sunday afternoon when a friend e-mailed his BlackBerry. The news was big: Lieberman's former running mate, Al Gore, wasn't going to run for reelection, according to news reports beginning to trickle out. Lieberman, who once pledged never to run against Gore, turned on the television and watched the reports for himself. A flood of phone calls from staffers and family members started pouring in.

Lieberman was surprised, a source close to him said. "It's not something he was expecting." Not now, since Gore had said that his decision would come in early January at the soonest. And it was certainly not something he was expecting to hear from a random friend who had heard it from some joker on cable news.

From coast to coast, former Gore staffers and confidants were caught flat-footed with the former veep's decision. Almost all of them had expected their one-time boss to reenter the fray, particularly because -- after months of self-imposed silence -- he'd burst back onto the scene with the release of two books he'd worked on with his wife, Tipper, a weekend appearance on NBC's "Saturday Night Live," and some early aggressive statements condemning the apparently pro-Dixiecrat sentiments of incoming Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. None of them expected that he'd be fielding calls Monday morning from the 2004 Democratic hopefuls, asking for his blessing and official endorsement.

In a press conference before a book signing in Raleigh, N.C., on Monday, Gore said that after months of contemplating it all, after a week of being with his family in New York City during "SNL" rehearsals, the "slow dawning" of the decision finally shined on Friday morning. "I was beginning to engage in conversations [with family members] I had been anticipating I would have over the Christmas holidays," Gore said. As he approached "closure" with his decision, "I determined I might as well make the decision sooner rather than later."

Sunday afternoon he gave Lesley Stahl her exclusive taped interview for "60 Minutes," which CBS quickly began to hype. And with that, those expecting to hear the news directly from Gore -- his former running mate, for instance -- learned the news the way everyone else did: from CNN or a friend. (Then again, Lieberman had found out from the "Today" show that he had been picked to run with Gore, so maybe it was fitting.)

Lieberman -- a full-time senator since the 2000 debacle, long past spending his days trying to stay out of Gore's way -- was one thing. But Gore managed to surprise even his closest staff members.

Perhaps least prepared was Gore's hapless press secretary, Jano Cabrera, who was with his boss at the NBC studios from 11 a.m. Saturday until the close of the show 13 hours later. After the show, Cabrera accompanied Gore to the legendary "SNL" after-party, at La Brasserie, where he partied with the Gores, but also Lorne Michaels, the "SNL" crew, musical guests Phish, and actress Julia Stiles. Gore himself was there until 3 a.m. or so; Cabrera stayed until the 4 a.m. closing, after which he went to "SNL" cast member Horatio Sanz's after-after-party at a rented-out local bar. Wedging in two hours of sleep Sunday morning, Cabrera managed to make it to the 1:30 p.m. USAir shuttle from LaGuardia to Reagan National Airport in Washington. He assumed the rest of his day would be spent recuperating.

"I was literally falling asleep before the plane left the terminal and then my cellphone rang," Cabrera recalls. Spent, he let it go to voice mail. But it rang again, so Cabrera answered. It was Lisa Berg, another Gore aide. By now the plane had pulled away from the terminal.

"It's an emergency," Berg said. "You need to get back here." Cabrera tried to explain that the plane was moving. "You need to get back here," Berg said, serious as a heart attack. Cabrera called over a flight attendant and, explaining that he was having a professional emergency, wondered if he could return to the gate. "She became very serious," he says. "'We can still pull you back,' she said." (Cabrera says he didn't mention Gore's name at all.)

Racing back in a cab to the Regency Hotel, Cabrera still "had no idea what it was. I thought this announcement was going to come in January. So it never entered my mind" that his boss was about to pull himself out of the '04 contest. "But then I saw him in the lobby," Cabrera says. "Just by taking one look at him at him I knew what it was." At that point, Gore was about to proceed to his taped interview with Stahl.

Two thousand miles away, it was a typical gray Sunday in Sioux Falls, S.D., where Steve Hildebrand -- Gore's campaign manager for the January 2000 Iowa caucuses, in which Gore beat challenger Bill Bradley by 28 points -- was loading up furniture from the office where he'd managed the winning reelection campaign of Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. Hildebrand's cellphone rang.

"Turn on CNN," Hildebrand was told. He did, and was shocked. "I was fairly confident that he was running," Hildebrand said.

That was how nearly everyone in the Gore circle found out that their man was opting out -- from the Crunch gym in West Hollywood, where Eli Attie, the head speechwriter for the 2000 Gore campaign, happened to look up from the StairMaster and catch a glimpse of cable news, to Washington, where Ron Klain, the lawyer who ran the Gore effort during the Florida recount, was brought onto the CNN set at 10 p.m., only to admit on air that, despite his insider status, when it came to learning about his ex-boss's plan he owed more to Ted Turner than to Gore.

There were some follow-up calls by Gore, of course. On Sunday afternoon, Gore e-mailed Lieberman's BlackBerry, telling him the news personally (kind of). Lieberman -- first introduced to the BlackBerry by his erstwhile running mate -- wrote back. But though Gore and he chatted perfunctorily, they didn't talk on the phone until Monday morning. It was then that Lieberman phoned and asked for his support for the Lieberman 2004 presidential campaign, should he formally launch one. Gore demurred then, as he did with Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and John Edwards, D-N.C., who also phoned Gore on Monday, asking for his support for their possible presidential campaigns.

