George W. Bush's last victory party, which took place four years ago in Austin, Texas, never quite got underway. There was some annoying business about a withdrawn concession phone call and a steady downpour of rain. This year's party, held inside the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., was in one respect an improvement. There was no rain.
The evening began in the Reagan Building's giant, sloping atrium. The GOP herded its youngish volunteers into a mosh pit, jammed between the stage and the TV cameras. Vodka tonics were consumed, and the twentysomethings seemed poised for giddy celebration. Just after 12:30 a.m., Fox News awarded Ohio to Bush, bringing the president's electoral tally, by the network's count, to 266. Four more years! Alaska followed 20 minutes later, nudging Bush to 269. Four more years! At that point, a portly man wearing a blue suit and pin-striped shirt removed his "W Is Still President" lapel pin, held it aloft like a cigarette lighter, and began to lurch toward the stage.
But as soon as the crowd began to rock, Bush's glorious night ground to a halt. More than three hours passed without Fox awarding Bush a single electoral vote. Some of the other networks refused to give him Ohio. It wasn't that the remaining states were breaking for Kerry; they simply weren't breaking at all. The country band playing at the victory celebration exhausted its playlist and began glancing up nervously at the TV monitors. A producer with a ponytail and "W" hat waddled onstage and told them to keep playing. Reporters in the press row reached for their cell phones: The news from Boston was that John Edwards would take the stage and extend the election.
Ed Gillespie, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, dashed to the podium and, in a speech that lasted for the exact duration of Edwards', declared that Kerry couldn't possibly unearth 100,000 more votes in Ohio. The crowd whooped, but malaise was setting in. Wouldn't the president just get over here and declare victory already? Better yet, wouldn't Kerry just give up?
The heavy eyes were a marked shift from the evening's start, which was brimming with cautious optimism. As Bush swept the early states, Jeremy Bouma, a member of something called the Center for Christian Statesmanship, told me the expected surge in Democratic turnout would be offset by new evangelical voters. "My prayer going into this was that the evangelical vote was the X Factor," he said. Rosario Marin, a former U.S. treasurer, thought that Bush had succeeded in increasing his support among Hispanic voters. She was telling me why Latinos did not, in fact, oppose to the Iraq war when Gillespie announced that ABC had called Florida for Bush.
Aaaaaaaaah! she screamed, into my right ear."Oh, sorry." Then: Aaaaaaaaaah! "Oh, sorry." Aaaaaaaaaaaah! I told her she should go ahead and scream. After she caught her breath, Marin said: "I'm so happy. I'm so excited. My heart is pumping. I've got to call my husband." And then she was gone.
Bush never appeared at his 2000 victory party. Around 3 a.m. Wednesday, a question arose as to whether, in fact, he would appear at this one. CNN's John King reported that Bush had stormed into Karl Rove's office and asked the guru to let him declare victory. The reporters in the press room that weren't asleep let out a whoop. King later reported that Rove told the networks that if they would just call New Mexico for Bush, the president would make his way to the Reagan Building. The message was clear: I know you're tired. So give me the damn state.
At 5:05 a.m., an end—sort of. CNN reported that Bush wouldn't appear in person Wednesday morning; Andy Card, his chief of staff, would speak in his place. Card arrived in a room with a few dozen listless Republicans and said nothing memorable. Mario H. Lopez, one of the listless, declared, "I don't know how I cannot describe this night as historic." Then he glanced at someone's watch and said, "I think we're gonna get some breakfast and then get ready to go to work." ... 3:17 a.m.
Party Monster: Welcome to George W. Bush's "victory" party in Washington, D.C. Sorta. Us news reporters have been herded into a giant white tent, yards away from the actual party, and contact with revelers looks unlikely. This is what the mob outside Studio 54 must have looked like, if only you upped the dweeb factor.
As the Washington Post's "Reliable Source" column notedthis morning: "Reporters wishing to cover the president's election night party will have to pay $300 for the privilege of a 3-by-2-foot work space and a padded seat in a tent nearby to watch the proceedings on television. … Small groups of media will be escorted into the atrium of the Ronald Reagan Building to look around—but they won't be allowed to talk to participants." For a White House that hates the press, handcuffing reporters on Victory Night seems appropriate.