The Onion canceled vacation to cover Bush-Gore (and chocoholics for booze)
What if Bill Clinton declared himself emperor? How many states can Al Gore be attacked in? Also, there's one of the greatest Onion opinion columns, and it has nothing to do with politics.
Welcome back to The Onion: 20 Years Later, where we review the print issue from exactly 20 years ago, find out what’s still funny and examine the cultural impact. Today, we revisit Nov. 15, 2000.
We’re now 8 days past the 2000 election, which is far from decided. The Onion was going to take a well-deserved break:
Instead, the 2000 election standoff prompted The Onion to deliver one of its strongest issues — one that is a preview of the famous post-9/11 issue. And, on top of that, we have one of the most famous nonpolitical Onion columns ever.
Speaking of vacation, The Onion did skip Nov. 22, 2000, so we’ll return with this newsletter in 2 weeks, on Nov. 29.
As always, please like and share this email — it’s the best way to let people know about The Onion: 20 Years Later! And if you’re new here, sign up directly below.
What issue is this?
This was Vol. 36, Issue 41, the 40th published Onion issue of the 2000s and the 39th issue of new content. Here’s what the website looked like in 2000, as well as in 2010 and today. Notice the special formatting and colors on the 2000 website.
The guide “Helping Your Kids Succeed In School” was in the 2000 print issue, but it’s a 1999 repeat.
The Onion covers America: Civil War 2
This week, we’ll split our coverage into two parts:
Stories about the Bush-Gore election dispute
The Onion’s print issue rarely used its actual front page as effective design. It’s usually just the basics — headlines and photos on the left-hand side, a big story and/or photo up top, a couple smaller stories below.
This week, however, The Onion’s front page does a masterful job of imagining a country that went zero-to-100 from peace to a violent, chaotic civil war in which you killed according to which political party you belonged to.
There are two other editorial decisions that I believe are key — and help this issue stand out 20 years later. One is that The Onion wasn’t shy. The staff clearly said, “Let’s burn the whole country down and see what would happen.”
Second, The Onion actually has two civil war scenarios going on. Most of the stories are vaguely set in the real world, including the overarching, Page 1 story “Nation Plunges Into Chaos.” But there’s a separate, more dire, truly fantastical civil war going on featuring "Day One of Americlintonian Year Zero.”
(Clinton actually declares himself “president for life” in both stories. But I am ruling that these are separate universes, because in one story Clinton is clearly in full command, but in the other he’s hiding in a bunker.)
Again, both scenarios make clear that we’re in much more than a court battle. Society has collapsed.
President Bill Clinton makes a glorious return to The Onion’s pages with “Clinton Declares Self President For Life,” in which he’s created the Holy United Imperial Americlintonian Demopublic, a curious mix of Clinton-focused cult, brutal military enforcement and the fashion sense of stereotypical dictators.
The level of detail here! Clinton has new names for his personal bodyguards, the military structure, his high priest council and for Hillary ("Bride of The Lord Clinton On Earth”). He’s also gotten rid of the other branches of government, canceled elections, displayed enemies’ heads on pikes and fed Janet Reno to dogs.
For “Fallout” fans, there’s even a little bit of the Children of Atom in this closing Clinton statement:
"The rebels are but mewling kittens who shall taste blood instead of milk," said Clinton, threatening to deploy HUAID-controlled nuclear weapons against members of resistance movements. "The holy power of the atom shall, if it must, cleanse this nation of all infidels."
The only flaw with this article? I wish The Onion had followed this storyline over several weeks, a la when The Onion was “bought” by China.
Chaos in the (sort-of) real world
Even when Bill Clinton is not declaring himself a deity-emperor, The Onion is all hyperbole. I think this is better than simply poking fun at ballot “chads” or a judge or a campaign lawyer like everyone else was.
The writing and editing are sharp. These stories are consistent about key facts, such as how armed camps have formed, how Gore has established HQ in Bush-controlled Tennessee, and how Florida cannot be contacted.
We start with “Nation Plunges Into Chaos” — that classic news report that assumes people have no idea what’s happened, so it gives an overview of everything. Everyone has a militia! Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman are missing after a GOP attack on their Tennessee compound, while Dick Cheney is held prisoner by NARAL forces. Ralph Nader might have been crucified in New Hampshire. Governors are declaring themselves warlords. Austin and Nashville claim they are the national capital.
Speaking of Gore’s fate, The Onion didn’t forget to mock the media for its many Election Night screwups. “NBC News Reverses Earlier Report Of Gore's Death” plays off NBC (and other networks) repeatedly flip-flopping on who won Florida. (NBC staffers recently discussed 2000’s mistakes, if you’re curious)
This story is morbid — after all, Gore was shot by a Bush-allied sniper. The article closes with this on-air apology:
"In our efforts to bring Americans the most up-to-the-minute news on the war for the White House, we made some hasty decisions," CBS anchor Dan Rather said. "I'd like to apologize to all of our viewers, as well as to the entire Gore junta."
