The Magazine

Al Gore's Scarred Psyche

America has gotten over Florida, but he hasn't.

Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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HAVING A FAMILY that rears you for greatness can be a mixed blessing at best. Now and then a George W. Bush or a John Kennedy will exceed expectations, but often the outcome is grim. John Adams and his wife Abigail desperately wanted their three sons to be famous lawyers--and president. One of them made it (John Quincy Adams) but the other two broke under the strain and became alcoholic, one dying young and estranged from his family. John Quincy Adams then wanted his three sons to become famous lawyers, and president. One (Charles Francis) became a great Civil War diplomat, but the other two also became alcoholic, both dying young, with one a probable suicide. In 1969, Edward M. Kennedy, 36 years old and having lost two brothers in five years to assassins, was intensely pressured by hysterical Democrats to save them by running for president. He drove himself, and a girl, off a bridge. There are no calamities yet in the saga of Al Gore--groomed for greatness from a young age by his senator father--but there has been a great deal of emotional wreckage. And worse may be yet to come.

The new-new-newest Al Gore has been with us for three months now, campaigning for Democrats, hawking his books, weighing his plans for the 2004 presidential contest, and wearing his heart on his sleeve. Perhaps you thought that September 11 was the worst thing in a great many years to have befallen this country? Silly you. It was really what Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker called the "grievous wound" that occurred when the Supreme Court of the United States put an end to the strenuous efforts of the Supreme Court of Florida to make Gore the president. We have moved on, or rather been pushed on, but Gore is still there, as if it were yesterday, brooding over the treasons of Sandra Day O'Connor. In interviews, he has bravely described himself as being well "over it," but you would never know it from his public appearances.

Campaigning this fall at the side of bemused and even stunned Democratic candidates, he turned their events into therapy sessions, as he called on voters to avenge the great wrong done to him. The New York Times's Adam Nagourney reported one such appearance before college students in Iowa: "Do you remember where you were when they stopped counting the vote in 2000; do you remember how you felt?" he asked. "'Cheated!' a few of the undergraduates roared back. . . . His decision to invoke the issue explicitly suggested that after a long silence by many Democrats, Mr. Gore, at least, continued to look at the disputed vote in Florida as a source of continuing anger. . . . 'You were robbed!' one man shouted out when Mr. Gore raised [the issue]. . . . Mr. Gore beamed as he stoked up his crowd."

And did this work? Just ask the candidates, most of whom lost. "You can pretty much correlate the Democrats' worst results on Tuesday with Al's travel schedule," wrote Mark Steyn of Canada's National Post. "Everywhere he went, [he] had a consistent message: 'This election isn't about the war or the economy, it's about me.'" A staffer at the Democratic National Committee told the, "He was just a disaster. Whoever was supposed to prep him did an awful job. All he talked about was himself. No upbeat message, no rallying cry for the candidates. Just him."

This self-absorption has also showed up in most of the speeches he gives. It is always Mourning in America under Bush the Usurper with his failed war on terror and lengthening bread lines. "Bitterness is not a policy position," his erstwhile allies at the New Republic lamented after Gore's September 23 critique of Bush's Iraq policy. That speech "consisted of neither honest criticism nor honest opposition. Rather, it sounded like a political broadside against a president who Gore no doubt feels occupies a post that he himself deserves." In fact, this speech enraged many Democrats, who wanted the war issue to vanish as quickly as possible, and gave new salience to the comment of E.J. Dionne that Gore is the one politician of whom it could be said that he does things for political reasons that turn out to hurt him politically. In the weeks following his speech on Iraq, Gore's favorable ratings, which had hovered for months around the low 50s, proceeded to fall 17 points.