The two -- also-rans in Gore's VP search of 2000 -- appeared just as clueless about this decision as Lieberman was. Lounging around in his luxurious $2 million Beacon Hill townhouse, Kerry learned that he wouldn't have a giant to kill in the 2004 New Hampshire primary when his press secretary called him to pass on an Associated Press reporter's request for comment about the big news. And at Reagan National Airport, Edwards had just gotten off a plane from Phoenix, where'd he'd spoken at a state Democratic dinner the night before, when his press secretary received a call on his cellphone from a reporter seeking a comment. It wasn't until Edwards and another staffer were driving back from the airport and other cellphone calls came in that Edwards believed the reports. "He was surprised," a source close to Edwards says. "Especially at the timing."

As for the reasons Gore has cited for his decision, Gore loyalists take their former boss at his word. "At the end of the day he laid out the criteria for his decision, and at the heart of the matter it was a very personal decision for him that involved no one outside his immediate family," said Mike Feldman, Gore's former traveling chief of staff and one of his most trusted aides.

Feldman was at a holiday party Saturday night at the Chelsea loft of former Clinton White House press secretary Jake Siewert, where the room was shushed at 11:30 p.m., when Gore began hosting "SNL." In between the guffaws and groans, politicos aligned with Gore and Edwards, and those as yet unaffiliated, tried to read Gore's performance. During a skit in which Gore recalled his selection of Lieberman -- in a spoof of "The Bachelor," the real Gore and a faux Lieberman, portrayed by Chris Parnell, were shown drinking champagne together in a hot tub, arms locked, romance in the air -- Eileen Jurist, the wife of Edwards adviser Jonathan Prince, announced: "That's it. He's not running."

It was prescient -- but not without some previous clues. The suggestion that Gore wouldn't run was floated by sources close to Gore in a New York Times story last week. Observers and allies saw Gore's lack of major outreach to party officials and contributors as evidence he wouldn't run. But during the ongoing game of "He's running/No, he's not" at Saturday's party, it was clear that even confidants like Feldman weren't sure what Gore would ultimately do.

The "60 Minutes" interview seemed to supply the main reasons -- or at least hint at them. There are, for example, many financial and political supporters who have been unenthusiastic about another Gore run, which he acknowledged to Stahl. "The last campaign was an extremely difficult one," Gore said. "I think that there are a lot of people within the Democratic Party who felt exhausted by that, who felt like, OK, I don't want to go through that again.' And I'm frankly sensitive to that, to that feeling." Gore said he had "the energy, the drive, and the ambition" to run again, but that the prospect of a Gore rematch with George W. Bush would likely distract from important substantive policy differences -- particularly economic ones -- that he wants the Democratic Party to spell out in the next presidential contest.

In addition to the family reasons for bowing out -- Gore, after all, has been in public life for 24 years -- one former Gore aide acknowledged that Gore "was sensitive to those in his own party who thought it was time for others in the Democratic Party to run." (Prince, for instance, is just one of those senior politicos who have already signed on to work for another Democrat.)

"He kept hearing from these people. It wasn't 'Al Gore, don't run' -- it was just that people were a little tired and exhausted," the former aide said. Gore also knew the "inevitable focus would be the Bush-Gore rematch," which he did not look forward to discussing. Not that he was underconfident about his chances. "I think he thinks he could have gotten the nomination and he thinks he could have beaten Bush."

Inevitably, hints appeared in hindsight. Attie had seen his former boss eight days before, when Gore flew to Los Angeles to film a taped segment for "SNL," in which Gore lingered wistfully in the Oval Office set of "The West Wing." Attie, now a writer for "West Wing," said Gore seemed "really happy and relaxed and peaceful," in a way he'd never seen the former vice president during the tumultuous 2000 campaign. Gore seemed content.

On Monday, Gore pensively recalled a 1970 canoe ride with his father, former Sen. Albert Gore Sr., right after he lost a bitter reelection battle. "He asked me for my advice," Gore recalled. "One day you're serving 32 years in the Senate and the House and then this happens. My advice to him was, 'Why not take the 32 years, Dad?'" That's what his father decided to do, he said. "I'll take the 24 years."

Some Democratic politicos noted that after fairly friendly media coverage surrounding the release of the Gores' books, New York Times polls indicated that his personal approval ratings were still very low (19 percent -- compared with Bush's 65 percent). One Gore aide says that neither those polls -- nor "the polls showing him walking away with the Democratic nomination" -- ever factored into Gore's decision.

The corpse of Gore '04 wasn't even cold, of course, before Lieberman, Edwards, and Kerry called Gore to ask for his endorsement. "I have not told any of the candidates that I will endorse him," Gore said Monday. "Nor have I ruled anyone in or anyone out." Gore said he would "probably endorse someone" and made light of how much influence that backing would have, joking that he's "influential with my wife and children" and that "half a dozen votes could make all the decision in a presidential race, you can take it from me."

Still, Gore, as usual, never manages to make a move without rankling some of the Democratic faithful. With Lott on the defensive for waxing nostalgic about a pro-segregation Strom Thurmond, many Washington Democrats resented Gore for choosing the middle of the Lott media maelstrom to make his announcement and chasing the few anti-GOP headlines of the year off the front pages.

But there were plenty of Democrats who must have awakened Monday with a deep sense of relief. Lieberman is now free to pursue the White House without violating his promise to Gore. Kerry and Edwards and other hopefuls -- like Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. -- may find a 2004 run more appealing, especially with experienced staff and loyal Democratic donors suddenly on the market and looking for a new home.

The decision also makes life easier for those, like Hildebrand, whose loyalties were divided. Close to both Gore and Daschle, Hildebrand faced a decision not unlike that of a child forced to choose which divorced parent he wants to celebrate Thanksgiving with.

On Monday, such tough decisions were over, and from many Democrats, for many reasons, came a deep, rumbling sigh of relief. And those Democrats surely included Al Gore.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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