Meanwhile, major parts of the country are cut off from communication, including Washington, D.C., where the reflecting pool is filled with cyanide. In this reality, President Bill Clinton is hiding out in the White House bunker.
Another key area, Florida, is also an unknown hellscape. “Communication With Florida Cut Off” details how Jeb Bush’s TV address was mysteriously cut off, refugees are fleeing to Cuba, and America’s so unprepared that the Russians are doing reconnaissance for us. Also, we learn from the top story that Pat Buchanan attempted to enter Florida, and his fate is unknown.
If you’re thinking, how could this get worse, then The Onion has this answer: “Serbia Deploys Peacekeeping Forces To U.S.” It’s just like real-life stories where the U.S. tells a lesser country that it needs to respect democracy and due process, except it’s Serbia(!) telling that to us.
Even The Onion’s horoscopes have presidential commentary!
Virgo | Aug. 23 to Sept. 22
You will regret your vote in the recent presidential election when a pack of Corvairs storms your house and kills your entire family.
Besides the military and militia fighting, we have some old-school terrorism.
There’s the rogue terror of "Naderite Loyalists Nuke Dam,” which unfortunately doesn’t include a full story. One wonders whether this attack was in response to “Recount Reveals Nader Defeated.” That story is a clever twist by The Onion, treating the Florida recount as if it were solely about Ralph Nader.
The Bush campaign isn’t playing nice, either. It’s easy to forget that New Mexico’s presidential race was incredibly close, with Gore’s win not official until Nov. 17, 2000. While “Bush Executes 253 New Mexico Democrats” is an appropriate absurdity, it’s inaccurate even for parody — you can’t undo votes by killing people, and Gore eventually won by 366 votes anyways.
This story is less inventive than other election stories here, and it’s because The Onion is mostly joking about how much George W. Bush loved to execute people. The spin is that Texas state troopers are now grabbing people from other states on minor charges, and then quickly holding trials and executions. And it just so happens that they are all New Mexico Democrats who voted.
"All of the information we gathered on the Las Cruces 27 indicated that they were questionable characters," Cobb said. "Some had subscriptions to The New Yorker. A few were confirmed members of the Sierra Club. One even participated in a union-led teachers' strike a few years ago."
The Onion’s terrorism section of Election 2000 also includes 3 headlines that offer silly side angles:
“Tipper's Thumb Delivered To Gore Campaign Headquarters”
“Bob Dole: 'Bob Dole's Been Shot’”
“McVeigh Urges Calm”
Thurmond was one of The Onion’s most popular characters in the 1990s and early 2000s, in part because the senator and1948 Dixiecrat presidential candidate was a reliable, safe target for old-people jokes. In “Strom Thurmond Begins Preparing Cabinet,” we see him mulling over his choice for “Secretary of Slaves.”
What stories weren’t about the presidency?
“I'm Like A Chocoholic, But For Booze” is a classic headline, and the column within is pretty good, too. This has long been an Onion favorite, including for Onion merchandise like T-shirts and magnets.
It’s also an improvement on April’s “I'm Not A Wino, I'm A 'Why-Yes'!” which lacked the balancing angle/delusion of a man equating his alcoholism to his wife’s enjoyment of chocolate. The jovial tone can carry you through the terrifying parts, such as:
For my birthday, Emily gave me the funniest coffee mug, perfect for Irish coffee. It has a little teddy bear on it with a "don't mess with me" look on his face, and it says, "Hand Over The Booze And Nobody Gets Hurt." I laughed so hard! That bear was just like me when I robbed the party store earlier this year! Also, the mug is really big, so it can hold a lot of booze… another plus!
Fun bonus: This Hackaday commenter in 2016 claims to have given The Onion this headline and premise. Sure, sure.
Area People doing Area Things
There was some semblance of normalcy in The Onion 20 years ago, as these stories illustrate:
“Hypothetical Question Clearly Not Hypothetical”: This is mislabeled on today’s website but appeared in 2000. I’ll spoil the question for you:
"What the hell did he mean by, 'Hypothetically speaking, if you and Cheryl were into threesomes, would you consider me?'"
“Child Subjected To Elaborate Hairdo”: The headline is fun, but the story seems to be the (white) Onion staff not understanding that hair can be braided and beaded. I expected, like, a Mohawk or a bowl cut.
“Government-Publications Enthusiast Makes Pilgrimage To Pueblo, CO”: Surprisingly not related to the election.
Columnists and infographics
We had some features that were also not election-related this week.
“Celebrity Children's Books” is pretty much what you’d expect. This is a Jay Leno or David Letterman bit, which isn’t a bad thing! And a surprisingly high number of these people are still celebrities 20 years later.
