Once upon a time, when America was innocent and the chattering classes were exercised with dangling chads and undervotes and sundry other harmless electoral mishaps in the state of Florida, there was a Democratic politician called Al Gore. Remember him? He was the one who was on the losing end of the closest presidential election in US history – if indeed it was the losing end.
Officially he was defeated by George W Bush by 537 votes in the Sunshine State. But if we are to believe the exhaustive review conducted by a group of leading US media organisations and belatedly released last week, the true result was even closer still.
On the narrowest measure, including the four counties where Gore requested the recounts that were ultimately halted by the US Supreme Court, Bush would probably still have shaded it, by just 225 votes. A statewide recount, on the other hand, might have handed victory to Gore by an even narrower margin of between 100 and 170 votes. Less scientifically, diehard Gore supporters maintain that had Florida used voting-booth technology that allowed people to record the ballot they intended (instead of, say, voting twice on the same ballot paper, or voting by accident for the likes of Pat Buchanan), their man would have prevailed by between 15,000 and 45,000 votes statewide.
Alas, poor Al. For his supporters that is only a small fraction of the injustice visited upon him. The number that should matter, they say, is not 537 but 537,000 – the margin by which Gore led Bush in the national popular vote, only to have victory snatched from him – after 36 days of wrangling – by the vagaries of the electoral college. Adding insult to injury, no presidential candidate in American history, with the sole exception of Ronald Reagan in 1984, has ever won more than the 50,996,116 votes Gore gained on 7 November 2000. But to no avail; he has gone down as the first candidate since Grover Cleveland in 1888 to win the popular vote yet lose the White House. A year ago today, the wrangling was in full swing, but no one had the foggiest notion of the truly significant happenings in Florida: flying classes taken by a handful of outwardly unremarkable Arab students, learning how to pilot commercial jetliners.
But what-ifs are the morbid fascination of history. Measured by even the official count, if just 269 votes (one in 20,000, or about 0.005 per cent of the statewide total) had switched sides, then Al Gore and not George Bush would be dealing with the most traumatic event in America's modern experience. What would that have meant for the rest of us? What impact did those disputed recounts and rulings (which by the end of November last year had begun to bore many foreign observers into indifference) have on the world we now live in?
The crisis, so far at least, has been the making of Dubya, who until the terrorists struck yielded to none of his recent predecessors in ignorance of world affairs. But Gore was touted in the campaign as the foreign-policy expert. What would his response have been?
It seems fair to say that, before 11 September, a Gore presidency would almost certainly have seemed very different – to foreign eyes – from a Bush one. The author of Earth in the Balance certainly would not have alienated much of the world by rejecting the Kyoto pact on global warming. There would probably have been no post-Clinton disengagement from the Middle East, and no wholesale dismissal of treaties deemed not to be in America's interests.
But the fearful deeds of one beautiful early autumn morning have changed every calculation. The hard fact is that privately, and in some cases publicly, most leading Democrats are relieved that George Bush occupies the White House. This is not genuflection to a President with approval ratings of almost 90 per cent – had Gore won, America's instinct to rally behind a President in a crisis would have seen him at similar levels. It reflects a pleasant surprise at the way Bush has visibly grown into his job – and, above all, a sense of reassurance about the people around him.
Not that a Gore cabinet would have been lightweight, or that he would have conducted a less forceful military campaign. In the regular Balkan crises of the Clinton years, it was the Vice-President, not the President, who tended to be the frustrated hawk.
Had Gore won, the men around him would have been impressive. "One of the smartest men I know," is how one foreign envoy describes Leon Fuerth, Gore's foreign policy adviser, who would probably have been his National Security Adviser. Ditto Richard Holbrooke, the forceful architect of the 1995 Dayton peace accords for Bosnia and probable Secretary of State under Gore. As Vice-President, Joe Lieberman would surely have been a safe pair of hands. But collectively, these men hardly match the experience of Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld. And Democrats being Democrats, cracks would have shown. In times of peace a tendency to squabble is one of the party's charms. Less so when America is at war.
