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 AmericanProwler.org, "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.

THESE POLITICAL PLOYS having been none too effective, Gore then rolled out his publicity blizzard, at the wrong moment and in the wrong way. Defending his crown as the least lucky man in the country, he launched his grievance revival just as his target--Bush the Usurper--came off the best week of his life. Bush made history for his side by winning seats in his first midterm elections, he won a 15-0 vote in the Security Council, and, in the eyes of all but the most entrenched diehards, settled the question of his own legitimacy by attaining the mandate he had failed to win earlier. Another blow was delivered in Florida, the very scene of the crime. From December 12, 2000, Democrats had looked ahead two years to the midterm elections when they would have the president's brother in their crosshairs. All the voters done in by the chads and the butterfly ballots would flock to the polls to obtain satisfaction. The party elbowed Janet Reno aside and poured barrels of cash into Florida. Jeb Bush was toast. Jeb Bush was history. Jeb Bush was . . . reelected by a 13-point spread. Turns out the outrage was not all that endemic. If Florida works as an issue, it seems to work best for Republicans.

"Do you remember where you were in 2000 when they stopped counting the votes?" Gore kept on asking his audience. Actually, few people want to hear any more about Florida at the end of 2000, and they wanted still less to be hearing about it after September 11, 2001. On September 11, we lost more than 3,000 people, going about their own workaday business, and there is still a huge crater in lower Manhattan. Just weeks after the first anniversary of this disaster, the Washington suburbs fell prey to two snipers who killed ten people, injured three others, and for more than three weeks made millions of people fear for their lives. The day after the snipers were captured, Paul Wellstone and five others were killed.

At this less than propitious moment, the Gores started a book tour and unleashed on the nation the tale of the woes and injustices they have had to endure during and since the 2000 election. These included having to buy their own mansion (a $2.3 million white house in Nashville), stand in line at the airport, and buy their own stuff in the stores. The two big kickoff interviews--a prime-time confession with Barbara Walters, and a long piece by Liza Mundy in the Washington Post magazine--focused on their wounded feelings and treated the Gores as a passel of invalids, in recovery from some dreadful ordeal.

Gore let the women and children make the zingiest charges. Sweetly, Tipper said over and over that the mean Supreme Court had stolen their victory. The Gores' older daughters, Kristen and Karenna, told Barbara Walters how beastly it was to be cooped up in the vice presidential mansion while protesters outside expressed displeasure at their father's attempts to disenfranchise absentee voters in Florida. Said Kristen, "We felt sort of like . . . trapped in this . . . you know, little house, with all of these people yelling mean things." No one could predict that the midterm elections would finally legitimize Bush, and knock the props from under Gore's claim that the 2000 result had been very bad for this country. But a defter politician would have figured out that the country had turned a very sharp corner on September 11, and left the culture of self-pity behind. This is no longer Bill Clinton's America. Talking is out and doing is in; Oprah is out and Rudy is in, and the daytime TV sensation is Pentagon briefings. The Gores do not shine in Don Rumsfeld's America. They merely seem whiney, and strange.

The feel of the Gore books--"Joined at the Heart" and "The Spirit of Family"--is ancien régime. It is about families--and, you guessed it, feelings--and comes from the era when Bill Clinton's big theme was school uniforms, and faith-based institutions were the biggest things on the president's mind. (For a time before he turned populist, Gore tried to run on a "livability agenda," addressing the pressures of stressed-out suburbanites with such things as a national phone number to help drivers avoid traffic jams.) And for a while, when the Dow stood at 11,000, and terrorists did their dirty work in faraway countries, this sort of thing appeared important: George W. Bush, let us remember, was reading to children when the towers were hit.

Since then, Bush has spent much less time in school rooms, and more time in war rooms. Gore, however, is still in the nursery, pondering the pressures of children and work. This emphasis, another relic of a long-gone era, is not likely to take him too far in this one. "Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Americans seem less interested in a president who will understand their ordinary stresses than one who will protect them against extraordinary dangers," writes Ronald Brownstein in the Los Angeles Times. "Gore's Time Has Come and Gone," he titled his column. Cruel, and astute.

