It was the final days before Election Day 2000, and with world-historical stakes in the balance, a huge new issue had splashed into the campaign: the drunk driving of one George W. Bush, circa 1976.
Fast forward to 2004, same final pre-election period. Topic du jour? Osama Bin Laden's loony taped message, praising Sweden as a model country and encouraging us to follow their lead. He did not mention the pet goat this time. But Osama was still scary, and as the media were saying, he could change the whole race...
Whatever happened to the bad old days of October surprises?
The last lap of campaign '08 has seen its share of twists, but perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that no big shoe has dropped, no dog has barked, no terrorist has yapped (on this count, the Ayers accusations were trotted out too early), no deeply submerged record has surfaced of cocaine-fueled candidate windsurfing while on the beaches of Vietnam with an intern.
So, since it's just "Waiting for Godot" for 24 more hours, here's a stroll down memory lane.
Let's start with this moment, just before Election Day, in 2000, after months of chatter about earth tones and alpha males.
On racial issues, the tables were turned on the Democrats, sort of. Does anyone recall that it was Al Gore who was being accused of racial demagoguery? Bush said Gore was trying to "scare people into the voting booth." Gore had said Bush was indifferent to the dragging death of James Byrd, supported the Confederate flag flying over the State House in South Carolina, and would appoint unreconstructed judges who would decide cases as if it were 1859.
About this time in 2000 Bush was serenely optimistic, with Karl Rove predicting a landslide of electoral votes. "Boy Genius," if you recall, predicted a total of at least 320.
Gore, meanwhile, was so deliriously tired on stage that at a rally in Michigan he kept confusing the singer Bruce Hornsby - Gore's own warm-up act - with baseball legend Rogers Hornsby.
Rudolph Giuliani was stumping with Bush (unclear what he was talking about, given that the "9/11" theme was as yet unavailable), just as he has with McCain in '08. Colin Powell, who just came up with a huge endorsement for Obama, was out on the hustings with Dick Cheney. Bush was confused about whether or not social security was a federal program. And war veteran John Kerry was, along with Bob Kerrey, stumping for Gore to shore up military support. Swift boats were still four years away.
Somehow - and this seems confusing in retrospect - all "greens" were totally against Al Gore, with Ralph Nader leading the charge against a man who turned out to be the world's greatest gift to the green movement.
America had just re-discovered the electoral college system, and the federal coordinator of the system, Michael White, had become a celebrity. The possibility of a confusing electoral tie was in the air, but Americans were reassured that the electoral system solved all ills and was perfectly designed to avoid, in the words of Hamilton, "cabal, intrigue and corruption."
A defense of Hamilton: Florida was not yet a state when he wrote those words.
And beneath the radar in 2000, an early version of robo-calling was influencing the election in a malignant and sinister way. On Nov. 6, 2000, the New York Times published a stunning trend story: "[C]ampaigns around the country say e-mail has become a powerful way to mobilize supporters..."
Oh, one more 2000 nugget: the New York Post ran a near perfect headline on the Bush drunk-driving revelation: "D-Dubya-I."
Then came 2004, and we all found ourselves in much the same state of uncertainty and anxiety after months of intense coverage of the issues. Unfortunately, the issues were not always contemporary. As Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post put it, "There were periods when the coverage was more about the war in Vietnam than the war in Iraq."
Still, down the stretch towards Election Day word had leaked that 377 tons of Iraqi munitions had gone missing. And news of more weapons in Iraq that couldn't be found seemed to somehow benefit Kerry, though in hindsight it was a wash.
With 48 hours to go, everyone was declaring the Bush-Kerry race a dead heat. Many people were, because of 2000, worrying about whether their vote would be counted. A New York Times/CBS News poll found that 55 percent of respondents thought the country was headed in the wrong direction, a mild number compared to those in 2008.
Just before Election Day, Dick Cheney headed to, of all places, Hawaii, where polls were showing the race tightening. Given that Hawaii did go Democratic anyway, one has to wonder if this was a fabrication to get the vice president some beach time.
Being a Red Sox fan, John Kerry was hoping that the club's World Series victory in late October might be a good omen going into Election Day. (Should, then, left-leaning Sox fans count the team's elimination this year as a positive omen for Obama?)
Anyway, in 2004, a "groundswell" of new voters was also predicted by the Left. "The really untold story is the huge numbers of new registrants - particularly among low-income Americans and communities of color," an ACORN official said. But no one was leveling grandiose charges of the biggest voter fraud in history by ACORN, as we've heard recently.
Which is all to say that some things in elections stay the same, but some things also change.
In 2000 and 2004, Gore, Lieberman, Kerry and Edwards were all over the black church circuit near voting day. This year, well, that may not be quite as necessary.
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