In all likelihood, however, the overall conduct of the war by a Gore administration would not have been so different. American doctrine now grants wide powers for the military planners – in this case General Tommy Franks, Commander-in-Chief of US Central Command. Policy would have been formulated by much the same set of generals before being sent up the ladder for political approval.
Some important things, though, might have been different. It is hard to imagine Gore, without the Bushies' fixation on missile defence, and at times moralistic to a fault, embarking on the same rapprochement with Russia, if that meant turning a blind eye to Moscow's brutal war in Chechnya.
Middle East policy is another question. In normal times Democrats, with their eye on the Jewish vote in the party's urban strongholds such as New York, are more sympathetic to Israel than Republicans. But a Democratic President with a practising Jew as Vice-President? Might this not have interfered with a Gore effort to keep moderate Arab leaders on board during the bombing of a Muslim country?
Finally, would bipartisanship have prevailed for so long on Capitol Hill (especially after the defection of the Republican James Jeffords last spring, which handed control of the Senate to the Democrats)? When it comes to grudges and political hardball, none play harder than Republicans trying to nail Bill Clinton's hide to the wall.
But might-have-beens, in the end, are no pointer to the future. Today, good citizen Gore stays decorously out of the spotlight, professing his loyalty to Bush. He is busy with his wife Tipper on a book about the family, and works the academic lecture circuit. This week he made another classic move of a between-jobs politician, accepting the post of vice-president at Metropolitan West Financial, a $50bn investment firm based in Los Angeles.
An understandable post-election yearning for comfort foods saw Gore, pudgy at the best of times, put on a couple of stone. The extra girth has now virtually disappeared. Not so the beard he acquired on a holiday to Europe, which makes him look like a faintly manic professor of English – but which also lends an air of mystery that he always lacked in office.
Today, according to friends, Gore is a wiser but not a broken man. Defeat, and the adjustment to travel by rented Chevrolet Impala instead of sealed official motorcade, have enabled him to connect with people in a way he rarely did as Vice-President.
The circumstances of his loss irk him, but today he turns them into jokes. "Some of them you win, some you lose and then there's that little-known third category. Think about it," he laughs, referring to the Supreme Court ruling.
Gore hasn't made up his mind whether to make a third run in 2004. But shaven or unshaven, he no longer has the inside track as the sitting Vice-President, with the party apparatus and the White House's formidable powers of patronage lined up behind him. Conventional wisdom has it that he will not be the party's nominee in 2004. He had his chance in a very winnable election, but blew it and how come a man who was preparing for the Presidency for seven years managed to get through three campaign managers in the last six months? Sure, he was unfortunate with the electoral college. But if Gore had just managed to hold his home state of Tennessee, all the dramas in Florida would have been irrelevant.
When the party faithful are asked who they would like to see carrying the Democratic standard in the next election, Gore still commands more support than any putative rival. But that may reflect no more than name recognition.
As for Bush-Gore, the rematch "How would you vote if the election were held tomorrow?" the former Vice-President who beat Bush by 0.5 per cent in the popular vote 12 months ago is today on the wrong end of a theoretical 61-35 landslide.
The pretenders, meanwhile, are queuing up; the popular Senate majority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota; his colleagues John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina; the House minority leader Richard Gephardt; not to mention Joe Lieberman himself and, of course, Hillary Clinton.
Which leaves poor Al firmly in the margins of history which is a tragedy both personal and public. Was an American politician ever more obviously born to the purple? Son of a senator, a senator and Vice-President himself, with a model family, thoroughly versed in both domestic and foreign affairs, on the right side of almost every issue, Gore appeared on steady path to the top. Yet throughout something was lacking. Humour, spontaneity perhaps but above all, that priceless political gift of timing. Take the beard. TrustAl Gore to grow one just when thousands of joyful Afghans are shaving theirs off.