On this day in history, in the year 2000, Al Gore conceded (video of the speech, text of the speech, video of pundit commentary) the presidential election to George W. Bush. Recalling this watershed can force a painful reckoning with historical contingency — the way that hanging chads or the flap of the butterfly ballot’s wings can irrevocably change the course of human events.

I have a hazy memory of staying awake, glued to cable news channels, for the full 36 days that the election was contested. And I was outraged with the players who took the stage in the drama’s final acts: with the Bush team, especially smarmy James Baker, for their thuggish tactics and smug manipulation of the media; with the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, which seemingly turned its back on its own federalism in favor of partisan expediency masked by false virtue; and with Vice President Gore, who, it appeared, had bungled the campaign (sigh, eye roll, head shake)* and the recounts.

And if that’s not enough contingency for you, remember how President Bush emerged from the battle in Florida: diminished, lacking a mandate, his false confidence a parody of a child playing grown-up. But then the 9/11 attacks provided him with an opportunity to exploit the nation’s fears, to synchronize his swagger with a Texas-sized bump in the polls, and to govern like he had won a Reagan landslide. Contingency? Or conspiracy?

Which leads me to depression over how different things might now be — I couldn’t even watch the Saturday Night Live sketch with “President” Gore — had my grandmother’s friends, Holocaust survivors all, not voted for Pat Buchanan, had Justice Scalia put his money where his mouth (and opinions) had been in the past, had Condi Rice taken the Tenet memo more seriously.

I wish I could summon the funny for a punchy ending: rat-ta-tat high-hat. But contingency often is too fickle a companion to be good for a laugh.

* Sorry. I know. I’m buying into the media’s ongoing mistreatment of Gore. Guilty as charged. But I vividly remember him running a lousy campaign and flailing on the stump as well as in the debates.