On September 30, 2000, a blue-and-white Boeing jet landed at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, in Florida, carrying the man who seemed most likely to be elected the next president of the United States. To the chiming chords of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the plane pulled up in front of a cluster of aluminum-sided buildings belonging to a flight school called Jones Aviation. A crowd of Democrats stood waiting for Vice President Al Gore, who was surging ahead of his opponent, Governor George W. Bush of Texas, as they headed into the fall campaign season.
One of the challenges in writing about the past is that you already know how the story ends. It is easy to fall into the trap of determinism, stretching the strands of historical narrative straight across the page until they reach their preordained destination. But in my new book, The Year That Broke America, I wanted to try to recapture the simultaneous and contingent nature of events as they actually happened.
The book’s two primary threads involve the presidential election and the plot that resulted in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. During the year 2000, these two stories were unfolding in the same place, Florida, touching one another and sometimes tangling in unexpected ways. It was not until I was deep into my research that I recognized the rally in Sarasota as one of those points of overlap.
I started my writing process with a blank page—literally. I found a giant white sheet of paper, seven feet long and four and a half feet wide, and tacked it to my wall to create a timeline of the year 2000, covered with color-coded Post-Its denoting significant events. Sometimes, when I was having trouble making sense of my big yarn ball of a plot, I would sit on my couch and stare at the wall. One day, I noticed something—an astonishing moment of convergence.
My attention was already focused on Gore’s visit to Florida that weekend in September. Several of his advisers, looking back in retrospect, had identified it as a key juncture in the campaign. Gore was riding an enormous polling bounce from his summer convention, while Bush was stumbling.
“We were really on the cusp of putting the campaign away,” Gore’s former spokesman Chris Lehane told me. “It was breaking almost the same way that Bush-Dukakis broke in 1988.” In that race, the vice president—the father of Gore’s opponent—ended up winning in a landslide.
Gore came to town to prepare for the upcoming debates, where everyone assumed that, as the brainiest and best-prepared candidate of his generation, he was likely to destroy Bush the Younger.
From what I could reconstruct from wire photos and newspaper clippings, the rally looked like an unremarkable event. Following his usual entrance routine, the vice president waited for a few minutes aboard Air Force Two, listening to the crowd chant, “We want Gore!” Then he emerged, dressed in an open-necked linen shirt that he wore tightly tucked into his high-waisted, green pleated slacks.
Gore descended the plane’s steps and then … ran at a dead sprint toward his audience while waving with vigor. He climbed up onto a stage and spoke in front of a sign that read, FLORIDA WINS WITH GORE. The select journalists there noted that snipers kept watch from the roofs of nearby buildings belonging to Jones Aviation.
Airspace was closed for the vice president’s arrival, grounding all other planes at the airport, so many of the flight instructors and student pilots at the school took a break and came out to see the front-runner up close. The audience may well have included a pair of young foreigners: Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi.
Atta and al-Shehhi had enrolled at Jones Aviation 10 days before, after finishing the first stage of their commercial-pilot training at another school, Huffman Aviation, run by a Dutch immigrant farther down the Gulf Coast in a seaside town called Venice. Although it is impossible to say for sure whether they were there at the time, one of their former instructors in Sarasota, over breakfast in 2020, told me that “they were around, at least, once to twice a day” during that time period.
During the year 2000, the presidential election and the 9/11 terrorist plot were unfolding in the same place, tangling in unexpected ways.
That weekend that Gore was in town, they would have passed Air Force Two, which was conspicuously parked outside the flight school. They would have noticed the Secret Service contingent that followed the vice president everywhere. Were they excited to come face-to-face with their enemy—the second-most-powerful man in America, and the one most likely to take control of “Unbelief International,” as Osama bin Laden called it? Were they spooked by all the security? Who knows?
What we do know is that soon after Gore’s visit, Atta and al-Shehhi abruptly quit the school. The pair finished their flight training back in Venice and spent the fall of 2000 in the air, practicing, flying serenely over the political turmoil down below.
Gore ended up blowing the first debate, coming off as preening and overconfident, and squandered his lead. The Electoral College—and thus the presidency—came down to an unimaginably narrow margin in Florida. The 2000 presidential election ended in a blizzard of contested paper ballots, cries of “Stop the steal,” and a legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which affirmed that Bush was the winner by 537 votes.
Twenty years later, while I finished the last chapters of my book, the whole drama would take on an unexpected resonance as Donald Trump attempted to stage a sort of depraved re-enactment in his attempt to overturn his defeat in the 2020 election.
In 2000, Gore ultimately gave up his fight, acknowledging Bush as the rightful president and accepting the transfer of power—a concession that looks like an act of grace, in retrospect. In the moment, though, Gore was cursed by many Democrats, who never accepted Bush’s legitimacy. In an election decided by a few hundred votes, anything could have swung it, and the stakes of the 2000 election turned out to be much higher than anyone realized.
Nearly nine months after Bush’s inauguration, during a visit to an elementary school in Sarasota, he was informed of a shocking act of violence. The story lines came crashing together, and the world we live in now was born.
Andrew Rice is a journalist and a contributing editor for New York magazine. His latest book, The Year That Broke America: An Immigration Crisis, a Terrorist Conspiracy, the Summer of Survivor, a Ridiculous Fake Billionaire, a Fight for Florida, and the 537 Votes That Changed Everything, is out now from Harper