And then the Gore Tour became sharper and shriller, under the stress of bad news. Time's Karen Tumulty interviewed Gore three days after the midterm elections, and it is striking how strident he was. Bush's policies, he told her, were "catastrophic," "horrible," even "immoral," and were "taking the country to a very bad place." Of course it might be that Gore was strident because Bush had triumphed; that the success of his rival was too much to bear. Then came more bad news: The books were not selling. Then came a CBS/New York Times poll, that put his favorable ratings at . . . 19 percent. After this came the notorious interview with the New York Observer, in which a Nixonian Gore blamed a press infested with Republican "fifth-columnists" for blasting his hopes. If 2002 is bringing Bush what he did not get in 2000--the wholehearted support of the public--it is also bringing Gore what he did not get last time, which in his case is wholesale rejection. And this time, he cannot blame the Court.

GORE'S VIEW OF HIMSELF is that he is a victim, and in one sense he is right. In her Washington Post profile, Liza Mundy let us see a man she labeled "OtherGore," a serious man with a great thirst for knowledge and intellectual ambitions. OtherGore teaches a course at Fisk College and Middle Tennessee State University, where he immerses himself in research on families. He also hosts a seminar at Harvard, where he and a clique of like-minded professors discuss global warming, information technology, and the theory and nature of speech. In this world, OtherGore seems as happy and fluent as PoliticalGore appears stilted and strained. In a better world, Gore would be spending his life in rooms with these people, discussing the things that interest him and bore most politicians. But it was his bad luck, which for a long time seemed his good luck, that he was born to two well-placed and fiercely ambitious political players, who saw him from his birth as a possible president, and who told him his role was to lead.

It would perhaps have been better for Gore if he had lost big at the outset, so that he could have gone on to his true métier and calling. But the curse of Al Gore is that he always looked too good on paper, and when sheltered by others seemed to do so well. He won his father's old seats in the House and the Senate as the appealing young Harvard grad-veteran son of his father, and he was elected vice president as the gravitas partner of Bill "Slick Willie" Clinton, a flighty and weightless political natural.

It was only when he ran on his own that his weaknesses were glaring. In 1988, and then again in 2000, he proved unable to do what George W. Bush had done easily--assemble a loyal and competent team that could work well together, plot out a strategy, and stay with a theme. This set Gore up for the 2000 debacle, when he entered the field with a strategic edge and managed to lose through his poor political instincts, such as his decisions in crucial debates to try to bully and hector his rival. It is likely that Gore always seemed like an ugly campaigner because he was a poor one; like an amateur actor who over-emotes, pulling faces and screaming, when the lift of an eyebrow would work very well. His attacks and his pieties were both overdone, and both made voters uneasy. The political Gore never seemed real, because the real Gore was never political. And this real Gore has never been in public view.

Gore seems a man of impressive abilities, who is achingly stupid in politics. He is the man who in 1996 decided to give his "no controlling legal authority" press conference to damp down charges of fundraising malfeasance, and thought he had done a good job. He is the man who decided to give a six-Kleenex speech at the 1996 Democratic Convention about how his sister's death in 1984 from lung cancer had made him an obdurate foe of the tobacco industry, even though he was still bragging about his role as a tobacco grower as late as 1988. He is the man who stood beside Bill Clinton when he was impeached, and called this disgraced figure one of our greatest American presidents. He is the man who thought it was smart to pay Naomi Wolf $15,000 a month to make him an Alpha Male dressed in earth tones; who thought it was a good idea to roll his eyes and sigh loudly in the first presidential debate in 2000; and who then went against the advice of all of his consultants to stalk over to Bush and hover above him, to the bemusement of everyone watching. (Gore later thought he had won the debate.)

This is not the record of somebody born to be president. This is the profile of somebody born to work for a think tank. "The only way to make sense of Al Gore," wrote Marjorie Williams when he lost in 2000, "is to see him as a man for whom politics is an ill-fitting trade, adopted under the duress of family legacy. . . . Politics has always had, for Gore, the quality of a second language, learned by the class grind not naturally gifted in this area, mastered by rote and sheer force of will." Add to this the agonizing conditions of the 2000 election--the closeness, the doubts, and the margin of error--and you have for yourselves a terrible story, as Gore tries over and over to make things turn out different and better, and by trying makes everything worse.

Like Gore or not, this is an unbearable story. "Do you remember where you were when they stopped counting the votes in 2000? Do you remember how you felt?" he keeps asking. It is clear enough now that he will never forget it, that in the dark night of his soul it is always still 10:01 in the evening of December 12, 2000. The wound, as it seems, is in him, not in his country. And it seems now it will never heal.

Noemie Emery, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is writing a book, "Great Expectations: The Lives of Political Sons."