“What Are We Hoarding?” is a straightforward set of jokes. That illustration is … rudimentary.
Onion publisher emeritus T. Herman Zweibel does not comment on the election because he is preoccupied with “A Portentous Estate Sale.” First, Zweibel updates us that despite his July 26 announcement that he was selling the Midwest states, no one has made an acceptable offer. So, instead, he’s holding a glorified yard sale.
Items include 44 busts of his mother, and 86-foot-long credenza that was the HMS Redoubtable and a Zeppelin. There are also stolen ballot boxes from the 1912 election — not clear whether he stole them or merely acquired them.
Equally silly, but in a different way, is “Ask A Man Getting Yelled At By His Wife Over The Phone At Work.” If you like The Onion’s advice column format, you’ll like this one.
Most “Hey, it’s 2000!” reference
Was Bill Clinton mentioned? Was an animal quoted?
Yes to Bill, no to an animal.
What was the best horoscope?
Let’s go with yet another alternate universe that Sagittarius provides:
Sagittarius | Nov. 22 to Dec. 21
Scientists at the Metropolis Institute of Applied Geology will be happy to loan you the kryptonite—until they discover what you want it for.
What holds up best?
As much as 9/11 has defined American history, the 2000 election created the red and blue dynamic we still suffer under. The Onion’s treatment of this election fight as a monumental, life-altering event seems apt. What’s most impressive is that this issue succeeds even without anyone realizing how weird the real-life election fight would get.
What holds up worst?
As I mentioned, “Child Subjected To Elaborate Hairdo” doesn’t deliver on the premise.
What would be done differently today?
It’s interesting that The Onion in 2020 is underplaying Donald Trump’s assertion that the election was stolen. I’m not saying this is a good or bad editorial decision, just that it reflects the real-world dynamic. In 2000, Bush and Gore largely had technical, legal arguments, and The Onion responded with hyperbole and absurdity. In 2020, Trump is delivering the loud headlines, so there’s no reason for The Onion to top that.
What real-life events/people were mentioned?
Al Gore. Joe Lieberman. George W. Bush. Dick Cheney. Bill Clinton. Ralph Nader. Pat Buchanan. Harry Browne. Howard Phillips. Alan Greenspan. Hillary Clinton. Janet Reno. Rick Lazio. Vojislav Kostunica. Strom Thurmond. Lester Maddox. Orval Faubus. Jim Smith. Doris Kearns Goodwin. Tom Brokaw. Tim Russert. Ed Rendell. Dan Rather. Tipper Gore. Larry King. Jennifer Aniston. Chow Yun-Fat. Dennis Hopper. Adam Sandler. Will Smith. Christopher Walken. Kathie Lee Gifford. George Clooney. Alyssa Milano. Brandi. Jewel. Charlton Heston. Karl Rove. Jeb Bush. Elián Gonzalez.
Gore, Bush and Nader are mentioned throughout this issue.
“Nation Plunges Into Chaos” includes Browne and Phillips, the 2000 presidential candidates for the Libertarian Party and Constitution Party, respectively. Also included in Greenspan, head of the “Fed-in-Exile,” who is also among the many, many celebrities in “Celebrity Children's Books.”
Lazio is mentioned in “Clinton Declares Self President For Life,” as Hillary Clinton ordered troops to disperse Lazio supporters.
Kostunica, mentioned as Serbian president in “Serbia Deploys Peacekeeping Forces To U.S.,” was actually Yugoslavia’s new president, although that included Serbia.
Former Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox and Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, both segregationists, are considered for Cabinet roles in “Strom Thurmond Begins Preparing Cabinet.”
Kearns Goodwin is mentioned in “Election Madness,” where The Onion asked ordinary people what they thought.
NBC journalists Brokaw and Russert, as well as DNC Chairman and future Pennsylvania Gov. Rendell, are mentioned in “NBC News Reverses Earlier Report Of Gore's Death.”
Rove is mentioned in “Bush Executes 253 New Mexico Democrats.”
Jeb Bush and Gonzalez are mentioned in “Communication With Florida Cut Off.”
What was happening in the real world?
Bush files suit against Florida manual recount. Bush briefly takes lead in New Mexico. Republicans hold on to House, Senate. Dead Missouri governor wins Senate race. Clinton to issue OSHA rules. NYT profiles first efforts at mobile commerce. Smith College president to lead Brown University as Ivy League’s first black president. “Cornered Afghan Foes Hope Winter Will Slow the Taliban.” Big Tobacco sued by Europe. Vietnamese emigration to the US continues. “Challenging Homework Stumps Parents, Too.” Yasser Arafat visits President Clinton, while Israel targets Fatah commander. Conjoined twins are separated after landmark British case. 170 skiers die in tunnel fire in Austria.