For a 28-year-old hack, covering the US presidential election was like winning the lottery. In any UK or Irish newsroom, this remains the box office assignment. US elections are like no other with the attendant drama and intrigue; a real-life House of Cards.
By Ciaran Byrne
In 2000, I was lucky enough to report on one of the most controversial US elections of all time as George W. Bush edged Al Gore in a bitterly fought, legally fraught contest.
I ploughed through the snow in New Hampshire as the primary season kicked off, travelled to LA for the Democratic Party convention, decamped to Nashville on the night Al Gore first won — and then lost — and finally, popped down to Florida as lawyers from both sides went to war over the result.
Dubya: ‘He’ll never win”
Not for a second did the excited Democrats gathered in the Staples Arena in LA during a hot August week think that Al Gore could possibly lose to a ‘village idiot’ like George W. But lose he did and the rest is history.
Bill Clinton, with Hillary at his side, said a final goodbye at the 2000 DNC, or so we thought.
Being a foreign journalist at the event was a plum gig and pretty straightforward, especially as I worked for a Sunday publication. The aim was to get there, observe, soak it up, hang out with other reporters, eat well, have a few beers and write a long piece for Sunday’s paper.
Filing for online, tweeting or live-blogging? Er, no.
Pictures? I took these on a Boots disposal camera.
In 2000, there was no Twitter, no Instagram, no Snapchat, no Facebook and no smartphones.
You had to use shorthand and, like, take notes and do stuff like actually listen and watch. Most newspaper websites on ‘The Internet’ were still run by two guys in the basement. Print was king.
Journalists also still relied on copytakers to file content to our newspapers back home if our brick heavy laptops broke down. I had a crappy Toshiba, a Nokia mobile phone and was staying a shitty hotel in downtown LA. I didn’t care less – I was in hack heaven.
Hack Heaven: At the DNC in LA, August 2000.
It may have been a year before 9/11 but security 16 years ago was still pretty tight; airport scanners, full-body pat-downs and several accreditations required before gaining entry to the DNC.
Terrorism? The biggest threat that week was the rock band Rage Against the Machine, who had decided to hold a free concert outside the DNC.
Watch: Rage Against the Machine at the DNC in 2000
Rolling Stone magazine recalled the event:
“Eight-thousand people showed up and Rage frontman Zack de la Rocha whipped them into a frenzy when he walked onstage.
“Our democracy has been hijacked!” he screamed as the band kicked into “Bulls on Parade.” “Our electoral freedoms in this country are over so long as it’s controlled by corporations! We are not going to allow these streets to be taken over by the Democrats or the Republicans!”
They played a forty-minute set that included “Sleep Now in the Fire,” “Guerrilla Radio,” “Testify” and covers of Devo’s “Beautiful World” and MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams.” A mini riot broke out after the set and LAPD responded by firing pepper spray and rubber bullets, but compared to the nightmare of the 1968 DNC the event was relatively calm.”
Run DNC: My Press credentials
My own highlights of DNC 2000? Being featured in the Media Section of the LA Times – the unwitting subject of a DNC week piece which mocked my then employer – The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday- for a fascination with a sheep called Dolly. Turns out the LA Times reporter was the complete thicko, she had never heard of the Roslin Institute or DNA. And she spelled my name wrong.
State by State: Delegates on the floor of the 2000 DNC
Other highlights included speeches by Senator Edward Kennedy and the company of other journalists such as The Guardian’s Peter Preston, Joe Carroll of the Irish Times and Stephen Khan, now editor of The Conversation in the UK.
There was also this from Al Gore on stage with his wife Tipper, again expertly described by Rolling Stone magazine:
“A few days later, Al Gore nearly swallowed Tipper’s head in a horrifyingly intense open-mouth kiss before accepting his party’s nomination. He was trying to demonstrate that, unlike Bill Clinton, he had a great relationship with his wife.”
Clintons: Saying ‘Goodbye’ in 2000
Bill Clinton’s farewell was the centrepiece. All of us were blown away by the sight of the president bounding up to the stage from under the auditorium, much like a prize-fighter about to slug it out for his final purse.
Watch: Bill Clinton says farewell at the 2000 DNC
He did what Clinton did best; telling stories, electrifying the crowd and leaving people with a sense that the noughties would be a decade full of hope and bright promise – ‘to build the future of our dreams’
Poignantly, after his eight years in office, he said America had a great opportunity as it had ‘no great internal crisis and no great external threat’.
How wrong he would be.
Less than three months later, America chose Bush and changed the course of history.
Now, 16 years on, after 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the implosion of Iraq and Syria and the rise of IS and global terror, America may be about to ignore Clinton 2.0 and elect Donald Trump. Here we go again.